preached by Sandhya Jha on April 14, 2017:
Last summer, I spent a week in Flint, Michigan.
On Sunday, a local pastor invited me to preach.
I don’t know why, with all they are dealing with in Flint, Michigan, that God told me to talk to them about refugees. But that’s who God told me to talk about.
I stood there in a church full of people who had been living six months with the knowledge that their government had put lead into their drinking water and then done virtually nothing about that fact when it came to light, and I talked to them about a man named Willie whom I had just met.
Willie has lived in northern CA for 20 years. A few years ago his sister’s husband was kidnapped in El Salvador; they called him and demanded $5,000 in four days for his release. Willie, who earns very little, could only come up with $500. They killed his brother-in-law. And then Willie’s nephew. Terrified that 3-year-old Stephanie might be next, 13 members of the family escaped, traveling on tops of trains and buses. At the US border they were detained and held in refrigerator containers for 13 days without blankets, where sleeping on the floor would have caused frostbite. Willie found out they were here and gathered money for 13 greyhound tickets so all 14 of them could live in his tiny apartment. Thanks to a faith organization, they have been granted asylum status.
I also told the people at Woodside church in Flint, Michigan about One of the organizations at the Oakland Peace Center, called the Mustard Seed Project. It provides legal assistance to youth seeking refugee status in this country because if they are sent home and refuse to join the gangs and drug cartels there, they will be murdered…or worse. The attorney who runs the Mustard Seed Project came into my office straight from the courtroom one day and said, “Babies. I am literally defending babies in the courtroom. Babies who cannot even speak their own names yet are supposed to defend themselves in our court system.” She had been in court with a toddler that morning, a toddler that the US government needed to defend himself in a court of law to make the case that if he was sent back to Honduras he would be killed.
I told them that the longer I worked at the Oakland Peace Center, the more my understanding of prayer merged with what I had heard Pope Francis say not long ago: You pray for the poor, and then you feed them; that is how prayer works.
I talked about our nation’s need to repent deeply for our policies in central and south America as well as our policies in the Caribbean and throughout Africa, and that part of our prayer of repentance was to act as God would have us act to our refugee brothers and sisters who are fleeing nations whose violence we created for the profit of a handful of people who today profit far more from war than from peace.
And after we had said our amens and given our offerings and sang songs of praise, we went to the fellowship hall. And the adults talked to me about more faithful immigration policies that we could work on together, and the little children played at our feet. And we had cookies arranged carefully on trays by the church mothers, and we drank coffee and lemonade…made from bottled water.
But everything about worship and fellowship time afterwards felt so normal that it was Wednesday before I realized, every person I was talking to, every little child playing at my feet after worship, had likely absorbed so much lead into their systems that they would suffer permanent harm, from irregular brain development to memory loss to uncontrollable tremors that would emerge over time, rendering them ineligible for the work that was already so scarce in that community that had nurtured them and destroyed them in equal measures. All because their government decided to take away their clean water and replace it with dirty water and then decided not to treat it, so that the pipes corroded.
I do not know thirst like my savior knew on the cross that day. I have always had access to water to drink.
I do not know thirst like my savior knew on the cross that day. But Willie’s family did, when they were held in refrigerator containers for 13 days by our government, including that three year old girl, Stephanie. Stephanie knew what it was to thirst and suffer at the hands of a government that did not consider her human but considered her a threat. Just like Jesus her savior knew what it was to thirst and suffer at the hands of a government that did not consider him human but considered him a threat.
Our brothers and sisters in Flint did not know what it was to be thirsty. They had access to jobs, and then they didn’t. They had access to opportunity, and then they didn’t. They had access to a safe and vibrant and thriving community, and then they didn’t. Some of them knew hunger. Many of them knew humiliation. Some of them knew redlining…intimately.
But they always had water.
For three years they did not know that the water they had was poisoning them.
They did not know at first where the rashes came from as they showered. They did not know why their memory was getting worse. They did not know why they experienced tremors that stopped them from being able to work.
They sought water and were given hyssop.
It boggles my mind that in his last moments, suffering so, Jesus was still teaching us. The scripture says that he said “I am thirsty” in order to fulfil scripture. The scripture was Psalm 69, in which the psalmist famously states, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”
But that psalm was not only about being thirsty. It was about being overwhelmed and hated.
1Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
2I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.
3I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.
4More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; many are those who would destroy me, my enemies who accuse me falsely. What I did not steal must I now restore?
Willie’s family had enemies. They had to flee people who extort money from the poor. Their government would not help them. They came to a country that treats foreigners as less than human.
The people of Flint had enemies. Their own government poisoned them slowly for the sake of a few dollars and did as little as possible for them. Many of Flint’s residents were both poor and Black. Their government had treated them as enemies since before they were born.
And Jesus, on the cross, with one phrase passing his cracked, dry lips, “I am thirsty,” spoke a word of solidarity with Willie’s family and the families in Flint, and a word of solidarity for us in a city where police pass around young girls instead of participating in their liberation, where city officials spend more time talking about potholes than about the growing number of homeless people and the diminishing number of Black people.
When Jesus tells the crowd, “I am thirsty,” he hearkens back to the ancestors who had borne so much suffering that they wanted to give up. He let them know that he understood that feeling, that he felt it too. That our Lord and Savior does not condemn our fatigue but feels it with us might be scary to some, but to me it is immensely comforting, as my own South Asian community along with our Arab American brothers and sisters fear attacks in the streets because of our government’s barely veiled threats on Muslim lives in a nation that cannot tell Christian from Muslim from Sikh from Hindu when all they see is Brown. I do not know how to reconcile myself to living in a country where at any point someone could beat up by Indian father or kill him because they hate brown people and pretend it is about religion. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by how many enemies we have. And I know Jesus knows that feeling.
With that simple phrase, “I am thirsty,” Jesus hearkens to the plea of the Psalmist:
Do not hide your face from your servant, for I am in distress—make haste to answer me.
18Draw near to me, redeem me, set me free because of my enemies.
19You know the insults I receive, and my shame and dishonor; my foes are all known to you.
20Insults have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none.
21They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
In that barely whispered phrase, “I am thirsty,” Jesus stands with Willie’s family who knew literal thirst but also knew what it meant to thirst for basic human dignity, to thirst for freedom from fear, to thirst for a place where children can grow up. In that plea, “I am thirsty,” Jesus stands with the people of Flint who did not even know they were thirsting for clean water and also for a time when their best and brightest did not have to dedicate all of their energy to campaigns of resistance and fights for basic rights.
When all he can utter, hanging from the cross and suffering, is “I am thirsty,” Jesus stands with the indigenous peoples, the Water Protectors in North Dakota who proclaim “Mni wiconi,” “Water is life” even when their homes are taken from them and their people are arrested for protecting the water for all of us. Jesus, like the psalmist he quotes, thirsts for a time when the world will be made right.
He thirsts for a time when this country is liberated from its founding sins of conquest of land, attempted genocide of indigenous people and the dehumanizing and destructive enslavement of Black people for profit, sins that have not disappeared but have evolved and adapted as only evil can.
Jesus feels the despair creeping in, the seemingly unwinnable fight and lets us know that our despair is reasonable, that our enemies are real.
But he also quotes the psalm because he knows that despair is not the end of the story.
30I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving.
32Let the oppressed see it and be glad; you who seek God, let your hearts revive.
33For the Lord hears the needy, and does not despise his own that are in bonds.
35For God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah; and his servants shall live there and possess it;
36the children of his servants shall inherit it, and those who love his name shall live in it.
My brothers and sisters, Jesus still thirsts for the prisoners to be freed, for strangers to be welcomed because we were all strangers in Egypt once. Jesus still thirsts for a world where love is love and Black lives matter. Jesus still thirsts for a world where our governments partner with us in building a Beloved Community here on earth, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.
Do you thirst with Jesus?
Do you seek to rid the world of hyssop and replace it with pure, thirst quenching water?
Do you want to build a Beloved Community where all of God’s children are welcome and equal and thriving?
Then in the name of our thirsting Lord and Savior, let us be about God’s work until all of God’s children’s thirst is quenched.