Satisfying the Thirsty

 1 John 3:16-18

We are coming to the end of our series on the ministry priorities that Jesus spells out in Matthew chapter 25. He says that those who feed the hungry, satisfy the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the prisoner, are actually doing all those things to him personally. And that conversely when we don’t feed the hungry, satisfy the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoner, we are actually ignoring Jesus himself. It’s pretty strong language. That’s how seriously Jesus takes the suffering of human beings.

When Sammy was born in December of 2019, I felt like my heart got broken open. I have always been a pretty empathic person, feeling with other people, whether it is grief or pain. But for some reason having Sammy took that to a whole new level. I know I’m not unique; I have talked to a few other moms who said they had the same experience. All of a sudden, like literally overnight, the pain of the world was too much for me. I remember that in those early weeks of 2020 there were a lot of news stories about refugees in Syria, and I just couldn’t listen to them. I knew that among those thousands and thousands of people on the move there had to be women like me, who had just given birth, who felt as tired and sore and overwhelmed as I did, and were having to run for their lives. And I just couldn’t take it. I couldn’t watch any crime shows. I couldn’t read anything sad. Because every sad thing I heard, every victim I saw, was suddenly my baby and my family. It was like my heart was walking around outside my body. I have never felt so vulnerable. Some of you may know how that feels.

In the last 3.5 years, it’s gotten a little bit easier, but honestly not much. Especially when it comes to human suffering. Every scared or abused or abandoned or ill child is Sammy. Every car accident victim is Sam. Suffering was real to me before, but now it always feels personal. Every time. It is a very uncomfortable way to live, and frankly, I just avoid hard stuff as often as I can. But that doesn’t really work very well as a pastor. And truly I don’t think it works well for anyone who takes their Christian identity and vocation seriously. Because as we’ve been talking about for weeks now, Jesus asks us, commands us, to be in it with people. Not just our people and not just situations we can change, but anywhere and everywhere there is hunger, thirst, loneliness, lack of shelter, sickness and captivity. We cannot avoid those places. We must go to those places, because Jesus himself is in those places.

In this final week of our series, I just want to talk for a few minutes about suffering. There’s a lot of suffering in the world. All you have to do is turn on the TV or open any social media app; suffering is everywhere. And it can be overwhelming. So honestly my best advice is to turn off the news. If only it’s scaring you or stressing you out or making you angry, you really don’t need to watch it. We have this cultural value around “being informed” but truly, if it’s not leading you to do anything differently, it really doesn’t matter. Nothing in the world is going to change because you made yourself feel terrible watching the news. It’s OK to turn that off.

What I think we cannot do is to turn away when we come face to face with suffering in our daily paths. The book of First John chapter 3 verses 16 through 18 say, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

Friends, as hard as it is, I think that we are called to let our hearts be broken by the suffering of the world. 

Why is it important

One of the reasons this is hard for me is because honestly, I’ve led a pretty sheltered life. I have had my share of deep griefs, and I’ve been a chaplain at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, so I’ve seen some stuff. But I don’t have a lot of experience with the evil that some humans do to other humans. And I’m afraid I’m not strong enough to see it and hear about it. I don’t know what I think is going to happen, like maybe I’ll just implode, or never again get out of bed, or start crying and never stop. But friends, I can’t allow my insecurity to keep me from doing what God calls us to do. A lot of people in the world are suffering and my white middle class American fragility is not serving anyone, including me. One reason we need to face suffering is because our fragility is not doing anything to make the world better. It’s just keeping us on the sidelines when we are needed in the game. 

As a chaplain in a children’s hospital, I learned that all people have deeper reserves of strength than most of us realize. That is one of the ways that God works quietly in the world. We may not realize it is God who is giving that strength, but when we need it, when we reach deep down in ourselves, I think that what we find there is a well of God’s love and that gives us strength. It doesn’t come from ourselves. God is with us.

So when are faced with suffering, and we choose to engage it and not ignore it and to let God’s love strengthen us, what is it that we should actually do? The first thing is that we simply should not look away. We should not pretend like it doesn’t exist. Remember, this is suffering you encounter, not suffering you go looking for on the news and social media. First and foremost, we just have to face it. I don’t mean we should stare and gawk, but give the one who is suffering the dignity of having their experience acknowledged. Bear witness to their suffering and acknowledge their humanity the same way you want people to acknowledge your humanity. Don’t look away. 

The second thing to do is to remember that you don’t have to fix it. The fact that I can’t fix someone’s whole situation doesn’t mean I should do nothing. If someone is hungry, I can buy them a meal. One meal. They eat today, and that matters to them. I didn’t solve world hunger. I didn’t even guarantee that they won’t be hungry tomorrow. But they aren’t hungry now, and that matters. It matters to that one, remember?

It’s really really hard for us to not be effective. We live in a culture that teaches us to place a very high value on effectiveness. Charity is not effective in the long-term. We house people at Place of Warmth in the winter. And in the morning, they have to leave. It is very hard to do what you can, knowing that the person’s situation hasn’t changed, and then leave. That feels wrong.

Which leads me to the third thing to do: let yourself feel the pain. Those of us who are privileged are often not good at just sitting with the pain. Like I said earlier, I don’t know what I’m afraid is going to happen, but I sure do try to avoid that pain. That’s natural. Avoiding pain is an instinctive response for all living things. But maybe it’s not the best thing to do. First it’s not good because when we avoid all pain we are actually avoiding the full range of human life. Second it’s not good because pain is an important motivator. Feeling the pain of the world motivates us to do something to alleviate that pain. Feeling the pain of our guests from Place of Warmth leaving in the morning might lead you to do something more about the challenge of homelessness and affordable housing. Change requires the optimal amount of discomfort. Too little and you don’t do anything; too much and you are paralyzed by it. But just the right amount of pain? That will get you moving.

We have collected more than 50 bottles of water for White Sands and today we are going to take them over there. It will not be what most of us are used to. It will hurt to see other people’s needs. My mom and I were talking about it while driving up to meet my aunt and cousin for a nice lunch and for just a minute, I thought to myself, “How can I possibly do anything else with my day when people in my own town are suffering like that?” We still went, because I knew that I couldn’t fix the whole situation, not in one day, and not by myself. But that pain motivated me. At the very least it reminded me.

Beloved ones, can I say gently to you as your pastor, if you never come face to face with any suffering, you may be missing something that God is trying to tell you. I don’t know. I’m just raising the possibility. There is a lot of suffering in the world. It takes great courage to step into the darkness of someone else’s life. To not detach ourselves, either physically or mentally, is an act of courage that we do for the benefit of the one who is suffering. Sometimes what we need is not an answer to our pain but an Answerer. Suffering is lonely. I usually feel more bold when I know that I am not alone. The first thing declared “not good” in God’s good creation was human loneliness. Since we are made in the image of God, we are made to be in relationship with God and with other humans. Even when we are suffering. Especially when we are suffering. Let’s be brave. Let’s face the suffering around us. Let’s allow our hearts to be broken by the world that God so loves. Let’s not look away. Let’s not get distracted by a need to solve a problem. Let’s meet people right where they are: hungry, thirsty, sick, unsheltered, lonely, and imprisoned. Let’s remember what it feels like when we suffer and treat other people’s needs as seriously as we treat our own needs. Let’s learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or fail to do and more in the light of what they suffer. Let’s face the suffering around us. Let’s be brave. That’s what God calls us to do. Amen.

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