A few days before writing this article, I sat at my 91-year-old mother’s bedside in the hospital, watching her suffer from ferocious thirst.
Because of fluid in her lungs, Mom was severely restricted in her intake of liquids. Throughout the previous night she had tossed and turned, craving water to slake her thirst and cool her throat. The occasional ice chip just wasn’t enough. She begged for more water, but the nurses weren’t budging.
“If felt like I had a desert in my mouth,” she said wearily in the morning.
Mom’s painfully graphic description stuck in my mind. What did it feel like to have a desert in one’s mouth?
I had one previous experience with the desert and intense thirst—nearly four decades ago during the “Wheaton College in Israel” study program.
One Saturday eight of us students decided to walk from Jericho to Jerusalem, climbing the trail up Wadi Qelt some 15 miles. Don’t ask me why we decided to go up to Jerusalem (3,600 feet higher above sea level) instead of down to Jericho in the blazing sun of mid-summer.
We took a 5 a.m. taxi from Jerusalem to Jericho, and then blithely set off into the desert, hiking the trail snaking along the edge of the gorge back in the direction from which we came.
We each carried two small canteens of water and a couple of peanut-butter sandwiches, figuring this would be like a walk in the Israeli park. Starting out, we enjoyed seeing the remains of the ancient Roman aqueduct and the historic Greek Orthodox monastery of St. George.
Our stroll took a more serious turn when two in our group started complaining of thirst and asking for sips of others’ water. Then they began seeing and talking to people who weren’t there, and we realized that heatstroke was now part of the plan.
Thankfully, we encountered some local folks who agreed to shoulder these two up the mountain to the road and drive them to Jerusalem in their Volkswagen.
Meanwhile, the rest of us soldiered on in the sun, increasingly parched and wondering where to find a drink in the wilderness. At one juncture, the snarling dogs of a Bedouin sheepherder came after us, apparently thinking Americans were back on the menu. But it was the thirst that plagued us most.
One by one and by different means, members of our group abandoned the hike and found ways back to Jerusalem. I made it to the outskirts of the city in a pretty decrepit and nauseous state, there flagging a taxi the rest of the way to our student residence.
Some believe the valley in Wadi Qelt is referenced by David in Psalm 23 as “the valley of the shadow of death.” Thankfully, our group encountered only the shadow part.
This experience brought alive to me those passages in Scripture where thirst for water is compared to thirst for God.
“O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you,” David writes in Psalm 63 while in the wilderness in Judah. “My flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”
Similarly, Psalm 42 says, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”
While most of us will remember a time when we felt physically thirsty, when was the last time our soul thirsted for God? When last did every fiber of our being yearn for a closer, more intimate walk with Christ, for a deep drink of Living Water? What difference would that make in our daily lives?
As I write these words, we just received word that my mother will be released from the hospital. When her condition had looked critical, the extended family and I prayed intensely for God’s hand of healing and recovery for her. Not only had the Lord graciously answered our prayers, but He had used Mom’s illness to increase our thirst for Him.
None of us wants to go through a desert-like experience. But it’s interesting how God often uses the hard times to intensify our longing for him. In that regard, I’d say the desert can be a very good thing.