Welcome to the Th-irst World

The world’s had its fair share of earthquakes lately.  Haiti, Chile, Japan….the damage and heartache is the same, no matter if it’s a “Third World” or “First World” country.  I ‘ve seen these terms “First“ and “Third“ World used throughout the media, in reporting on  these earthquakes and other events , even though these terms are meaningless in our time.  The so-called “Second World” of the Soviet Union and its client states began to dissolve 20 years ago.   So should the need to paint all the globe into “First“ and “Third” World arenas.  Alas, no, I still see them used, in news stories, opinions pieces, books and magazines of all sorts.

Even when they made some sense to use, as with most macro-categories, they are too simplistic and superficial.  There were, and are, plenty of each of these “Worlds” in every part of the world.  There are countless “Third World” enclaves in the midst of so-called “First Worlds,” such as Japan, and conversely many “First World” enclaves in the so-called “Third World,” such as Haiti.  It’s quite easy to see how these clear lines of categorization get blurred in everyday reality.  That’s way I’m making a new proposal, for a new category that best describes this one world, no matter where one lives, no matter the social, political, or economic standing, that everyone inhabits together: the “Th-irst” World.

This “Th-irst” World includes all the imagery of abundance and depravity, economic or otherwise, that the former paradigms conjure up.  We all live in the same world, and no matter where one lives, it is within this same “Th-irst World.”  A person that lives an economically abundant and materialistically excessive life isn’t any more fulfilled than a person who's economically and materialistically deprived.  It seems to be indicative of the human being that, no matter how developed and economically advanced one thinks one is, nothing is ever complete; so much is still lacking.  Every person still needs something, that I will attempt to call a “thirst,” and to describe in some detail.

First of all, as a Christian, I see the need for Jesus in all the world, a thirst for the Way and this Kin(g)dom that he proclaimed in his earthly life.  Jesus makes the invitation: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.  As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37b-38, NRSV).   Jesus’ proclamations get pretty constrictive by this Gospel author (and his references to Jewish scripture are pretty poorly translated!), and are best tempered by Jesus’ proclamations in other parts of the Christian Scriptures, that are much more universal than his.  I will explore these next, but I must mention this more constrictive image, as it is one in which I find great truth and meaning.  All that I spiritually thirst for, as a Christian, is fulfilled in my faith in Jesus, and the life that faith requires of me.  That I must tell the world about, just as much as I must tell the rest of the story.

In this second movement, then, this thirsty world isn’t quenched just with Jesus.  That’s even clear in the reference to John above, as the author goes on to explain in the subsequent sending of the Spirit that comes about later in the Gospel story (John 7:39 & 20:19-29).  A major theme of John’s Gospel, then, is this as-yet fulfillment, that came through the sending of the Spirit, and then through what the disciples do next, which will be even greater than what Jesus did in his own life (John 14:12).  We as Christians are now given everything that God gave Jesus (John 17:20-24), and are now required to tap into this Way and this Kin(g)dom that Jesus talked about.  This is the only way Jesus can help the “Th-irst” World now.  He relies on his disciples to help quench this world’s thirst.  It is through our work, now, in the world, as The Body of Christ, that this living water will continue to flow.

In this second movement, then, this “Th-irst” World thirsts can be quenched through our work for justice and righteousness, and many of our own thirsts will be alleviated through this as well.  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6, NRSV).  This ancient Greek word used here for righteousness, dikaios and its variants, has many meanings, and can be translated in many different ways.  But it is clear that this righteousness comes into the world when one lives out God’s commands.  Some do so even “perfectly,” in the sense of doing so completely.  This complete living involves knowing and living God’s commands in the world, which involve right relationships with others.  In a word, that’s also often used to translate dikaios, Justice.  This Justice is spelled out in great detail throughout the scriptures, Jewish and Christian, as helping those most vulnerable, those in most need.  In other words, those most “Th-irst”-y.

It is through working for this same justice and righteousness in the world that the “Th-irst” of this World can be quenched, and our own thirst as well.  The author of Matthew has Jesus describe this in great detail and in a much more universal scenario that John’s imagery.  In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus narrates the Last Judgment of “all the nations,” and this final judgment isn’t based on anything anyone believes, or doesn’t believe, about Jesus.  This final judgment is based on one’s actions toward those who need help the most, Christian or not.  Jesus identifies himself as those whom they helped: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink” (Matthew 25:35, NRSV, italics mine).  The dikaios that Jesus’ disciples are to hunger and thirst for is that which drives all people to help those most in need, those most hungry and thirsty themselves, those most often identified as living in a so-called “Third” World.

This is the gospel, the Good News, that I try to live, every day.  Oh, and by the way, it usually never involves converting anyone to Christianity.  That seems pretty obvious to me, as Jesus never asks his disciples to make anyone a Christian.  It does seem pretty obvious to me that Jesus asks his disciples, and all people, to hunger and thirst for this justice, to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty…..to help quench this “Th-irst” World’s needs.

I must confess here that I speak of such things only through my own experience, of someone steeped in the “First” World all his life.  I have never gone without enough, economically or materially, so I don’t pretend to speak for someone who has.  What I will speak for is someone like me who has always had enough.  Having enough has never been enough, and never will be this side of history.  So my basic thirst in our shared “Th-irst” World would probably be translated differently by people that are regularly deprived of “enough” in concretely physical and economic ways.  So, since I can speak only for myself, I will confess that I do discover that my own thirst can be quenched through working toward justice and righteousness in this world, that always involves helping those most in need of “enough.”  In helping make the world “enough” for all people, I get closer to living that dikaios to which Jesus directs me.

In this “Th-irst” World that we all live in, I hope others can do the same.

Dennis Teall-Fleming is Pastor of Open Hearts Gathering, Gastonia, NC (www.openheartsgathering.org), and part-time Religion Instructor at Gaston College, Dallas, NC  (www.gaston.edu).