Athirst for God

Saint James Fordham • Easter 6a • Tobias Haller BSG

For thee, my God, the living God,
my thirsty soul doth pine;
O when shall I behold thy face,
thou Majesty divine.

As many of you know, Jerome Reservoir a few blocks north of us is closely connected to the history of this church. It was built starting in the late nineteenth century as part of a new water supply system to meet the clamorous thirst of the growing metropolis just south of here: the New York City of which, in those days, the Bronx was not yet a part. (Back then we were still part of Westchester County.)

Jerome Avenue running past our doors is named for Leonard Jerome, the Wall Street wiz and horse-racing fan who lived just across the street, about where the Post Office now stands. (He was also Winston Churchill’s grandfather, and rumor has it, though the parish records don’t confirm it, that his daughter Jennie was baptized here.)

Mr. Jerome owned much of the property around here, and where Jerome Reservoir now stands he built Jerome Park, the racetrack where the first Belmont Stakes was run in 1867. When the thirsty throngs in Manhattan called for more water, that spot was singled out as of a perfect size and shape to convert into a reservoir, and so it was. Our additional parish connection is through two members of this parish, Hugh Camp and Mayor Franklin Edson, who appointed Camp to the team for the design of the new reservoir (at the time the largest in the world) and the new aqueduct system that would convey plentiful water to the people of New York City. The water came from the Croton system upstate, making a brief stop at the Jerome Reservoir before continuing on its way through the aqueduct underneath Aqueduct Avenue just up the hill from here.

And all of this in response to thirst — the thirst of people for clean, pure water. We all know from personal experience what ordinary thirst means; and we also know the effects that global warming has had on the supply of what you need to satisfy that thirst. If you pass by Jerome Reservoir with any frequency, you will note that unlike former days, it is now rarely more than half-full, and is often as dry as a proverbial bone.

Drought brought on by a lack of water can be a terrible thing — and we’re lucky that this past year broke the string of dry summers we’ve had for a while now.

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But there are worse things that a drought of water. Think for a moment how much worse would be a drought of God — the drying up of knowing God’s presence and grace, the receding and sinking of the pools of spiritual nourishment, drained away, lost and gone, replaced by the sandy desert or dry lake-beds of desolation. People have a built-in need for God, a thirst for God, in whom, as Saint Paul assures the Athenians, we live and move and have our being. Imagine what a drought of God would mean— to be cut of from life, motion, and ones very being, withering like a parched plant in a desert.

Saint Paul compliments the Athenians — a rare thing for this often grumpy saint — he praises them for their religious impulse, for their effort to search for God, even if they do not have a clear idea as to who God is and how to find, know, and love God. Still, Paul credits them with seeking and searching for God, groping for God, much as a persistent tree will send its roots out in search of life-giving water. The search for God is a universal human reality, Saint Paul assures us, as in our human thirst for the divine springs we seek, grope and explore to find the source of our being and life, like people roaming the fields with spiritual dowsing rods, or searching the empty sky for the sign of a cloud, seeking the signs of God’s presence, the quenching of our spiritual thirst with the living water of God’s being.

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Yes, people need God and seek God. For without God we dry up, wither, fail, and die. Jesus uses the image of the Vine and the Branches to make this clear. Just as in the past weeks we’ve heard Jesus refer to himself as the “gate” for the sheep, and the “way” to the Father, so today he assures us that he is the “vine,” apart from which we branches are useless and fruitless, able to do nothing at all but wither and dry up, good for nothing but firewood.

Anyone who has done any gardening knows this well. If you cut off a branch, you cut off its life-support system. No branch can thrive on its own, whether a branch of a vine or a tree. Without the source of life, the connection to life, there is no life.

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And God is the source of our life. In him we live and move and have our being. He is the reservoir from which we draw the water of life, the vine from which our nourishment flows. Disconnected from God, we wither, fail, dry and die — just as if you cut off the aqueduct there will be no water in Manhattan. Without the source and without the means to transmit it, no water will get through to quench our thirst.

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Sometimes people will say they have no time or place for God in their lives. How wrong they are, for it isn’t that God isn’t in their lives — it is their lives that aren’t in God! They are cut off, wandering in a desert, and the oasis of earthly success is just a mirage. They struggle to reach that green and welcoming spot on the horizon, only to discover it is not an oasis, but just more dry and dusty sand, a tempting vision created by reflected heat. Meanwhile, their connection to the vine has been cut, and though they may not feel it yet, soon their leaves will begin to wilt and wither. Their hand-made idols will be of no help to them, and they will merely cling to them like the dead vines cling to a ruined and forsaken building.

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But the good news is that God the True Vine is merciful, even to those who think they can live apart from God, even those who think they can bear fruit without being connected to the vine, even those who worship the idols of their own making.

We’ve all known people who devote themselves so whole-heartedly to their careers that they have no time for anything or anyone else. They imagine that they are self-sufficient, not realizing how much depends on others, how much depends on God. Yet the merciful God does not forsake even these preoccupied, self-centered people. The merciful God allows some hardship to come their way, some drought, some thirst, some pain that recalls them to themselves, and recalls them to him. God overlooks human ignorance, and prompts the ignorant and thirsty heart to repent, to seek, to grope its way back, to turn to the true spring, to quench its desires in the cool water of grace, the cool water of baptism into Christ.

And when even we who are incorporated into Christ get so preoccupied with our work that we forget who we are part of, and who is the source of our life; when we begin to rely too much on our own gifts, become too proud of our own work and our own accomplishments, Jesus gently reminds us who he is and who we are. He is the True Vine; we are the branches.

Hugh Nesbitt Camp and Franklin Edson were both successful men of their generation. They were the cream of high society, risen to the very top. But they knew on whom their success — and not only their success, but their very living, moving and being — depended; someone far greater than themselves, someone apart from whom they could do nothing. If you cut off the flow, the water will stop. If you cut off the branch from the vine, it will dry up and die.

It is fitting that the man who assisted in the design of New York’s water supply system, is remembered here at Saint James Church in that stained glass window, The True Vine, here in the church where he worshiped the God he loved and served, the source of his ability to live and move, to love and serve his fellow citizens.

It is a reminder we can do nothing apart from God. Apart from him we will wilt, wither, dry, and end in the flames. But in him; ah, in him we draw the sweetest draft of satisfaction from the pure source of life itself. In him we branches are nourished and strengthened to bear much fruit. And if we get too confident of our fruitfulness, he will prune us back, and we will bear even more fruit — such is his care for us. So rejoice, sisters and brothers, that our Lord has recalled us to himself and to ourselves, reminding us who we are and whose we are. He is the end of our drought; he is the gentle rain upon our desert-weary hearts, the spring that appears in the midst of the wilderness to quench our thirst and satisfy our deepest needs; he is our reservoir and his cross is our aqueduct, bringing us new life; he is the true vine in whom we find our nourishment and shade, from whom we derive our life, our movement, our being — and our fruitfulness. Let us rejoice in that life, and bear much fruit, so that all may give glory to God, the source of all being, henceforth and for evermore.+