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Empathy that is simply divine

“I thirst” (John 19:28).

SHE SAID SHE REMEMBERED Black Sunday, that she’d never forget it in fact, because they were in church when “the roller” came in, a curtain of darkness, a huge wall of dust swept up from ground shorn of its ancient grasses. When that roller arrived, she said, the church filled with dust, blinding them all. The only thing she could see up front behind the pulpit was the pastor’s white collar.

It was April 14, 1935, and all over South Dakota a “black blizzard” swarmed into churches and barns and houses, through villages and towns. No one escaped. It wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last, but it was the biggest, something none who were there could ever forget.

Another woman who remembered that Sunday told me she had laid out her children’s everyday clothes on their beds before they left for church earlier than morning. When the family returned, “Black Sunday” had left so much dust over everything that the outline of those clothes on the bed simply wasn’t discernable. The house was that full of dust.

I’ve been reading Frederick Manfred’s first novel, The Golden Bowl, which features a man named Maury, who is looking frantically for work. His parents are already gone, destroyed by the dust in Oklahoma. When he turns to a family who’ve been kind to him, “the Big Wind” comes, and when it does, it threatens everything.

The dry, hot wind lashed at the breasts and shoulders of the land. Soon, huge dust eddies ran swiftly along the road. Whirlwinds scurried on the paths of the fields and scruffed the bark of the roadside willows. The hot wind moaned in the cracks of the house, sometimes shrilly, sometimes hoarsely, moaning and crying against the house. Towers of dust rose blackly in the night . . .the earth lay gray. The dry wind filled its lungs with dust.

Wells coughed and went dry all over the region. Men and women dropped to their knees and prayed for rain. Hucksters showed up with cannons, hoping to pierce clouds that seemed to have forgotten to drop their precious burden. People went cotton-mouthed. Dust-laden lungs killed animals and children, the elderly. There was no water. Most of the parched Great Plains went thirsty.

When Jesus stammered, “I thirst,” he offered us the brutal truth of his humanity. He could have diverted the Sea of Galilee right then, directed the River Jordan to flood Gethsemane. He didn’t. He’s human. He was parched and dry as any of us would have been. He was us, for us.

And because he was, we can know that he understands. He gets it. When we stumble through the desert places of our lives, when we’d give anything for a drink, he understands. Been there, done that.

In those Dust Bowl days back then, lots of folks around here took great comfort from that unforgettable last testimony in the book of Habakkuk.

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Saviour.

He knows. He was there. Once upon a time, the Living Water was thirsty too. For us, he was us.

  • James is a retired Professor of English and the author of more than 40 books, most recently Looking for Dawn (2018).

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