Friday, May 6, 2022

The Water and Not the Lion

 On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” By this he meant the Spirit,  whom those who believed in him were later to receive.  Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified. 

-John 7:37-39 (NIV)

Art by Leanne Bowen

A friend on Facebook posted a section of dialogue that I had forgotten about from C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair, one of the Narnia books. Seeing it again reminded me of some things that I think it’s important to remember every once in a while. Maybe it’ll help you remember, too.

     The dialogue comes when Jill Pole has gotten separated from her friend, Eustace, while exploring Narnia. Stumbling through the woods, lost and tired, Jill becomes very thirsty. Thankfully, she finds a stream. But as she starts toward it, she stops short — there’s a lion lying between her and the stream. 

     We know the lion is Aslan, the Christ figure in the Narnia books. Elsewhere in the series, another character explains that “of course [Aslan] isn’t safe. But he’s good.” Jill, of course, doesn’t know any of this yet. All she sees is a lion, and all she can think is that if she stays or tries to run away, he’ll eat her. While she’s trying to decide what to do, and so thirsty that she almost thinks she’d try it if she could be sure she’d at least get a mouthful of water before he eats her, Aslan speaks.      

     “If you are thirsty, come and drink.”

     Once she gets used to a talking lion, Jill says,”I am dying of thirst.”And the scene goes on:

     "Then drink," said the Lion.

     "May I — could I — would you mind going away while I do?" said Jill.

     The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience. 

     The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic. "Will you promise not to — do anything to me, if I do come?" said Jill.

     "I make no promise," said the Lion.

     Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer. "Do you eat girls?" she said.

     "I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms," said the Lion. It didn't say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.

     "I daren't come and drink," said Jill.

     "Then you will die of thirst," said the Lion.

     "Oh dear!" said Jill, coming another step nearer. "I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”

     "There is no other stream," said the Lion.

What this little scene reminded me of is how we have tried our best to domesticate Jesus. We’ve tried to make  Jesus, I fear, into Dr. Phil, or into any one of a whole mob of self-help experts, life coaches, and mentors who tell us how to be healthy and successful, to have happier families, stronger minds, and greater satisfaction in life. We don’t need Jesus to live, like we need water. We need him to rubber-stamp our plans and cure our anxieties and help us be just a little bit better and maybe even endorse our assumptions, religions, beliefs, and prejudices. 

     We’ve tried to have the water and not the lion.

     Wouldn’t it be nice, sometimes, if Jesus would obey our polite request to go away for a little while? Not forever, of course, and not far — just far enough that he wouldn’t bother us while we took care of real life.

     Or, wouldn’t it be nice if we could get some kind of promise that, if we hang around with him, he won’t…do anything to us? Because honestly, we like things just as they are. We like us just as we are. 

     Failing that, couldn’t we at least get some kind of assurance that Jesus wouldn’t swallow us up? That we could still have self, along with him? Couldn’t we at least get a guarantee that all the stuff he said about taking up our crosses and denying ourselves and losing our lives to follow him doesn’t mean what we think it means? That it’s only meant for priests and monks and nuns and ministers and missionaries, and not for normal people who have lives?

     A more manageable Jesus — a safe Jesus — would be ideal. All of the good stuff, none of the danger. The water and not the lion.

     See here, though: there is no such thing as a safe Jesus. “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink,” Jesus said. He told another thirsty girl at a stream — OK, a woman at a well — that all she had to do was ask, and he would give her living water. He hoped his people wouldn’t make the same mistakes they had made for generations, that they would understand that there is no other stream.

     We need to understand: Jesus has what we need for life. More than that, he has what we must have to survive. And, with all the love and respect in the world to other religions, other belief systems, and even to my fellow Christians who want a safer source of life than Jesus — there is no other stream. I’m not saying I know anything you don’t know — too often when people claim to be offering Jesus what they’re really offering is their own domesticated version of him. I’m saying that the only stream for any of us is the stream Jesus offers, and he offers it to us whoever we are, wherever we might come from, and whatever we’ve done or thought — whenever we stumble across him laying there in our paths. And I’m saying that he isn’t much concerned about making you feel safe, and that he will not go away and that he will do something to you and that you will be swallowed up. 

     But you will also be brought to life like you’ve never known before. Come to him, drink from the water he offers you, and you’ll never be thirsty again. That water he gives you will become a stream flowing out of you and inundating the world around you. He’ll fill you with God’s Spirit, God’s life, the energy that comes from him, changes you, and makes you a catalyst for change around you. But that’s not for those who want a safe, domesticated Jesus. He is, after all “the Lion of the tribe of Judah.”

     That’s a name for Jesus that John heard in the vision he recorded in Revelation. Funny thing, though — John doesn’t see a lion. He sees “a lamb, looking as if it had been slain.” What he’s getting at in his enigmatic way is that Jesus, in his death, has become the Lion. In his earthly life, Jesus could be ignored, marginalized, shouted down, discredited — and, when all that failed, he could be killed. The risen Jesus, on the other hand, can’t be shrugged off. If you want life, you have to deal with him. You have to accept him on his terms. You can’t render him safe. You can’t negotiate. You accept him, or you don’t, just as he is. That feels scary.

     Here’s the good news: he accepts you the same way, just as you are. “If you’re thirsty, come and drink.” That’s all you have to be. Thirsty. Not religious. Not good. Not sober. Not clean. Thirsty.

     And there is no other stream.      

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