Jesus says, “I am thirsty.” (John 19:28)
When I came to him in the last week of August, I found Arthur prone on the floor. He’d fallen from his chair during the night, but his legs were too swollen and his arms too weak for climbing in again.
I said, “This is it, Arthur. You’re going to the hospital.”
He was tired. He didn’t argue any more. He let me call two other members of the congregation. While they came, I dressed him—and he groaned profoundly. He groaned when we carried him to the car. He groaned even during the transfer from car to wheelchair: Douglas and Clarence and I had brought him to emergency.
But once inside the shining building, his groaning took new meaning.
“I’m thirsty,” he said.
“He’s thirsty,” I said to a nurse. “Would you get him a drink of water?”
“No,” she said,
“No,” she said. “He can ingest nothing until his doctor is contacted.”
“Would you contact his doctor, then?”
“That will be done by the unit nurse when he’s in a room.”
Arthur, slumped in his chair and hurting, said, “I’m thirsty.”
I said, “Well, then, can I wheel him to his room?”
“I’m sorry, no,” she said.
“Please,” I said. “I’m his pastor. I’ll take responsibility for him.”
“In this place he is our responsibility, not yours,” she said. “Be patient. An aide will get him up in good time.”
O Arthur, forgive me for not getting you water at home. Forgive us the “good time,” twenty minutes waiting without a drink. Forgive us our rules, our rules, our irresponsibility!
Even in his room they took the time to wash him, to take away the stink, before they brought him water.
“Please—call his doctor,” I pleaded.
“We’re about to change shifts,” they said. “The next nurse will call his doctor, sir. All in good time.”
So: Arthur, whose smell had triggered much discussion in the halls, finally did not stink. But Arthur still was thirsty. He said two things before I left.
He mumbled, “Bloody, but unbowed.”
“Good, Arthur!” I praised him with all my might. Even a malicious wit was better than lethargy. Perhaps I could get him to shiv a nurse or two.
But he turned an eye toward me, gazing on this fool for the first time since we entered the hospital. “Bloody,” he said, “and bowed.”
He slept an hour. I sat at bedside, my face in my hands.
Then, suddenly, he started awake and stared about himself. “Where am I? Where am I?” he called.
“In the hospital,” I answered.
And he groaned horribly, “Why am I?”
In all my ministry, I have wept uncontrollably for the death of only one parishioner.
The hospital knew no relative for Arthur Forte. Therefore, at eleven o’clock that same Saturday night, they telephoned me. Then I laid the receiver aside, and I cried as though it were my father dead. My father. Indeed, it was my father. Anger, failure, the want of a simple glass of water: I sat in the kitchen and cried.
But that failure has since nurtured a certain calm success.
I do not suppose that Arthur consciously gave me the last year of his life, nor that he chose to teach me. Yet, by his mere being; by forcing me to take that life, real, unsweetened, barenaked, hurting and critical; by demanding that I serve him altogether unrewarded; by wringing from me first mere gestures of loving and then the love itself—but a sacrificial love, a Christ-like love, being love for one so indisputably unlovable—did he prepare me for my ministry.
My tears were my diploma, his death my benediction, and failure my ordination. For the Lord did not say, “Blessed are you if you know,” or “teach” or “preach these things.” He said, rather, “Blessed are you if you do these things.” … there, right there, begins true servanthood: the disciple who has, despite himself, denied himself.
And then, for perhaps the first time, one is not loving out of his own bowels, merit, ability, superiority, but out of Christ: for he has discovered himself to be nothing and Christ everything.
In the terrible, terrible doing of ministry is the minister born. And, curiously, the best teachers of that nascent minister are sometimes the neediest people, foul to touch, unworthy, ungiving, unlovely, yet haughty in demanding—and then miraculously receiving—love. These poor, forever with us, are our riches. Ω
Reflect: We are all called to ministry; it just means service. So, who has forced you to set aside your own needs and minister to them? Children? An aging relative? Someone else? Who has shown you your fundamental emptiness, and pushed you back to Christ’s love?
What is this? Lent is the 40 days, excluding Sundays, before Easter. Traditionally it is a time of reflection and pilgrimage. To help you on this journey, Sanctuary has put together 40 stories from people both within and beyond the congregation, with associated questions for reflection and prayer. A reading will be uploaded every day of Lent. This year’s theme is Fruit of the Spirit. Why? Read this. #Lent2022. Real People, Real Stories: 40 Readings for Lent © Sanctuary, 2022. From Walter Wangerin. Ragman and Other Cries of Faith. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984: 68-71.
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