Draw Near (a poem) –with a few words on “The Moment Before”

When does a scene begin in a play? When the lights go up? When the first line is spoken?

Maybe that’s when it begins for the audience, but for the actors, the scene begins before that. Actors understand the importance of “the moment before.”

Before entering the stage, an actor knows (whether we do or not) the answers to questions like these:

Where are you (the character) coming from?

What are you thinking?

What are you feeling?

What do you want?

The answers to these questions impact both the way the character enters, and the trajectory of the scene.

Sometimes, when I read a story in the Bible, I like to think about “the moment before.” Take John 4:1-42, for example. (You might want to read it–it’s compelling.) Last week, I posted a poem (Thirst) that enters into that story before it even starts, looking at an outcast woman’s walk to the well in the heat of the day.

Now I’ve entered the story again, from Jesus’ perspective. Before he starts the conversation with this woman, what is he thinking? What is he feeling? What does he want? Here’s my poetic take on Jesus’ moment before.

 

draw near
(jesus in john 4)
by kirsten wilson

too late you notice me
too late to go unseen
so you stand
still
your only movement
the clenching and unclenching of your hand
struggle in your eyes

i wait
quiet murmuring prayers
on my lips
merge with the hum
of insects circling the well

sometimes my work
is to sit in the noonday heat
and sweat drops of living water
until the thirst of a broken soul
grows stronger
than its fear

draw near
o woman
draw near

Thirst (a poem)

She’s been haunting me the past few days, walking off the pages of the Bible and into my imagination.

She’s not had an easy go of it, the woman in John chapter four. We know this immediately, from one small detail: she walks to the well for water at noon. Only an outcast would make this trek in the blazing heat of the day; anyone else would fill her water jar with all the other women early in the morning, while it’s still cool.

On the particular day that John records in his gospel, the woman finds Jesus sitting at the well she normally finds deserted. And conversation ensues. Conversation about God and thirst and worship and spirit and truth.

This woman, we find out during the conversation, has had five husbands and now shares a bed with a man who’s not her husband. Quite enough in those times, in a small town, to send a woman to the well at noon.

The idea of this woman’s daily trek to the well under the baking sun tugs at me:

What happens when I’m forced to be alone with my thirst?

Is it such a bad thing to become acutely aware of my desperate need? Or are there benefits?

Am I more likely to meet up with Jesus in these moments–when I am not only thirsty, but conscious of my thirst?

In reading the stories of Jesus, I cannot deny this: Jesus seems to gravitate toward those who are most aware of their own thirst. And so, I’ve allowed myself to enter into this woman’s story on one of her daily walks to the well, some time before the events of John chapter four.

thirst
(the woman in john 4)
by kirsten wilson
©2013

sandals kick up fiery dust
wave after wave of heat
crashes against my shins
yet i walk
steady into this midday surf
of sun

the jar i carry
draws into the clay of itself
the blaze of sky
grows hotter with every step
adjust my grip
and my palm burns

feel it flame
up the sinews of my arms
and straighten my shoulders
tilt my head toward the sun
colored spots dance
and beckon
in the heavy air

breathe deeply
from this oven sky
o my soul
let its hot breath
parch your lips
your throat

strange blessing this
solitary noonday trek
far from the grasping
thirst of the man who waits
upon my bed
far from the choking
drafts of the gossips who drink
my shame stirred
into fresh-drawn water
in the cool of the day

the only thirst
here
in this sweltering desolation
is mine

lower the jar
into the water of the well
raise it to cracked lips
and drink

drink deeply
from this liquid strength
o my soul
let its healing whisper
flow past your lips
your throat

throw aside
all you know
but this thirst

this momentary hope

You Can Never Change (in which the voice in my head sounds suspiciously like Javert)

I hear his voice often, increasing in volume anytime I think of altering something in my life or character. The beginning of a new semester, the start of summer, Lent.

And January. The voice shouts loudest of all in January, when the new year beckons me down a road of shimmering opportunity paved with fresh starts.

Soon as I take a step in the direction of that path, however, I hear his voice. Warning me away. Scoffing. Pushing me back.

This year, the voice sounds suspiciously like Inspector Javert, the prison guard/policeman in Les Misérables who spends his years mercilessly tracking the parolee Jean Valjean. When I saw the film last week, one of the lines that most stood out to me was this (Javert shouting at Valjean with great conviction):

A man like you can never change…
A man such as you…
(“The Confrontation”)

Perhaps the line struck me because I live with that voice inside my head. The voice that insists with Javert-like intensity that I cannot change, that the messed-up parts of my life and character are destined to stay that way.

Perhaps the line haunts me because I believe it. Much of the time, I agree with Javert.

I can’t change.

Sure, I can change surface aspects of my life. I can reorganize my office. I can work my way through some thought-provoking books. I can lose a few pounds, get a haircut, train myself to put the cap back on the toothpaste.

But there are some deeper issues in my life that have plagued me for years. And try though I might (and I have), I’ve not been able to effect any true or lasting change in those areas. I’ve pulled free of them in short bursts, but have quickly returned to my former patterns when opportunity arose.

Much like Jean Valjean.

Released from prison after nineteen years, Valjean tries to make his way honestly in the world. But the obstacles he faces are many, and when the opportunity presents itself, Valjean returns to thievery, stealing several valuable pieces of silver.

It’s not only Javert, then, who denies Valjean’s ability to change; Valjean himself questions it.

What have I done?
Sweet Jesus, what have I done?
Become a thief in the night
Become a dog on the run
And have I fallen so far
And is the hour so late
That nothing remains but the cry of my hate,
The cries in the dark that nobody hears,
Here where I stand at the turning of the years?
If there’s another way to go
I missed it twenty long years ago…
(“Valjean’s Soliloquy”)

This is where I find myself this week. Again. The voices in my head reenact an age-old drama on the stage of my mind, using the lyrics of Les Mis.

You cannot change, shouts Javert.

You’re right, say I, in the voice of Valjean.

But quietly, another voice whispers underneath those two. For me, today, the voice sings in the character of the Bishop of Digne and it intones an unexpected hope.

The Bishop, from whom Valjean steals the silver, refuses to condemn Valjean back to prison. Rather, he shows mercy, bears the loss himself, and makes a gift of the silver to the frightened parolee. He speaks the possibility of change into Valjean’s defeated heart:

But remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man
By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God!
(“The Bishop”)

Perhaps the deepest cracks of my heart cannot be mended either through adherence to the law or through effort–though both are important.

Perhaps my deepest flaws are undone when met by unexpected mercy.

As I move into the fresh starts of 2013, I need to lower the volume of Javert’s condemnation and Valjean’s defeat and listen for the Bishop’s grace. I need to remember that my soul, too, has been bought for God. And wonder what that means for the coming year.