The words Terese and I prayed over as we headed to Africa on mission was from Isaiah 55:1-12 which begins,
“All you who are thirsty, come to the water!
You who have no money, come receive grain and eat;
Come without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk.”
Although our mission work focuses on the medical, the prime need of many mission sites in Africa, Asia, South America, Haiti, the Philippines, is safe drinking water. Our family recently returned from Tanzania. During our three weeks there, we witnessed the hard work to provide water for loved ones.
In contrast to the great plains of the Serengeti, Bwambo is a small community located atop the Pare mountains. The Pare mountains divide Tanzania and Kenya, running in South Easterly direction to the Indian Ocean. Because of their height, they receive precipitation even during the dry season. Farming, not animal migration, attaches the community to the land.
We served in Bwambo with the Druffner family. The Druffner family has been doing month-long short term medical missions for 8 years. They work side by side with Father Beda, the ever energetic parish priest and chief physician for the community’s hospital: St Luke’s Health Center. Mark Druffner, the papa, is a family practice doctor serving with Mission Doctors Association to provide medical care and education in the hospital in Bwambo. We joined him in his work! Molly Druffner, the mama, is an educator who has spent time getting to know the women in the community.
In our medical work, we have encountered vulnerable brothers and sisters. Vulnerability is particularly easy to see in Tanzania. The hospital beds are simple and poor. There is no running water on the wards. Family members do many of the things that nurses do here: they change and launder the linens, they cook for and feed their loved ones, and importantly, they keep watch, rotating in shifts. One common characteristic of the sick is that they are thirsty. And they are unable to get it for themselves. This is why giving drink to the thirsty is such a powerfully merciful thing to do. It is a sign of love for the helpless.
Andrew was a patient we cared for. He was hospitalized for the treatment of deep bed sores. Andrew was a bright young man heading to college when six months ago, he developed transverse myelitis, a disease of the spinal cord, that left him paralyzed from the waist down. He never recovered function and over the ensuing months, he accumulated pressure sores from being in bed, inactive. By the time he came to the hospital his wounds were so deep that his bones were visible. One afternoon he started bleeding. What did he ask for as he bled? Water. While we addressed the wound, his father sat next to him and gave him sips of water.
Mary John was an elderly woman we resuscitated at St. Luke’s hospital in Bwambo. She arrived late one morning, in a community ambulance, hardly able to breathe, secretions and infection blocking her airway. We suctioned her mouth, placed her on oxygen, gave her antibiotics, IV fluids, and prayed for recovery. To our surprise, several days later, she opened her eyes and recognized her family. What was the first thing they did? They gave her something to drink. The peace and joy that fell upon the family and the staff when she took something by mouth was palpable. This was the clearest sign yet that she was improving.
In my ICU at Children’s Mercy, when patients wake up from surgery, they are universally thirsty. It doesn’t matter how much IV fluid they received under anesthesia. They aren’t concerned like the doctor that their wrists and ankles are swollen, or that they haven’t passed gas. They all ask for something to drink. Teenagers ask for 7Up, toddlers ask for juice, and babies ask for milk. Babies do so much better if we can get them out of bed, put them in their mother’s arms, and allow them to nurse.
Giving drink to the thirsty isn’t just a nice thing to do. Neither is it just a theoretically spiritual symbol imbedded in the scriptures that we’re all familiar with. It’s a real act of love that meets a real bodily need and brings about real spiritual consequences. It encourages the sick and softens the heart of the giver. When we’re indifferent, we don’t care that someone else is thirsty. We may not even notice. However, when we are filled with tenderness, when we care about one another, then we can’t help but give water to the thirsty. Here’s the catch…you can’t always see thirst written on someone’s face. You may not know that someone is thirsty unless they tell you. And to hear someone tell you, particularly the weak and the infirm, you have to be close enough to hear them.
Many people acknowledge that the most profound aspect of doing mission work is how much more you receive than you give. The risk and beauty of our mission in Tanzania is that we often found ourselves in a vulnerable place. We too were thirsty! After traveling the hot, dusty roads on the African savanna, we were greeted with warmth by the staff at our hotel with clean cloths to wash our faces and a cool refreshing juice to quench our thirst. We relied on the generosity of our parents who purchased our water filter. We trusted our cook, Leah, to give us clean water, juice, or fresh milk each day that she worked lovingly to prepare. After tough afternoons working in the hospital, laboring in the garden, and hiking the mountains, we appreciated the hospitality of Mary who served us ginger-chai tea in her cantina. During these times when we were thirsty and others gave us drink, we had an opportunity to feel refreshed, cared for, and connected with the strangers around us. These strangers became friends through our vulnerability and their generosity.
Saint Mother Teresa encourages, “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.” Doing medical missionary work in Tanzania is our particular call from God. Our experience was profound and beautiful, but it certainly isn’t necessary for salvation!! What is necessary is that we respond to Jesus imperative to Give Drink to the Thirsty. Faith without works is dead. Often the vulnerable people we know are close to home, in our own family, in our school, in our neighborhood. Seek to know. Seek to understand. Seek to find those who thirst.