Towards the beginning of harvest three of the thirty chiefs went down to join David at the cave of Adullam, while a band of Philistines was encamped in the valley of Rephaim. David was then in the stronghold; and the garrison of the Philistines was then at Bethlehem. David said longingly, ‘O that someone would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem that is by the gate!’ Then the three warriors broke through the camp of the Philistines, drew water from the well of Bethlehem that was by the gate, and brought it to David. But he would not drink of it; he poured it out to the Lord, for he said, ‘The Lord forbid that I should do this. Can I drink the blood of the men who went at the risk of their lives?’ Therefore he would not drink it. The three warriors did these things. - 2 Samuel 23: 13-17
David the king, the hero, the villain, the psalmist, the chosen of God, is dying. It happens to everybody but not everybody's passing is chronicled in such a way. The first part of the reading (which I have omitted), is a hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God, but it is this part of the passage that calls for my attention this morning.
The story is simple. David is safely inside his stronghold but knows his time is short. Like many, his mind casts itself back to his early life and he remembers sights, sounds, smells, and tastes from that long-ago time. Like many, he thinks of one thing that would bring that time closer and he speaks of it to those surrounding his bedside: he wants a drink of water from the well by the gate in his hometown, Bethlehem. A simple request for a glass of water shouldn't be too difficult. The difficulty is, however, that Bethlehem is presently under the watchful (and powerful) eye of the Philistines but three men risk their lives, retrieve the water and, as an act of love, bring it back to the dying king. I'm sure he appreciates the gesture but instead of drinking it, he pours it out on the ground in a sacrifice to God. His men had risked their lives and, to David, the water had become the blood they might have shed to grant him one last wish.
Perhaps this passage strikes me because I too long for things from home now and again. There are things I miss -- the smell of the salt water and the pungency of the marshes, the feel of sand beneath my feet, the forests that spread everywhere and exhibit every shade of green I think God ever thought of. There are times when I can almost smell the salt air, I can walk in the park sandbox and feel the fine grit beneath my toes and I can go about two hours north and see mile after mile of trees in a hundred thousand shades of green but it just isn't the same. It's the memory of the past, maybe a bit idealized, but still a memory just like David's thought for the water from the well back home.
What devotion he must have engendered in his men that three of them would risk life and limb to get a bottle of water for a dying leader. Maybe they thought his gratitude would extend itself to his giving them lavish gifts and rewards, but maybe they just wanted to make him happy by granting his wish. They were, however, surprised by his act of what might seem like wanton waste of their time and effort. To David, the memory of the taste of that water was probably sweeter than the actual water itself could be. In what was probably one of his last actions, he made a priestly gesture in sacrificing the water to God. Maybe it wasn't his job theologically or traditionally to do such a sacrifice, but he felt it was the right thing to do.
One of the sayings I keep remembering (and keep being reminded of) is that you can't really ever go home again. Things have changed, people have died (and others born), and even in a small Colonial-era town new buildings get built, old ones torn down and roads rerouted or widened. Even the scent of the water might be different than I remember. I wonder -- on my deathbed will I want just one more scent of that water? One more taste from that well? One more feeling of being home?
Perhaps I will just be looking toward my next home, all past homes forgotten. I'll have to wait and see.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 24, 2013.