The blazing sun beat down on my face and woke me from numbness. I tried to fall back asleep but had no luck—it was too hot already. Looking down at my watch, it said 10:35. “Dang it,” I murmured. Sleep was the only reprieve around here, so I tried to do so as much as possible. The days where I would wake up at 12 or 1 were the best, because they reduced the misery of the day.
I stood up, rubbing the sleep from my eyes, and started walking toward the crowd. If I told you I had more hope today of actually finding water I’d be lying. My mouth was already cottony, my throat dry, scratchy wool. By all means, I expected another long, despairing day in the desert.
People were already mulling about the marketplace, going from vendor to vendor, lines filling up. Some were already lying on the sand, writhing about and moaning from delusion. I knew a few of them and felt very sorry, but what was I to do?
I surveyed the lines, the different merchants calling out, deciding which one to try today. I looked down in my pockets to see how much money I had left. Four measly gold coins. Huffing a bit, I rolled my eyes and set about my task.
The first vendor I walked by was Lust. He yelled at the height of his ability: “Over here, over here! Sure fire water is found over here! Look at the long line and see for yourself, we do not disappoint! Only one coin per cup!” I looked at him in disgust, and all the people in line with pity. I knew he was a liar and the despair of that line. It stayed packed every day, because part of what he said was right. Every single cup did have a small drop of liquid in it, enough to make you forget about your misery for just a moment. But, it was a really quick moment, and your mouth would smack horribly after tasting it, more dry and thirsty than before. So most people would set their cup down and go right back to the back of the line. Hour after hour, day after day. Some would run out of money but still run up and try to steal a cup, and they would be grabbed and taken away by large, muscular guards with chains. Where I do not know, but into a deeper slavery than the line is, I’m sure.
I walked past Lust and moved on. The next merchant was Affluence. He claimed to have a new product everyday, but it always appeared to just be a shiner version of the previous days. I had seen him before, but never actually tried him. I simply didn’t have enough money. I’m not saying I wouldn’t try him if I did—I’d try anything to quench my thirst I think. But, I had seen the outcome of his product. Those fortunate enough to afford him would turn up their cups, not to find water, but a powdery substance. It immediately put them in some strange place—an effect similar to that of the Substance line, though less numbing and more delusional. For a moment, they thought they were satisfied, though they had drank no water. Some would sit down, some would lay down, and their eyes would roll back in their heads in some artificial delight. But this would last for only several minutes or so, and they would be back in the same line or go on to another. Some went straight from there to Substance, because it was cheaper and like I said, had a similar effect. It was a troublesome business.
“What shall I try today?” I thought to myself. I walked on, feet becoming heavier in the sand, my body aching already. If I could just get some relief and make it to nightfall I would be okay, I told myself. I just did not want to end up fainted on the ground and wiggling about like the others. I considered Substance, but the line was long so I walked on for now.
I walked past the Religion table but didn’t stop. I had talked with them many times before. They were honest that they had found no water yet, and they weren’t selling anything. They were just raising awareness, calling out the fact that the other vendors had nothing to offer. They were right, but they had no better alternative, so what were people to do? Their popularity was waning, and I did not feel up to another long conversation about how the other vendors are cheats and liars. At least they had something to offer, even if it was a fraud.
Next, I came to the vendor of Importance and Value. He had many clients of differing interests, and I hadn’t tried him in a while so I hopped in line. In front of me was a girl who didn’t think she was pretty and had darting eyes. I felt sorry for her and hoped she’d get some sort of relief. Behind me stood a man who didn’t think he was good at anything, and his eyes reminded me of the girls. We didn’t talk—you rarely do in these lines—just kept on moving forward with every customer that made their transaction. I finally got to the front of the line.
“How much?” I asked.
“Seven coins,” the merchant replied, smiling.
I looked down to my hand, sadly. “I only have four…” I closed my hand and started to walk away, until he grabbed me by the shoulder. “Son…son—for you only I will make a special deal today. Four coins and that cup is yours!” I smiled with a glimmer of hope and slid my coins into his hand. He gave me a cup and I turned it up as quickly as you’d expect of a man in a desert. Sand filled my mouth and I went to all fours, choking and spitting up the grit, trying to find saliva in my mouth to rid me of the feeling. Tears came to my eyes and I looked at the merchant in disgust, while he grinned back. After a moment, I worked up my strength, got up, and walked over to sit down by myself. I looked up from where I plopped down to see the Gospel tent, set out a ways by itself. I knew the rumors and had never actually made the journey myself. “It’s a mirage,” they say.
“Only there to make fun of our misery. To give us false hope and then crush it.”
A few people I had known had tried it, and came back attesting that it wasn’t a mirage. However, they were still disappointed: “It’s a lie—you know nothing is free. There is a catch.” The merchants discouraged us from trying too, saying the sand was too hot between here and there and that the merchant was a liar. Nonetheless, I sat there and listened to Him. He was farther away, but seemed to scream louder even than all the rest:
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live!”
I sat there and the rumors filled my mind. However, I felt more hopeless than ever and decided that I had to try it for myself. What was one more mirage, after all? I halfway ran there, picking my feet up often because the sand was hot. I almost caught up to the person in front of me, but he arrived just before me. He was the leader of the Religion tent. I had talked to him before, and he was trying to barter with the man at the table.
“Listen,” the man said. “I have heard that you really do have water. And I am here, once again, to buy some from you.” He set down a large bag of coins on the table. “I will excuse your rudeness from the past, and I assure you that what I have brought today is more than ever—that there is more money in this bag than you have ever seen in your life. Surely this will meet your price.”
The merchant looked at him, cocking a sad smile. “Friend, just like I told you yesterday and the day before and the day before. My water is not for sale. You will not acquire it by bargaining.”
“How dare you insult me once again,” the religious man retorted, indignant. “Everything has a price, and I am a man of means. Who are you to tell me what I can and cannot buy?”
“Just like you’ve heard over and over,” the merchant said, calmly. “This water is only for the despairing beggar. It cannot be bought by any price. He who has ears, let him hear.” The merchant genuinely looked sad for the man.
“Nonsense! My ears work fine, I assure you. They just know nonsense when they hear it. I guess your water is not fit for me anyway, for I am neither despairing nor a beggar. I am a man of dignity and respect. Nevertheless, I will gather more money, and I will be back later with an offer you cannot refuse.” With that, he grabbed his sack of coins in haste and stomped off, smacking his mouth in thirsty disgust. The merchant watched him walk away, sad smile still painted on his face. If I’m not mistaken, his eyes moistened up a little. Then he turned to me.
“Hello there, friend. Have you come for water?”
“Yes—I guess I have,” I stammered, looking at him in confusion. I continued, “In all my life I’ve never seen anything be free. People always, always want something for what they have to offer. So I have heard that there is a catch to this water that makes people turn around without drinking, and I can’t imagine that there isn’t. But sir, I am afraid I am at the end of my rope and you are my only hope. And even worse, I have no money—I spent my last four coins at Importance and Value today, and got a mouthful of sand in return.” I looked down at my feet, saddened. “So I ask sir, if there is any way I can meet the requirements or get around the catch and get some of your water.” I looked down at the jug on the table—not a cup but a large jug—that looked like it was full of genuine water. It must be a mirage, I thought, because I haven’t seen real water in…well…forever. “Please” I ended…”what is the catch?”
He looked at me, kindness dripping from his eyes. I had never seen a merchant like him before. “You people have been burned so much,” he said. “You call it a catch—I call it grace. Do you want to know what you have to do to get my water?”
“Yes, I do. I really do.” I said, throat burning.
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing! This living water is offered to you freely, and you will never thirst again. You have come here, knowing that you can’t pay for this water or earn it on your own, which is true. But I have paid for it and I offer it to you without price. There is no amount I would accept for it other than nothing, and you have come to me with gloriously empty hands. Look at them!” he said in delight, looking at my outstretched hands. “Now pick up that jug and drink your fill.”
I couldn’t believe this. I saw the water sloshing in the jug, and something inside me told me that this was what I’d been longing for all my life. Yet the doubt was still there. It was true, I had been burned so many times. I was just waiting on the cruel reveal to the joke that would multiply my misery by crushing my false hope. I looked at him, my eyes questioning. Somehow, he knew what they were saying. He bent down, picked up the jug and held it out to me. “You can trust me,” he said. “I’m not a fraud like all the others.” He put the jug into my hands, and I half expected it to crumble to dust.
“Drink!” he said, reassuringly. “Drink freely.” He smiled like he was telling me some wonderful secret.
I put my mouth to the jug and turned it up. Cold, clear water rushed into my mouth and down my throat, gulp after gulp. The most infinite, penetrating relief reached down to my bones, and I laughed as I drank the last of the jug. A sense of joy lighted on me that I had not thought possible. As I sat the jug down, I noticed that it was still full to the brim. The merchant was laughing with me, saying, “Yes!…Drink!” He looked even happier than me, if that was possible. I did not feel thirsty anymore, but it was such a joy that I picked the jug back up and downed it again, while he laughed still. After I put it down, he said, “I bet you’re hungry too, huh?”
“Famished,” I said, with expectant delight, wiping the water from my face. He stepped over to another table and pulled off a black sheet on top, revealing a spread of food that you’d expect at a king’s table, with more jugs of water and glasses of wine. He pulled out a chair for me and sat down in the opposite chair.
He waved his hands over the table and smiled. “Come, my son. Come to the table and eat!”
A widening smile grew on my face, like I had just stumbled on some unexpected treasure. As I walked over to the table I looked down at the marketplace, people going here and there, from line to line in tangible despair. Clarity dawned on me, and I wondered why anyone who had tasted this would ever want to go back to those liars.