Love is Thicker Than Water

REFLECTION – “Love is Thicker Than Water,” Susan Ryder

 Our first reading is a poem written by Miller Williams, who was a white civil rights activist, poet, and professor of English and foreign languages at the University of Arkansas. Williams delivered the poem, “Of History and Hope,” at Bill Clinton’s second inauguration. He was close friends with George Haley – brother of Alex Haley – who was appointed to be ambassador to The Gambia in 1998, where his ancestor Kunta Kinte, was from.

For George Haley, About to Go to The Gambia – by Miller Williams
“I read that a friend of yours is about to be
ambassador to his own,” a neighbor said.
“Right,” I said to be sociable. You know me.
What I ought to have said to her instead

is that you’re not my friend; you are my brother.
“How so?” she’d say. We’d say we found it so
when each of us came to find himself in the other
and found we knew what those in a family know,

then came to see over the tumbling years
a larger family than family sometimes seems;
to see – far down, where the surface disappears –
that all who carry their mother’s and father’s dreams,

all those whose dreams are borne by their daughters and sons,
were kin from the first word spoken, and still are.
I want to believe that everyone knew this once.
We came from the same soil. It circles a star.

The Gospel According to Jesus by Stephen Mitchell
When Jesus came down from the hill, he went to the lakeside with his disciples, and a large crowd from Galilee followed; and large crowds hearing of his works came to him from Judea and Jerusalem as well, and from beyond the Jordan and the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he told the disciples to have a boat ready for him, so that he wouldn’t be crushed by the crowd, for he had healed many people, and the crippled and sick were all pressing in on him to touch him. Then he went into the house and such a large crowd gathered around him that they didn’t even have time to eat. And when his family heard about all this, they went to seize him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”

[Later] And his mother and his brothers arrived and standing outside, they sent in a message asking for him. And the people in the crowd sitting around him said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside and want to see you.” And Jesus said, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat in a circle around him, he said, “These are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.”

Proverb: Blood is thicker than water.

“Blood is thicker than water” is an ancient and well-known English proverb, which is interpreted to mean that familial bonds should elicit more loyalty than bonds of friendship or affection. It’s something my father used to say whenever he felt that family loyalty was in question. I suspect this was due to the time and place he was born and raised, when family depended on each other for their very survival in a way that is much less common in the world as we know it. His father died when he was five, but he, his sister, and widowed mother had grandparents and five aunts and an uncle who took care of them. Their family ties were strong – and remained so after my grandmother remarried. They all moved west from Oklahoma at about the same time in the 1930’s and lived near each other for the rest of their lives. Family, blood, were essential for their survival.

Later when he had a family of his own, he tried to instill that same value in us. For instance, we could only spend holidays with family, never with boyfriends or girlfriends. If there was a divorce in the family, he believed we should show our loyalty by cutting the “ex” out of our lives, no matter who was at fault. So it troubled him when I remained friends with an ex-spouse of a family member; he saw it as some sort of betrayal, even though the family member was fine with it. During a conversation when he brought up “blood is thicker than water,” I pointed out to him that there was an alternative meaning to the proverb. Some scholars believe the original meaning of the expression was that the ties between people who have made a blood covenant (or have shed blood together in battle) were stronger than ties formed by “the water of the womb.” Meaning, “the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb” – much like he had remained close to his “brothers in arms” – the Navy shipmates he served with during World War 2. I thought that would resonate with him. Instead, I’m pretty sure he regretted he worked so hard to make sure I went to college.

Since he was a faithful Christian all of his life, maybe I should have shared the passage from Stephen Mitchell instead, which is taken from the gospel of Mark. In this passage we are told that Mary and the rest of Jesus’ family were disturbed by reports of his behavior. They knew he’d been casting out demons and performing healings, and had probably also heard his radical teachings that turned conventional wisdom on its head and created a dangerous situation for Jesus with Roman and Jewish leaders. And so, like any responsible and loving family, concerned for Jesus’ welfare and wanting to prevent further harm to his reputation or even his life, they went to find out exactly what was going on, and maybe even take him home to keep him out of danger. They knew what happened to John the Baptist and did not want Jesus to share a similar fate. But when they arrived at the house where Jesus was, the crowd was too large for Mary and the brothers to wade through, so they sent a message to Jesus to come out and speak to them. When he was told that they were waiting outside for him, his response seemed unexpectedly cruel. “Who is my mother? Who is my brother?” Talk about harsh – where’s the “blood is thicker than water” now?

Jesus was saying it takes more than blood to make family connections – and just because they were related to him by virtue of his birth didn’t make them his family. The story is disturbing on one level and comforting on another. One the one hand, the disturbing hand, we have Jesus seeming to reject his birth family, which is certainly an unsettling and unattractive image for us to reconcile with the Jesus we think we know. In fact, it was so shocking to early Christians (and the other gospel writers) that the story only appears in Mark’s gospel. Matthew and Luke didn’t want anything to do with it so they deleted it entirely, and John’s gospel ends up portraying Mary as a sweet, albeit sort of nagging Jewish mother who, in the end, Jesus cares for so much that he makes sure with his last breath that she will be taken care of by the beloved disciple.

But back to this story – of course we can see Jesus’ point – he was doing what he understood to be his true calling, the work and mission of God as he understood it. And anyone who attempted to thwart his vocation would not be warmly received by Jesus, even if it were family. He understandably felt more connected to those who shared his passion to do God’s work than his family if they were not in harmony with and supportive of his beliefs. So, in spite of the difficult aspects of the story, the truth that one can experience the love and connectedness of family without being related, which many of us have experienced regardless of our relationship with our own families, is a reassuring one. We all know of instances where, because of geography or broken relationships or death, we aren’t always able to be as close to our blood families as we might like. Therefore, the friendships we form often become familial in nature – a family of choice as opposed to, or in addition to, a family of blood.

Bob reminded me of a quote from Marcus Borg from Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time where he wrote, “The Hebrew word for ‘compassion’ whose singular form means ‘womb’ is often used of God in the Old Testament … As an image for the central quality of God, it is striking. To say that God is compassionate is to say that God is ‘like a womb,’ is ‘womblike,’ or, to coin a word that captures the flavor of the original Hebrew, ‘wombish.’” Thinking of God as wombish suggests that God embraces the world with maternal nature of love that transcends boundaries. Be compassionate as God is compassionate is to be wombish – to take care of every mother’s son, not just my son. So Jesus’ comment about “who is my mother, who is my brother” isn’t as much as rejection of his own family as it is saying that he is there for every mother’s son and daughter.

On this Mother’s Day we know the story of the first Mother’s Day is not quaint historical trivia. Anna Jarvis founded Mother’s Day in 1858 to promote sanitation in response to high infant mortality in the Appalachian community in which she lived. After two of her children died before the age of three, she asked doctors to teach her and other mothers how to prevent disease. A few years later when the Civil War began, since she lived near a major battlefield between Union and Confederate armies, Anna declared Women’s Friendship Day, convincing local mothers to care for soldiers from both sides. Inspired by Jarvis, Julia Ward Howe joined the U.S. Sanitary Commission with her husband. In 1861, after a visit to a Union Army camp, Howe wrote the poem that came to be called “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” after she witnessed some of the worst effects of the war. More men were dying from disease in prisoner of war camps and their own army camps than were dying in battle. The Sanitary Commission helped reduce those deaths. After the war, Julia wanted an end to all war, and equality for all people, regardless of race, religion, gender or nationality. So she wrote her Mother’s Day Proclamation, calling mothers to leave their homes for one day a year and work for peace in their communities. She called for women to rise up and oppose war in all its forms; to come together across national lines, to recognize what we hold in common above what divides us, and commit to finding peaceful, non-violent resolutions to conflict. She pleaded, “We women of one country will be too tender to those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs ….The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”

Jesus, Jarvis and Howe recognized that we are all part of “a larger family than family sometimes seems,” as poet Miller Williams reminds us. We know this truth, but we forget it. The world tells us we are all separate, but this is a falsehood, an illusion. Williams’ poem dispels the falsehoods of humankind’s separateness and leads us to sacred truth when he calls us “to see – far down where the surface disappears – that all who carry their mother’s and father’s dreams, all those whose dreams are borne by their daughters and sons, were kin from the first word spoken, and still are. I want to believe,” he says, “that everyone knew this once. We came from the same soil. It circles a star.” As we begin on our ninth week of sheltering in place here in Illinois, we do so for ourselves, and for our neighbors; for front-line workers and those with compromised immune systems; for our sisters and brothers who all come from the same soil. Together we circle a star, and we’re all on this ride together.

And love is thicker than water. Amen.


May the road climb so precipitously
that you must slow down
to trudge up the hill of your challenges –
but you will know what they are
and avoid the sneaky detours.

May your face shine on those around you,
showing your honest feelings,
even all the awkward ones.
and may your tears fall easy as rain,
and shamelessly open,
so that griefs, fears and frustrations
water your life
rather than turning to corrosive salt
on the inside of you.

And may you know now and always —
when we are close
and when we are distant,
whether we meet again,
or take very different roads,
God is already and always holding you
in the great and gentle palm of love.
– Maren C. Tirabassi