Thirsting for the Next Level

September 6, 2019
John Silvanus Wilson Jr.
HDS alum John Silvanus Wilson Jr. Photo: Jeffrey Blackwell, Memorial Church

John Silvanus Wilson Jr., MTS '81 and senior advisor and strategist to the President of Harvard University, delivered the following remarks at Morning Prayers in Harvard's Memorial Church on September 6, 2019.


Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life. (John 4:13-14)

Good morning. The text clarifies a higher, next level of existence. But sometimes we need help getting there. Mine came one day from my grandmother, Ida Anita Nix.

Between finishing Morehouse College and starting graduate study here, I got a job on Martha’s Vineyard Island, and I stayed with her in her modest Oak Bluffs home. All that summer, I biked 16 miles up island to work a bakery cash register6 am to 4 pm. No easy ride.

One day I got home truly exhausted. I needed to eat, but nothing was in sight. Never big on food, Gram had mothered five, but retained an athletic frame. By her death in 2001 at age 99, she had spent a lifetime at her teenage weight and fitness.  For her, eating was not the point of living, it merely energized you for the point of livinga meal was a vehicle…never an event.

Yet, I relied on her cooking, because it was suicidal to rely on mine!

That day, I remember walking in saying, “Gram, I’m hungry!” 

Without even a backward glance from that couch, she said, “you’re not hungry!” 

I said, “no Gram, the ride was hard today…I’m hungry.” 

She said, “no, it’s not even logical for you to be hungry. You’re thirsty. Drink water.”

So, with a little attitude, I got a glass of water…waited a minute, looked over and said, “still hungry.” She said, “well, drink another one!” Frustrated, I poured and quietly moved to the table.

After a while she broke the silence saying, “most people don’t know a hunger signal from a thirst signal. They assume they’re hungry. They eat and literally make their bodies pull the needed water outta food, or draw it outta alcohol, or outta sugary drinks! They do that for years. They get big. They get sick…and die younger than they have to. They never listen!

She said, “drink water, son, because it’s easier to let your body to pull water…outta water.

The sooner you realize that, the better off you’ll be.

See, I knew I was hungry….but she therapeutically got me listening to my body like never before!

The woman in the text holds a deep, unmet need, too. Married 5 times. Quiet desperation.

As Gram did with me, Jesus bypasses what she thinks she wants…and essentially advises: 

Your approach to life will never quench your true thirst!”

Translated: you’re not hungry, you are unwittingly thirsty for something deeper…next level.

To go next level is to re-center…to elevate to our higher, deeper, better selves. Our truer selves.

The book of John’s theme is next level. It elevates us from light to true light (John 1:9). From a vine to a true vine (John 15;1); free to free indeed (John 8:36); born to born again (John 3:3)…and from water to living water (John 4:10)All next level!

Harvard University is now thirsting for her “next level!”

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Harvard’s first real diversity surge. When Dr. King was killed in April 1968, Harvard and most majority campuses had just admitted a class. So, in pangs of conscience, they spent a year recruiting in high schools they previously avoidedthereby giving those freshman classes of 1969 more color than they previously imagined.   

Fast forward. My office launched in 2018, as Harvard made this next level declaration:  “the intellectual fruits of our diversity do not harvest themselves!” So now, we’re on a pathway to help ensure that everybody at Harvard thrives…including those from groups previously excluded.

President Bacow said of diversity’s power, “we can’t achieve true excellence by sampling from only a fraction of the distribution of talent.” So, Harvard’s next level is a fully harvested diversity. 

It’s strange how anniversaries can have the power to remind and signal.

Last month marked the 400th anniversary of a ship docking in Virginia with 20 captured Africans. Their purchase plunged America to a level from which we’ve yet to fully elevate. Our next election, ironically held in 2020, the year of perfect vision, may just be our next-level chance to sharpen America’s vision—a chance to affirm that our true greatness is ahead of us, not behind us. Next level.

Finally, like Harvard and America, you can go next level, too.

Starting right now, you can use your time here to finally distinguish your untrue hunger from your true thirst! Imagine a campus culture that’ll incubate more of us to quench our every next level thirst…imagine being inspired to teach others, “you’re not hungry, you’re just next-level thirsty!”

And that’s our grander visionwe believe that if enough of you go next level, then Harvard will truly elevate, and then maybe America, and then maybe the world… And then…AMEN!

Let's bow our heads, close our eyes and pray:
Father, according to your will, usher us to a higher, deeper, truer place!
No matter our differences, usher each and every one of us to your next level…
Where we will finally know love more deeply…
Where we will finally know truth more undoubtedly…and life more abundantly…
Your next level, where we will finally never thirst again!