Have you ever been thirsty? I mean – REALLY thirsty? Most of us have never experienced real thirst. When we feel a little thirsty, we go to the refrigerator and fill a cup with cool filtered water through the door. Or we pour ourselves a nice cold glass of lemonade or iced tea. If we’re away from home, maybe we’ll find a soft drink machine or go through a drive-thru and order an ice-cold soda. And even if those aren’t available to us, usually there is at least a water fountain, or even a garden hose available.
The closest I have come to being desperately thirsty was one summer in Mexico. Back in the early 1980s, my sisters and I took a trip to Mexico with friends who traveled there nearly every year. We weren’t with a tour, so if we wanted to sight-see, we had to do it on our own. We were staying in the mountains of rural Mexico, and decided one day to take the public bus to visit one of the ancient ruins. We caught the bus in the cool of the morning for the hour-or-so ride to the area of the ruins. When we got off the bus, we were surprised that there was no development around that site. We gave ourselves a self-guided tour of the ruins, with my sister (who is a Spanish teacher) translating the signs.
It was a beautiful clear day, but as the morning turned into afternoon, the temperature began to climb – hotter and hotter. Of course, since we had assumed there would be shops or restaurants catering to tourists, we didn’t bring food or anything to drink. After hours sweating in the blazing Mexican sun, we were getting really thirsty, and beginning to feel a little faint. As we staggered back down the path to the road where we would wait to catch the bus back to town, we were getting a little desperate. What we wouldn’t have given for a drink of water – or even better, an ice-cold Coke!
As we turned the final curve in the path, we couldn’t believe our eyes: We felt a little like those pictures we sometimes see of a person crawling through the sands of the dessert, looking up and seeing a mirage of an oasis in the distance. There on the side of the road was what looked like an angel – well, not exactly an angel – but close to it. There was a man with a cart, selling – cold soft drinks!
We practically ran to where he had set up shop, and gladly paid whatever he asked, as we greedily gulped down that refreshing, rejuvenating elixir! I can still taste it! Maybe you have had a similar experience of being desperate for something to drink.
This morning, we are continuing our series as we consider the seven last words of Jesus as he hung on the cross. Today, we are reflecting on the fifth, and shortest of Jesus’ utterances: In his first word from the cross, Jesus speaks to his Father about forgiveness for his murders. Next, he shows compassion on the thief dying on the cross beside him by promising him eternal life in paradise. He then addresses his mother, seeing to her care. After that, he prays to God by quoting Psalm 22, as he cries out in agony. But now, for the first time, Jesus focuses on his own physical need, whispering, “I thirst.”
And thirsty he must have been. Consider his situation. According to the Gospels, the last time Jesus had had anything to drink was the evening before, during the Last Supper in the Upper Room with his disciples, as they shared their final meal. There (according to Matthew’s Gospel) Jesus had raised the cup and said, “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:28-29)
And apparently, according to the Gospels, Jesus didn’t drink again. Very late that night he was arrested. In the early morning he was interrogated by the Jewish leaders and then by Pilate. He had been ridiculed and terribly beaten by the soldiers. About 9 the next morning, he had been nailed to the cross. He had been offered wine mixed with myrrh to deaden the pain, but Jesus refused it. He hung there for hours as the day got hotter and hotter, bleeding, suffering, his body dehydrating. From midday till three in the afternoon, everything had gone dark as Jesus (bearing the world’s sin) suffered the agony of feeling separated from his Father.
Now in the final throws of death, Jesus’ nearly lifeless body screams for relief. So, for the first and only time, Jesus asks something for himself… something to relieve the suffering his body was enduring: Almost unable to form the words, Jesus croaks out: “I’m thirsty.” The Son of God Almighty, the second person of the Trinity, the One who came into a dying world to offer us an infinite supply of Living Water so that we might never be thirsty again, was reduced to pleading with his executioners for a drop of water to relieve his awful thirst.
When you stop to consider it, this might be the most surprising “word” to pass the parched lips of Jesus. All the other words seem grand and noble, statements of faith, or grace, or compassion. But then, Jesus says “I thirst.” Even though this seems to be the most mundane and practical of all the statements Jesus made from the cross, it still captures our imagination in a way that surprises us. There is something in these words that stir up conflicting emotions within us. It’s both comforting and disturbing to us to hear Jesus plead for something to drink.
Of course, it is comforting to realize that Jesus knows our pain and suffering. He knows our hurt, because he experienced hurt. He knows our struggles because he struggled. He knows our disappointments, because he experienced disappointments. And he knows our thirsting because he thirsted.
When we are going through times of physical agony, Jesus’ acknowledgment of his pain is reassuring to us. And when our bodies are failing and we are nearing death, it eases our struggle to know that Jesus passed through that “valley of the shadow of death” as well. Yes, to hear Jesus admit that he was thirsty is comforting to us.
And yet, there is something troubling about his words, as well. What is it about this word of Jesus that makes us uneasy? It’s disturbing because it calls into question our assumptions about Jesus as the Son of God.
If we’re honest, we have to confess that it makes us a little uncomfortable to see God begging as he dies such a humiliating death. We humans tend to prefer our gods to be divine – far above us mere mortals – sitting on Mt. Olympus somewhere acting as gods are supposed to act – almighty and impervious to the antics of humans down below. A god who suffers such humiliation and dies at the hands of those God had created can’t be much of a god. A desperately thirsty groveling god dying on a cross just doesn’t make any sense. As comforting as this word of Jesus may be to us when we are suffering, if the truth be known, you and I may secretly wish this “word” of Jesus had been left out of the Bible. Why does’ John choose to include this rather undignified word from the cross?
John probably included it because there were some of his contemporaries who claimed to be followers of Jesus who felt just that way. John’s Gospel was written quite late, the last of the four to be recorded. By that time, a competing Christian movement had developed that believed some very odd things about Jesus, and they were preaching their strange beliefs throughout the ancient world – teachings that struck at the heart of the Gospel which John and the other Apostles were preaching.
These Gnostic, as they were called, couldn’t accept the notion that God could suffer and die. They argued that, in Jesus, God only appeared to be human – that he was actually something like a phantom. In fact, some taught that when Jesus walked this earth, he didn’t leave any footprints. They went on to argue that a real God could never actually suffer, and since Jesus was God, that meant that Jesus never really suffered. Some said that Jesus went through the whole experience of the cross without any real pain. And, since a God couldn’t die, that Jesus didn’t actually die. There were other Gnostics who suggested that at the last minute, someone else was nailed to the cross, and died in Jesus’ place.
These Gnostics had to come up with these weird ideas because the cross of Jesus interfered with their notion of how a god should act. The crucifixion was a scandal they had to explain away. And when you think about it, the cross can be troubling for us, too.
Like those Gnostics, we want a God who is all-powerful, who knows how to throw his weight around – a God in full control, who can ride to our rescue on a white horse – a God that directs all the forces of nature and preordains the course of human events – a God who answers our all our prayers and fixes all our problems. We want a God who can live up to his own PR. In short, we want a God who acts like a god.
But then, we are confronted by a blood drenched cross, and the figure of God himself, with nails driven through his hands and feet, writhing in pain, imploring his killers to show mercy on him.
What kind of foolishness is this! What good is a thirsty, dying God on a cross?
In fact, it is precisely in this rash, reckless, irrational act of God bleeding on the cross that you and I get a glimpse of the glory of God.
In William Willimon’s book, Thank God it’s Friday, he writes this: “It’s God’s difference from our expectations for gods that makes God hidden to us. We are blinded to God on the cross by our assumption that if there were a true God, that God would be somewhere a long way from us, not here before us, naked, exposed, and on a cross. I’m saying that Jesus’ “I Thirst” is another way of revealing God’s utter self-giving availability to us.”1
It is because of his willingness to enter the pain and suffering of our world that he has won our love and devotion. It is in the way he models for us what it means to give of himself to us, that we begin to understand what it would mean for us to give of ourselves for others. In the cross of Christ, what at first we may see as evidence of the foolishness of God, is transformed into a revelation of God’s amazing grace and transforming love for you and for me. As Paul expressed it in First Corinthians (1:18,22-25)
18 “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
Yes, we want a God who acts like a god. But, instead, what we get is the incarnation – a God who came into the world, prepared to die, if that is what it took to show us just how much God loves us. In the incarnation, God emptied himself of his glory, coming into the world, to be born as one of us – to live our life – to make himself vulnerable to suffer at the hands of those he came to save – to die that our sins might be forgiven, and to offer us eternal life.
Yes, a thirsty dying Jesus withering away on a cross may seem to us to be ungod-like, but in reality, it is precisely in this moment when Jesus seems most human that we see the love of God shine through most brightly. Ironically, it is when Jesus whispers “I thirst” that we see him most divine.
But there’s an even more profound lesson to be taken from this word of Jesus spoken from the cross – and that is, that this One who knows our thirst is the very one who can quench our thirst! In John’s Gospel, water is always used in more than a physical sense – Every time Jesus mentions our thirst or the water that will satisfy us, he is using it as a metaphor for the spiritual hunger and thirst that gnaws at our souls.
Rev. Leo Douma, of Sydney Reformed Church, put it this way in one of his sermons:
“We have an empty spot inside that only God can fill. No matter what we do, nothing can fill that emptiness. The Psalmist picks up the point when he writes (42:1) ‘As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you O God… When can I go and meet with God?’ We know what the Psalmist is saying. 2
“When we look around us we see a thirsty world. We humans will do anything to satisfy that thirst. We run after mirages of money, alcohol, drugs, sex, power, relationships, and a thousand other imitations. We stand amazed at how the rich and famous seem to have everything yet nothing. Like the atheist billionaire who said ‘I would give away every dollar I have for a good night’s sleep’. St Augustine wrote long ago ‘Our soul is restless until it rests in thee O Lord’. 2
Jeremiah (2:13) records God’s feelings about our foolishness – the ways we try to satisfy our thirst for meaning: ‘They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that can not hold water’. [In his ministry] Jesus (John 7:37-38) stood up [one day] and said in a loud voice, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me… streams of living water will flow from within him’. [And to a woman tired of drawing water from Jacob’s well, Jesus offered to give her Living Water from a well that never will run dry.] 2
“Are you thirsty? In his sermon on the mount Jesus (Matthew 5:6) said ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.’ 2
“Are you thirsty? John, in describing heaven in the book of Revelation (7:16-17) writes: ‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water’. 2
[And] as if [to drive the] point [home], the Bible actually ends with John recording Jesus’ words (Revelation 22:17): ‘Whoever is thirsty, let him come, and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life’. 2
“Are you thirsty? Are you parched for God’s presence in your life? Have you been drinking out of the broken cisterns? Living water is available because the Son of God became as human as you and I,
[suffered for our sin]
and gave himself to death… [even death on the cross.] He thirsted desperately
[so that you and I might not have to]
“Every human being thirsts. The question Jesus asks from the cross is this: How long will you go on thirsting? You don’t need to.” 2 Ask Jesus to give you Living Water, and you will never be thirsty again.”
Lord Jesus as we ponder you suffering on the
Cross, we recall you crying, ‘I thirst’.
These words came from deep within your heart.
They are the words of a thirsty person
your body was without water,
your spirit was desolate,
but still your love embraced all.
Inspire us so that we may answer
the cry of others dying of both physical and spiritual thirst
as they ask for water,
Teach us to be generous and considerate
as I remember the millions
who cry at this very moment, ‘I thirst’.
May our hearts be so touched, that we will do
all in our power to provide those who ask,
a cup of water in your name.
Drink in God’s love. Let it fill you. Let it flow into every part of your life.
Let it spill out of you and splash upon your family and friends.
Offer them the drink that has changed your life…and mine.
Jesus: the real thirst quencher. Amen
1 Willimon, William. Thank God It’s Friday. Abingdon Press. c2006
Rev. Leo Douma, 16 March 2008. http://www.sydneyreformed.org.au/Sermons/200803/I_Thirst.pdf