Last Words | I Thirst
“I Thirst ” – John 19.28
“I’m thirsty,” Jesus says. It’s his 5th saying from the cross, but it’s not the first time he’s asked for a drink.
“Give me a drink,” he had said some time earlier in John’s gospel, in chapter 4. He had been traveling. He was tired. The disciples had gone ahead to buy food, and Jesus waited for them by a well. It was around noon when a Samaritan woman came to draw water.
“Give me a drink,” Jesus had said to this woman – a statement to a Samaritan woman from a Jewish man, who crossed boundaries all along his way. Before long he told her he knew her, in so many words. He knew the details of her life, knew her fears, her secret shame, and by the time the exchange ended, she had heard from him about the water he could offer to a life like that. Living water. Water that wells up with eternal life. She had heard so much about it, that she dropped her own buckets, left the well and raced into her village to tell others about this living water. It turned out to be what others needed, too, and many came to believe because of her story.
I wonder how far a woman that passionate followed. Was she still with Jesus by the time he came to Jerusalem? Did she find her way to the hill outside the city that day? We don’t really know. We’re not given a complete list of those at the cross. We’re not told everyone who’s there and who’s not. But if she was there, I wonder what it looked like to this nameless Samaritan woman. If she heard about it later, I wonder what it sounded like to her.
He had once said to her, “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty…” but now he himself is thirsty once more.
“I’m thirsty,” he says. He says it loud enough for everyone to hear. So loud it’s echoed all the way down to us. This is not a passing line. Matthew, Mark and John all record the scene of bystanders passing a sponge of sour wine to Jesus. It appears in three tellings, from different angles with different emphases.
But for that Samaritan woman – or for any who had followed Jesus up to that point – it must have first been another reminder that he knew them. That’s what we remember as we hear it, isn’t it? Jesus, being in very nature God, knows fully what it’s like to be us. Of all the words of Jesus from the cross, this might be the one we understand the most. This fifth word from the cross is the most human of them all.
The cry of thirst is the first sound of a newborn baby. It’s the need of every mother after childbirth. And it follows from there. “Do you want something to drink?” we say to a child who scrapes her knee on the sidewalk playing outside in the first days of spring. We carry water with us on long trips, or amidst important meetings and moments. You know how vital it can be if you’ve ever had a frog in your throat or a mouth that has dried out when you’re trying to say something important. This thirst follows us all the days of our lives. And then at the end, water is sometimes all we can offer one another. Gardner Taylor – who is sometimes called the Dean of Black Preachers – used to say of those close to death – those whose struggling would soon be over, “She was so close to heaven, you could see the mist of the Jordan River on her face.” Water is not only the first thing for which we cry, it’s often the last thing for which we long – as any of you know if you’ve been beside the bed of a loved one, offering a damp cloth or a chip of ice.
No one heard Jesus shout “I’m hungry.” There’s no record of him saying, “I’m hurting” or “I’m weary” or “I’m in agony.” Because all of these are secondary to thirst in human need.
Of course, plenty of people don’t want their Savior – so elevated and powerful – to be found down amidst human need. At the time of the writing of the gospels, there were plenty who believed that God did not really become a human in the person of Jesus. Their story said that human flesh was evil, so God would not and could not become flesh and blood because the material and physical world was so inferior to the spiritual. It was a belief known as Docetism – from the Greek, “to seem” – meaning Jesus only seemed human. And sometimes we’re not so far removed from that point of view. Many espouse a practically docetic Christian story when they focus only on the power of God, as though a strong and immovable force is all we must appeal to and worship. Only a powerful God can save us.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer held a different view. Writing from prison in the midst of Nazi Germany, with conflict and destruction swirling about – Bonhoeffer once claimed that in a time like that, “Only a suffering God can help” (1) Only one who has known what it is to experience our most basic and urgent earthly needs can fully be alongside of us in our own pain and suffering. That’s what we hear when Jesus shouts out for us, “I thirst.” Maybe that’s why the Reformation preachers on the seven last words from the Cross called this fifth word of thirst a word of suffering.
In his book, The Wounded Healer, the priest and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen shares a story from Jewish literature:
A rabbi went to the prophet Elijah and said to him, “Tell me—when will the Messiah come?”
Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.”
“Where is he?” said the Rabbi.
“He’s sitting at the gates of the city,” said Elijah.
“But how will I know which one is he?”
The Prophet said, “He is sitting among the poor, covered with wounds…” (2)
See, to be wounded is to be one of us. To be thirsty is to be one of us.
Still, as Jesus cried out for thirst, those standing by must have remembered that it was not always this way. The Samaritan woman at the well was not the only one with memories of all that flowed from Jesus’ life.
I think about a young couple, their family friends and guests. If they followed to the cross and heard that cry they would have recalled a wedding just years before. When the wine ran dry, this inconspicuous wedding guest – the carpenter from Nazareth – had stepped out of the corner to turn water into wine – and not the sour wine, but the very best – announcing as he did the abundance that would flow from his life and ministry.
Others may have recalled the scene – earlier in John’s gospel in chapter 7 – when Jesus was in the middle of Jerusalem during the Festival of Booths, watched by the powerful who were already plotting against him and imagining his cross – still he stood boldly in the city center and cried, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”
And then, of course, there are still a few left who needed only think back a few hours. When they were gathered in that room, sharing what would be their last supper with him, he had handed them the cup of blessing and said, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for all of you and the many…”
His life had quenched so much for so many. But now the wine is sour. The spring of eternal water seems dry. That river of living water is reduced to a single drop. And the one who poured out so much for so many has only a moistened sponge from which to drink.
It’s so confounding. It’s so tragic for any standing there who had known him and seen him so full and overflowing. But then, look again. Look back at his life, because maybe we missed it. It’s not the first time he asked for a drink. Before ever arriving at the cross, Jesus was thirsty.
Jesus had always been thirsty. That thirst originated in eternity, with a decision to move from power to vulnerability.
Paul describes it in his hymn in Philippians: “Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but he emptied himself…” Empty. Longing. Thirsting. Imagining so much more that could yet be. Associating with those – the gospel of Matthew says – who are thirsty and need something to drink. Jesus had always been thirsty because so many of Christ’s people are thirsty.
I’m not sure I’ve ever been any more thirsty than I often was one summer spent in the mountains of West Virginia – where I worked as a part of a small team of college students that coordinated work projects and missions experiences for youth groups traveling from all over the United States. I was 18. So imagine my excitement when I was given an old pickup truck, a map, and free rein to explore the hills and hollers looking for potential work sites. I sat on a lot of porches, dodged a lot of dogs, and got stuck in more than one ditch.
I guess it was that youthful energy that led me on one particularly hot summer day to decide to bring water guns to one of our work sites. We had been there for the week, painting in the summer heat, building a great relationship with the family and the middle-aged man who were the homeowners. So on the last day, I showed up with water balloons and water pistols. A huge fight ensued, culminating in us pouring a cooler of water over the head of the group leader like he was Roy Williams (!).
But as we dried out, I noticed the owner of the home was growing unusually quiet. The otherwise outgoing man was sitting by himself. This continued, so I sat next to him on the porch, tried to feel him out until he finally told me, “I was just thinking about how different our lives are. Most of you kids don’t even realize this house doesn’t have running water.”
Jesus is thirsty because his people are thirsty.
We think of those people of Christ who walk miles to draw water, while others of us use on average some 99 gallons a day, plus another 250 gallons of unseen water that powers the electricity used by the average middle-class individual in the United States each day. (3) All the while, the person carrying buckets from the well could never imagine that some of us can use clean water in our toilets.
“That water’s dirty… don’t drink it you’ll get sick.” That’s what the school children have been saying in Flint, Michigan, pointing to the water fountains in their school that are now covered with black garbage bags. Meanwhile their parents and families live with the uncertainty about the Flint River’s “irreversible neurotoxins” said to be swimming in their children’s bloodstreams. And all in an area of our country whose population is largely poor and largely black. (4)
Amidst that kind of inequity and injustice, Jesus thirsts. Jesus is longing because his people are longing.
And we can dig a well, or send a case of Zephyrhills. But that’s not the deeper thirst of Christ or Christ’s people. The deeper and more important thirst is for that justice that is said to roll like mighty waters and the righteousness said to flow like a mighty stream. It’s a compassionate longing on behalf of the thirsty, the hungry, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the prisoner, and so many more that was so strong that Jesus himself joined them.
That’s why Jesus was thirsty from the beginning. He was emptied of all the power and glory that he could have claimed and exploited. That was the first step toward the cross – the emptying. The loving release of divine power. The embrace of human form. Before he ever came to the cross, Jesus was thirsty.
And it was ultimately his thirst that held him there. So many looked at his suffering and said “This one who had saved others, why won’t he save himself?,” not realizing that he would not have thought of saving himself, and that’s why others could be saved to begin with. They said “If you are the son of God, come down from there…” not realizing that staying there is what it meant to him to be the Son of God. So many look on this scene and think that his thirst would have prompted him to release the cross, not understanding that it’s his emptiness, his longing, his thirst that held him there, all to show us that God thirsts like this, hurts like this, longs like this, loves like this in a world so desperate for water.
I learned recently that this was the cry of Jesus that was heard by a nun in September of 1946. She was on a train ride through India, and something about what she saw caused her to experience, in a way she could never explain, Jesus’ thirst for love. This thirst took hold of her heart. It became the centering inspiration and the driving force of her life. And Mother Teresa went on to establish her ministry, The Missionaries of Charity, which has worked with compassion on every continent. And in each house of The Missionaries of Charity is a crucifix, and next to it are written two words: “I thirst.” Mother Teresa said all that she did she did out of love for Christ – in response to his love that she came to know in a powerful way through his words from the cross, “I thirst.” In all that she did, she hoped to quench his thirst. (5)
From that well in Samaria to this moment on the cross, Jesus’ life is defined by thirst. And we can hear the echo as he still calls out to those around him to satisfy it. Hearing of his thirst, that Samaritan woman and any of us who know him well need not reach for wine or water. We know he’s speaking of something far more eternal and lasting than any sponge can contain. Our repentance, our love, our own longing for what this world can yet be, and our willingness to commit our lives to the things for which he emptied his.
So, all of you who have followed this far, let us give him something to drink.
1. In Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 361.
2. From “Tractate Sanhedrin” quoted by Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, p. 82.