Mary, Jesus’ mother, is at the foot of the cross, pebbles puncturing her bended knees. The noonday sun has parched Golgotha, the place of skulls, bleaching the makeshift sign reading, “King of the Jews.” The salty streams of Mary’s tears cut valleys into her dust-dried face mimicking the bleeding brow of Jesus as the embedded thorns chase the rivers of blood down his cheeks and onto the scorched earth.
The first time we saw Mary in John’s Gospel, at the wedding at Cana, she exasperatingly pointed out to Jesus that the wine had run out. “Do something Jesus! The people are thirsty. Give them something to drink!” So, Jesus took the stale and undrinkable water and transformed it into good wine, into the best wine, so that human thirst was quenched and the party could continue. And now, on the cross, the Living Water, the human spring of eternal life is transformed into the rich wine of God’s love. Our celebration can continue.
During the season of Lent, we have explored the seven last words of Jesus from the cross. And these are well-worn texts that we must continue to mine for even more nuggets of truth, one more clue to the eternal purposes of God, one more glimpse into God’s incarnate life lived among us. And today we will focus on the fifth word, “I thirst.” And it is such a short statement. In fact, it is the shortest of all of Jesus’ sayings from the cross because in the Greek it is just one word: Dipsao. “I thirst.” What more can possibly be said about this last word, much less put it in a 15-minute sermon? Preachers have gone to great lengths to draw out the meaning of “I thirst,” and perhaps we have all felt that dryness in our mouths as we sit and hear this theme expounded upon. But, as I was thinking about today’s last word for this Lenten Sunday, I found myself focusing more on the word “I” rather than the word “thirst.” I thirst.
So, who is this “I?” What is the meaning of this “I?” I thirst says something more than “thirstiness happens.” It is specific. It is personal. It is not spoken here in the passive voice. Jesus was not even saying that something “made him thirsty,” or that he wanted something to quench his thirst. There was a very clear and definite subject of this short sentence, and it is the present and personal “I.”
What makes this short sentence so powerful is not so much the parched throat of a suffering person, as it is the “I.” This “I” jumped out and grabbed me because Jesus, the one the crowds only days before had hailed as their king, is thirsty. Jesus, the one confessed by his disciples as the Christ, is thirsty. Jesus, the one who turned water into wine so that there would be plenty more to drink at the wedding feast, is thirsty. Jesus, the one who offered living water to the woman at the well, is thirsty. The very one who had the power to quench the thirst in others is now thirsty himself. Thirst is a very human thing.
So, why would Jesus be thirsty? For me, it can only be about one thing: compassion. In Latin, cum and passio, mean “suffering” and “with.” During this whole series in Lent, we’ve talked about Jesus experiencing the same feelings and the same pain that all of us experience on a daily basis. He experienced loneliness, desperation, pain, and he suffered with us. But we see in this word for today, “I thirst,” that his very human experience of being thirsty helped Jesus experience the humanity of his followers. He felt the isolation of the woman at the well, helping him to reveal himself to her as the Living Water. He felt the frustration of the party-goers as the wine ran out and as he knew his essence would be poured out for the healing of the world. He felt the utter need of those who had followed him, the Healing Spring, wanting just a simple sip of cold water. Jesus had compassion, he suffered just as you and I suffer.
For more than a decade, members of the interfaith humanitarian group No More Deaths have been placing food, clothing, and jugs of water in the Sonoran Desert to aid migrants who have crossed into Arizona from Mexico. According to the organization their goal is simple: to prevent migrants from dying in the desert. Between 1999 and 2018, more than 3,000 migrants perished while trying to make the dangerous crossing. The Christian Century recently published an article about four women from this group who are following Jesus’ command to aid those who are thirsty:
“In the Bible, giving water to all those who thirst is a sign of God’s compassion. ‘Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters,’ declares the prophet Isaiah, describing the invitation of God. In the Gospel of Matthew, giving water to the thirsty is one of Jesus’ commands to his disciples, and it is an explicit way of serving Jesus himself. The volunteers of No More Deaths were not only following Jesus’ directive. By making their own risky journey into the desert, they were imitating the logic of the incarnation: in Jesus, God seeks out those who are thirsty and in need.”
Jesus was like us and we are like him in our thirst. Yet, I can’t even begin to imagine the thirst that Jesus experienced on the cross. I would’ve been complaining and frustrated and whining about my thirst. And what’s interesting to me is that we aren’t really used to hearing Jesus complain, even a little bit. He didn’t complain about a single lash from the whip, he didn’t complain at the jeers of the crowds screaming “crucify him,” and he didn’t complain at the pounding of nails in his wrists and feet. Yet, scorched in the mid-day sun for six hours, Jesus was thirsty! The one who distributed his life-giving water to those who needed a drink and wine to those who were celebrating… Jesus was thirsty! The Living Water was thirsty! The wine, who was poured out for the sins of many, was thirsty!
Everyone has been thirsty. We all know what it’s like. I think most of us tend to underestimate thirst. Usually we think that it’s something that’s not too bad, because in our lives we’ve never really experienced unsatisfied thirst. Well, I got a glimpse into unsatisfied thirst when I had an appendicitis almost a decade ago. There are many things I remember about that experience. I remember the pain. I remember as I was admitted to the hospital they were taking me up to a room in a wheelchair and you know there’s a little bump as you enter and exit the elevator. I remember those bumps. I remember the pain being so bad that I began to sweat and think to myself that I just wanted relief, any relief.
But strange as it may seem, those weren’t the most horrible memories of my ordeal. My most horrible memory was one of thirst. I was admitted to the hospital around 2:00am in the morning and because they knew I was going to have abdominal surgery, they wouldn’t give me any water – not even a sip, not even an ice chip. At times my thirst was unbearable. It was worse than the pain. I remember thinking that I would give everything I owned for a sip of water. It was like going through hell!
This agony of thirst was not out of the ordinary in the Bible, though. We see in other biblical stories extreme thirst being compared to the torments of hell. In Luke 16:24, the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, the request that the rich man had when he found himself in hell, in agony, had to do with thirst. He called out, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.” Thus, it seems likely that in complaining of thirst on the cross Jesus was undergoing the pains of hell…for us. On the cross, Jesus experienced the hell of being abandoned by God, the hell of emptiness, the hell of unfulfilled longing, the hell and misery of being totally and utterly unsatisfied. Jesus was thirsty. Jesus was thirsty for us. Jesus endured the pangs of hell for us. Oh, if he could have had but just a drop of water to cool his physical and spiritual thirst.
But for us, “I am thirsty” is such a simple statement. How many of us make this statement at some point during each day? Amanda drinks water nonstop and she has passed that trait along to our daughters. I can bank on the fact that they will fill their water cups before bed and on many nights I will hear them get up and get water at least once before daylight. It is a primal and basic instinct for us to be thirsty. So, with this statement of thirst, Jesus acknowledged that a very basic human need was not being met for him as he neared his final moments.
For Jesus, opposite of us, “I am thirsty” is a more complex statement. Why would this one, who had met the physical and spiritual needs of people throughout his ministry, why would he be thirsty now? Well, Jerusalem was a harsh, hot, dusty place and Jesus had just endured many grueling hours of political wrangling and physical torture. With blood and sweat staining his body, can’t you just hear him say, “I am thirsty?” This statement was complex for Jesus because throughout the gospel, Jesus provided abundantly for those who hungered and thirsted. Jesus not only provided for the physical needs of those who came to him, but he offered spiritual nourishment and spiritual satiation – nourishment and satiation that would not go away or need to be replenished.
And he proclaimed this spiritual nourishment deep into his final moments while hanging, dying on a cross: “I am thirsty. But I am sent to be your source of living water. I am thirsty. But believe in me, hanging here, suffering deep pain, and receive the spring of water gushing up to eternal life. I am thirsty. But this thirst, like all of my life, points beyond me to the one who sent me – the very God who acts to save us all, to refresh us all.”
So, why was it important for Jesus to drink? It was not like he drank enough to satisfy what must have been moderate to severe dehydration from loss of blood, exposure to the elements, and the necessity of gasping for breath through his mouth. He drank only enough to moisten his parched throat so that his last words of triumph might be heard echoing across the hilltop of Golgotha. It was near the end of Jesus’ human life. He sensed it. He had hung on the cross for six hours. It had become hard for Jesus to even get a breath. Hung from his arms, he had to pull himself up each time he wanted to breathe. His shoulders ached. His mouth was parched. He was exhausted. He was summoning himself to bring it all to completion.
Jesus was about to speak his most important words from the cross. He was about to say, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” He was about to shout out, “It is finished!” He wanted to say those words loudly. He wanted to say those words clearly. He wanted everyone to know what he was about to say. So, first he needed to say the words “I thirst.”
That’s why moving through these last words of Jesus on the cross this Lenten season is so important. It is because we need to hear the moistened mouth of Jesus cry out again, “It is finished!” And today, we still need Jesus to take that drink. We still need Jesus to announce to the world the effects of his work for us. We still need Jesus to say, “I thirst… for you.”
I think Mother Theresa said it best as she described Jesus’ thirst for us:
“I thirst for you. Yes, that is the only way to even begin to describe my love for you: I THIRST FOR YOU. I thirst to love you and to be loved by you - that is how precious you are to me. I THIRST FOR YOU. Come to me, and I will fill your heart and heal your wounds. I will make you a new creation, and give you peace, even in all your trials. I THIRST FOR YOU. You must never doubt my mercy, my acceptance of you, my desire to forgive, my longing to bless you and live my life in you. I THIRST FOR YOU. If you feel unimportant in the eyes of the world, that matters not at all. For me, there is no one any more important in the entire world than you. I THIRST FOR YOU. Open to me, come to me, thirst for me, give me your life - and I will prove to you how important you are to my Heart.”
“I am thirsty!” Today, to listen to Jesus’ last words, we are called to be thirsty for God. Jesus calls out for us to stop looking for nourishment from the things of this world. He calls out for us to stop looking for salvation to spring forth from our jobs, our recreation, our entertainment, or our relationships with people. Instead he calls out with wetted lips for us to come… to come to him, so that he may offer us springs of living water that will refresh us not for a moment, but forever. “I thirst… for you.”