Jesus draws near the end of his suffering, the grave a welcoming place: promise of refuge, of release and rest. The words used to describe his suffering beat upon our hearts and sear out minds: despised, denied, afflicted, stricken, stripped, forsaken, humbled, pierced, crushed, mocked, oppressed, poured out, bearer of sin.
Just before he gives himself over to the hands of God, he speaks these words: “I am thirsty.” (Marney)
The last capacity of the human person before giving themselves over to death, second only to the urge to breathe, is the capacity for thirst. (Wright)
As our loved ones lay dying, many of the final decisions we make for them concern hydration. As hydration is withdrawn or refused, the body rapidly deteriorates. Dry lips give way to mummified tongues and parched mouths. Often, a kind nurse will offer some swabs to clear out the mouth or to moisten the lips; an expression of tender care.
Even a person very near death will moan with relief, or try to wring the last drop of moisture out of a swab by contracting their mouth. Eventually, in the absence of water, life begins to ebb away; eyes become sunken, skin looses its elasticity; the pulse quickens, confusion rises; then lethargy, then death.
“Thirst,” wrote John Mogabgab, “signals the absence of something vital to our lives.” Urgent, insistent, it wells up from the deepest layers of our being.
We have known Jesus to be thirsty before. Early in his ministry, he sat down by a well and asked a person from the margins, a Samaritan woman, to give him something to drink. From the beginning of his public life, water and thirst have occupied his attention. A cup of water, offered in his name, points to the reality he brings to us from God: a heavenly place arises here on earth, drawing ever near.
By sharing his life; by surrendering to the same God of love, we experience refreshment, the quenching of thirst, the possibilities of new heaven and new earth; Eden—lush and fruitful garden—restored. (Marney)
Jesus spent his life in a dry and thirsty land. He knew that without water, great cracks emerge in the earth, wells run dry, sources of nourishment no longer flourish. He gave himself to us; he gave himself for us, a fountain of living water: that we might know the One who satisfies the thirst that wells up in us at the deepest level of our being.
We are thirsty! Our thirst arises from our desire for God.
It must confound Jesus how often we misunderstand our own longing. He has taught and lived with utmost clarity the way of our redeeming. When he speaks of the heart’s longing for God, using images of water and thirst, his meaning cannot be mistaken. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.” “Those who drink of the water I will give will never be thirsty, for the water I give will become in them a spring of water, gushing up into eternal life.”
And yet, in his last hours, those who surround him thirst after other things. Pilate, Judas, Annas, Caiaphus: what do they seek? It will not satisfy.
Jesus thirsts for the completeness of God’s reign come to earth. The work will have to go on in his absence. He cries out that we might remember the way he has shown us. God made us for God’s self. No lesser thing will satisfy.
Jesus thirsts for heaven. Raised in the synagogue, among people shaped by Psalms giving voice to the completeness and complexity of our human longing for God, Jesus knows what will quench his thirst. And it is not sour wine.
“As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?”
We take care not to over spiritualize the thirst of Jesus. His bruised, beaten, and battered body cries out for water. He has drained the cup that God has given him to drink.
His cry comes at the end of a long obedience. He who has stilled the storms and walked on the sea finds himself heart sick and soul dry: given over to death for the love of God; for the love of us.
He thirsts now for reunion. He thirsts now for heaven. He thirsts now for the face of his beloved Father. “It is finished.” (Taylor)
These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell
Weavings, Volume XV # 4, July/August, 2000
“Thirsty for God,” David Rensberger
“I Thirst,” Wendy Wright
“Editor’s Introduction,” John Mogabgab.
He Became Like Us: The Words of Identification, “I Thirst,” Carlyle Marney, Abingdon Press.
Home by Another Way, “Thirst for Heaven,” Barbara Brown Taylor, Cowley Publications, Cambridge, 1999.