Traditionally we count seven last words or sayings of Jesus spoken while being crucified on a cross. Three of those sayings are prayers – “My God, why have you forsaken me?”, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing” and “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” One of them is a promise spoken to a thief who is hanging on a cross next to him – “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Another are words spoken to his mother and the beloved disciple that established a new community when he said “woman behold your son; son behold your mother.” The sixth phrase is a statement which on the surface seems natural but upon deeper reflection has powerful implications.
Thirst is a natural part of our human existence. I have two grandsons and when you send them out to play they will go at for hours and have a blast, especially on a beautiful late spring/early summer day. But eventually they get to the point that they are thirsty – they need water or something to hydrate their bodies. It is the mechanism within us to replenish the moisture we need for our bodies to properly function.
But let’s take this a step further – we not only have a physical thirst, we also have a thirst that cannot be quenched with mere water. It is a thirst for meaning, purpose, contentment – it is a deep longing within our souls that requires satisfaction. It is a space that we try in a variety of ways to fill; a thirst that we strive to quench and it is usually with material possessions or physical pleasures. And yet we also discover that there is a well that we usually drink from but which cannot quench that burning thirst in our souls. It is the well of this world – of consumption, pleasure, and self.
In the middle 1600’s a French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer, and Christian philosopher named Blaise Pascal wrote these words:
“What else does this craving and this helplessness proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help. Since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”
Modern interpreters have rephrased Pascal’s words to describe a hole in our soul that only God can fill; the thirst that only God can quench. If this is true is it any wonder that our striving to quench our thirst with all the wrong things leaves us parched, dry? But like runners after a long race or people who have walked a long distance over dry, arid lands we continue to drink from a fountain that may temporarily quench our thirst but will not eternally.
So what does it mean for Jesus to say “I am thirsty”?
First a little background on the gospel narratives about the crucifixion. All four gospels note that Jesus is offered something to drink during the crucifixion process. Matthew and Mark state that Jesus was offered something to drink upon arrival at Golgotha but before he is nailed to the cross. The women disciples offer him a wine mixed with gall or myrrh and one thought is that the wine mixed with one of these two would actually ease the pain and suffering of Jesus. The women attempted to ease Jesus pain on the cross but the gospel of Matthew adds that once Jesus had tasted the drink, he refused to anymore of it. Matthew and Mark also record a second moment that Jesus is offered wine – after the cry of dereliction when Jesus asks God why He has abandoned him – someone at the cross went over and dipped a sponge in sour wine, put the sponge on a stick but the drink bearer was stopped short. Some in the crowd thought that Jesus was actually calling out for Elijah the prophet and so they wanted to see if Elijah would come; Jesus never received the sour wine in Matthew or Mark. Luke’s account continues his theme of mockery with the Roman soldiers drinking a distilled vinegar wine, a cheap wine and offering perhaps a toast to Jesus who was the “king of the Jews.” In their mockery a cup of wine is lifted up to Jesus but never delivered to his lips; his physical thirst continues. The gospel of John approaches this moment simply and in a straightforward way. Jesus proclaims his thirst, is offered wine from a sponge that is held up by a stick and Jesus simply tastes it. All four accounts speak of the physical actions around the cross dealing with thirst and drink but it still leaves me wondering what Jesus meant. Is there something deeper in his statement?
There are a few differing interpretations regarding what Jesus meant by these words. First is the explanation that John is addressing a heresy of his day. Greek Docetism was on the rise during the author’s time and they believed that god’s could not take on physical form. Jesus may have appeared to be human but he was pure spirit being. Therefore a spirit being could not suffer, be thirsty, or die. The proclamation “I am thirsty” is John’s way of showing that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine. A second view is that Jesus’ statement signifies that the cup from which he was to drink (the cup as the figurative sign of God’s mission and purpose for Jesus) was now completely consumed. Nothing else could be offered – all that Jesus had to give was given; he was empty. A third way of looking at these words draws us to reflect on Matthew 25:31-46. Jesus told his disciples to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and provide drink to those who are thirsty. That when we do that, they would also serve the Lord himself. Jesus proclamation of thirst is a reminder to serve – serve those who thirst and you will provide Jesus a drink as well. These are all legitimate ways of looking at Jesus’ words from the cross but the interpretation that I want to go with is the one where Jesus speaks on behalf of humanity and divinity.
All of us desire for the hole in our soul to be filled; the thirst that we have to be quenched eternally. Jesus speaks on our behalf for he also desires in that moment for reunion with the Father. And Jesus speaks on behalf of divinity. The mission and purpose of God has been and continues to be to at-one-ment. God’s desire is to be our quenching fountain – “I am thirsty” is God’s statement of longing for us. Simply put, I believe that God thirst for us – to have a deep and abiding relationship of love, trust and reliance. If only we would partake of the waters that God offers to us through Jesus Christ – the promise is that we would thirst no longer. So how might that be a reality in our lives?
Retired United Methodist Bishop William Willimon in his book “Thank God it’s Friday” put it this way:
“To thirst in Scripture is to yearn, to long for, to be desperate with desire. Jesus, in the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, blessed a sort of holy desperation. ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.'” (Matthew 5:6)
I believe Willimon is suggesting that a pursuit of God’s righteousness will quench that nagging thirst within; it will fill the hole in our souls. For our community of faith I have used the following as our model for pursuit of God’s righteousness.
First is knowing God – accepting God’s offering of love and forgiveness as redemptive for our lives. His self-sacrificing love makes it possible for you and me to know God as redeemer and sustainer.
Second is the daily process of learning about God – since no thirst is quenched with just one drink, we know that it is an ongoing process until death. Learning about God is a life-long journey of reading God’s story, reflecting upon the wisdom of the patriarchs and saints as well as investigating modern thought, interpretation and application. This daily drink will begin to quench our thirst with more and more of God’s soul satisfying righteousness.
Finally, there is the invitation to serve those who are thirsty – physically and spiritually because serving them is serving the Lord.
So are you thirsty today? Do you long to drink from a fountain that will ultimately satisfy or are you content with just drinking from the well that will never meet your soul needs? Jesus speaks for both God and you; in Jesus Christ our mutual needs can be met; God can provide “living water” that will quench the thirst in your soul – come and let us together drink with the Lord.
Blessings for the journey.