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A Good Friday Reflection on John 19:28-29: 'I Am Thirsty'

03/28/2013 11:41 am ET | Updated May 28, 2013
  • Rev. Peter M. Wallace Host of "Day1" radio program, Episcopal priest, and author of "The Passionate Jesus"

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), "I am thirsty." A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. -- John 19:28-29

When was the last time you were really thirsty? On a hot summer day hiking in the woods with a canteen near empty? On a beach sizzling under the sun, too relaxed to be bothered to grab a chilly, sweaty can of Coke Zero? Maybe you'll feel thirsty after a big Easter ham dinner, parched by the salty meat. But even in those times, it probably didn't require much effort to satisfy your thirst.

Can you remember a time you were dying for a sip of something wet? Do you know what it means to be thirsty? Really?

"All was now finished," the writer says, and Jesus knows it. He has been hanging in excruciating pain for nearly three hours now, and the end is here.

What was Jesus thirsting for?

Certainly for something simply to wet his parched lips, his gritty mouth, his dry throat. That's obvious. After the agony he has been enduring for hours now, Jesus is suffering bitter dehydration and blistering thirst. Just, please, something wet -- and yet this thirst seems such a minor thing in light of the fact that his whole wounded, lashed, pain-wracked body hangs heavily on the cross.

In the agony of his thirst, there is a jar full ... a sponge full ... of sour wine. That is wine gone bad. It is vinegar. Can you smell it? Can you taste it? The sharp scent and bracing taste must have stung Jesus, but the wetness offers just a moment of relief, bitter though it may be.

Jesus said, "I am thirsty," and the writer adds an editorial comment here: He said this in order to fulfill the scripture. But which scripture?

Was it Psalm 69, as many commentators suggest? The beleaguered psalmist cries out:

Save me, O God...

I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God....

Do not hide your face from your servant, for I am in distress--make haste to answer me.

Draw near to me, redeem me, set me free because of my enemies....

They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink....

Pour out your indignation upon them, and let your burning anger overtake them....

Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous.

It's a desperate, angry song, and it doesn't sound very much like Jesus to me. What happened to "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do"?

Maybe Jesus is thinking of Psalm 22, which starts with the line he cried out on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (v. 1)

The psalmist, and Jesus too perhaps, cries out "I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death" (Psalm 22:14-15).

There is no doubt that Jesus was experiencing the absolute worst physical pain imaginable. It was real: the 39 harsh lashes, the excruciating crown of thorns, the iron spikes driven through his hands and his feet, the sheer torture of hanging there for three hours, gasping for each breath.

But this means God knows the enormity of human pain -- even the pain we experience in illness, woundedness and heartbreak, because God became human flesh and felt that pain deeply on the cross.

And in the midst of that deep, desperate pain, Jesus expresses a simple reality: I am thirsty. He begs for something to soothe his dry mouth and loosen his tongue sticking to his jaws.

But what else was Jesus thirsting for?

Perhaps he thirsts for an end to his suffering. He knows that all is finished, and he yearns, he thirsts, for relief. He wants the pain to end. The sour wine is but a temporary fix, really no help at all. But in his thirst for relief, he reminds us of the need -- of the countless hungers and thirsts -- that surround us.

Do you remember when he taught his disciples, just a few days ago, about the reign of God in Matthew 25? He said...

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory ... All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats ... Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'... 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'" (vv. 21-36)

Jesus says, "When I was thirsty, you gave me a drink."

Mother Teresa had a sign placed above the entrance to the chapel in all her missions around the world. It read, "I thirst, I quench." Mother Teresa said she desired to "satiate the thirst of Jesus on the cross for the love of souls." When we offer a cup of cold water to those in need, we are giving water to Jesus on the cross, we are quenching his thirst. When we serve others in Jesus' name, when we are helping to quench human need, we are serving Jesus himself.

Perhaps as he yearns for an end to his suffering, Jesus seeks to remind those who will follow him to serve, to quench the thirst of the needy, for his sake.

What else was Jesus thirsting for?

Perhaps he was thirsty for renewed fellowship with his loving Father. Perhaps Jesus yearns for his resurrection, and his return to the Godhead in eternity, to experience again the sublime companionship of God the Father and the Holy Spirit.

And in light of that, maybe there's another psalm that gives spiritual sustenance to Jesus on the cross...

Psalm 63:1:

O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

Or perhaps Psalm 42:1-2:

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?

Jesus, at the end of his human life, yearns with every beaten, bloody fiber of his being to behold again the face of God.

So, on the cross, Jesus thirsts. He thirsts in a physical sense, surely, but just as surely in a spiritual sense.

As we come to the end of this long, dry season of penitence and reflection, what are you thirsting for? Are you thirsty for God? Does your dry, dusty spirit yearn for refreshment from God's hand?

Sometimes we get so distracted and exhausted by life that we don't even realize how thirsty we are. Years ago when my 11-year-old grandson was a 2-year-old toddler, I spent a warm summer afternoon with him. We took a long walk, he played outside on a neighborhood playground and ran around investigating every plant, leaf, rock and twig he could find. After a while I gave him a juice cup, and he grabbed it drank heartily nonstop for several minutes, gasping for breath in between gulps. He clearly hadn't realized how thirsty he was.

Spiritually, we often do something similar. We become so involved in the minutia of daily living that we don't realize how parched our soul really is -- until the Spirit grabs hold of us in some surprising way and offers the cleansing, cooling, renewing draft of the holy water of God's presence.

We can all identify with that Samaritan woman Jesus encountered one hot, dry noontime, as he stopped to rest by a well at Sychar, tired out by his journey, waiting for his disciples to return with lunch. The woman comes in the heat of the day to draw water from the well, and Jesus says, "Give me a drink."

The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" ... Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." ... He goes on to say, "Everyone who drinks of this water [from the well] will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." (John 4:9-14)

Living water. A spring of water gushing up to eternal life. If you are thirsty, even the least bit, for spiritual reality, Jesus invites you, welcomes you, yearns for you to come to the waters and drink up God's presence. This is what Jesus promises to those who thirst for his presence. And it is a promise that you can be sure he will fulfill.

John the Revelator caught a glimpse of this fulfilled promise in his vision of the new heaven and new earth in Revelation 21:3-7:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." And the one who was seated on the throne said ..."It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.

Jesus' ministry was launched with the supernatural creation of wine at a merry celebration in Cana. Large pots, full of the very best wine, miraculously fashioned from water, served to the surprised wedding guests. This was the wine of life.

His ministry ends with wine in a much crueler, darker setting. A jar full, a sponge full, of cheap, sour wine forced into his parched, dry mouth by a sponge at the end of a hyssop branch. This was the wine of death.

We remember Christ's life and his death with the wine of the Eucharist, his blood shed on the cross. Remembering him, honoring his deep, full, sacrificial love for us every time we drink it. This is the wine of love.

We thirst for that wine, that love. Like Jesus, we thirst for God's healing, restoring presence in our own pain-wracked lives. Our souls are parched and dry for it. God willingly quenches it -- abundantly, fully, now and forever.

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