“I Thirst,” A Lent Reflection

Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.”

John 19:28

What follows is the text of a Lent Reflection I led at St. Andrew’s Methodist Church in Horsham on 6th April 2011. 

Last summer I was lucky enough to spend some time in western America. My friend Clive and I had three weeks driving through California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona. One of the places we visited was Death Valley, the hottest place on earth. We arrived at our hotel in Death Valley at about midnight, but even then, the heat was striking. When we climbed out of our air conditioned Jeep, we were immediately hit by a wave of intense heat.

The next day, whilst exploring Death Valley, the heat struck us even more. When we reached Badwater, we went for a short walk. I say short, it was no more than a few hundred yards across the surface of Badwater Basin, the lowest place in America. Just walking that short distance was quite painful. By the time we returned to our car we felt totally dehydrated and desperate for a bottle of water. I quickly became aware of how hard life must have been for the early pioneer settlers travelling across to the Pacific coast. There’s just no way that anyone can survive in those kind of conditions for very long without a supply of water.

We don’t often have the kind of weather in the UK where we can dehydrate so quickly. Jesus, however, living in Palestine, would have known exactly what it was like. In today’s verse, Jesus is clearly suffering. Hanging on a cross in the scorching middle eastern heat, on top of a hill, it’s really not surprising that Jesus calls out, “I thirst.”  Water is a basic human need, and here in this verse we see the humanity of Christ. He might be fully God, but he is also fully human. Like the rest of us, he needs water. Symptoms of severe dehydration can include:

  • Muscle spasms
  • Vomiting
  • Racing pulse
  • Dim vision
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Seizures
  • Chest and abdominal pain
  • Unconsciousness
  • Death

Jesus was not just losing water as a consequence of his exposure to the heat of the day, however.  He was also losing fluid through the wounds to his head caused by the crown of thorns, to his back from the scourging he had been subjected to, and to his feet caused by the nails that held him to the cross.

In psalm 69, the psalmist exclaims, “I am weary with my crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.” Earlier in John’s gospel Jesus applied words from this psalm to himself, and this lament is surely one that Jesus could have cried out. Nailed to the cross in intense pain he has become tired; the effort of crying out in pain has parched his throat, and he is waiting, waiting, to fulfil God’s plan and die, so that he might be raised again.

For Jesus, though, there was much more to this statement than simply needing a drink. In making this statement, I thirst, Jesus is fulfilling scripture. In psalm 22, the psalmist cries out , “my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust.” The Psalm speaks of God bringing the writer to the place of death, and Jesus, filling the plan of salvation that God has preordained finds himself in exactly the same place.

This is no accident. Jesus is consciously fulfilling the program the Father had set for him. This is affirmed in the verse we’re looking at today; John explains that he firmly believes that Jesus’ simple statement was intended to fulfil scripture. He adds, “Jesus, knowing that all was completed…” This links back to Jesus’ prayer in chapter 17 of John’s gospel, when Jesus declares: “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do” (17:4). Jesus has methodically gone through all that God required of him, and perfectly carried out the commission that God had assigned to him.

He might have been fulfilling God’s plan, but there is no doubt at all that Jesus’ body, exposed to the elements, was suffering intensely.

Throughout the Bible, and in the psalms in particular, we see another use of the word “thirst.” In psalm 42, the psalmist exclaims, “my soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” For the psalmist, a relationship with God is as necessary as water.  Water might quench a physical thirst, but in his mind there is only one thing that can quench a spiritual thirst: God.

This is an image picked up earlier in John’s gospel when Jesus meets the woman from Samaria at the well. Jesus tells the woman, “everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I give him will become in him a spring of water, welling up to eternal life.” Jesus quenches and satisfies the spiritual thirst that is in us all. We may try and satisfy our thirst in other ways, but it will only be quenched by a relationship with Christ.

Now, here on the cross, we see the one who offered living water, which would mean never thirsting again, crying out, ‘I thirst’. In a spiritual sense, just as humans all thirst for a relationship with God, he thirsts for a relationship with us. God wants a relationship with us so much that, even though we turn our backs on him, he sent his son to die in our place, to pay the price for our sin, so that we might once again be brought close to him. Even dying on the cross, Jesus feels that longing. When he cries out, “I thirst,” it isn’t just for a drink of water, but a statement of his love for us. He thirsts not just for water, but for us. He thirsts for a relationship with us.

Jesus was thinking of us on the cross. He was reaffirming his commission to die for us. Even the pain he was being subjected to did not cause him to doubt what he was doing. Jesus on the cross was thinking of us, of you and me, of everyone who knows him, and everyone he wants to know him.

Julian of Norwich wrote on this theme:

The same desire and thirst that he had upon the cross (which desire, longing and thirst, as to my sight, was in him from without beginning) the same hath he yet, and shall have unto the time that the last soul that shall be saved is come up into bliss. For as verily as there is property in God of truth and pity, so verily there is a property in God of thirst and longing… which is lasting in him as long as we be in need, drawing us up to his blessing… The longing and the ghostly thirst of Christ lasteth and shall last until Doomsday.

The thirst that Jesus felt on the cross is the thirst that God has felt ever since humans turned their backs on him in the Garden of Eden. He thirsts for a relationship with all of his people, and will do so until the end of this creation.

How do we respond to Jesus’ thirst? Do we turn our backs on him? Do we, as the soldiers did, offer him poison? Or do we affirm that yes, we want a relationship with him too.

As he thirsts for us, can we say that we thirst for him? Do we want to know him, love him, serve him, be with him? Can we say the words of Psalm 42 and really mean them?

“As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”

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