March 10, 2024

John 19:28-29

“We Thirst”

I am finding it very interesting, during this Season of Lent, to delve deeply into the words Jesus spoke from the cross. Between the various accounts in the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, there are seven phrases uttered by our Lord during the final minutes, or perhaps hours, of his life.

Participants in the Lenten study groups continue to raise good questions and share helpful ideas as we ponder together the meaning and significance of each phrase for us today. And, in line with the title of the Lenten study, we have been considering how we might “practice” Jesus’ seven last words. In other words, how might Jesus’ words impact the way we think and change the way we live as his followers in the world today?

As the Fourth Evangelist tells the story, after Jesus had encouraged his beloved disciple John and his mother Mary to look after each other like family after he died, the next thing he said was “I am thirsty.” And folks nearby responded by giving him a drink.

Although that seems simple enough, I found that the biblical scholars have lots of ideas about what it might have meant. For example, you may have noticed in the reading that the Gospel writer adds a detail. He writes, In order to fulfill the scripture, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.”

It’s easy to miss that line, and in many translations it’s in brackets like a kind of footnote to the main text. But what it seems to suggest is that Jesus didn’t say he was thirsty because his mouth was dry, but in order to fulfill a prophecy about the one who was coming to be the Saviour of the people.

The likely text being referred to comes from Psalm 69. It’s in the middle of a Psalm of Lament like the ones we were talking about last Sunday. And in it, the faithful servant of God is being rejected, insulted, and injured by his enemies. In verse 21 he says that his enemies “gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”

So in our Gospel, as Jesus suffers from insult, injury, and rejection by the human community, he asks for a drink to quench his thirst and he is given vinegar. Some translations say, “sour wine” and others say, “wine vinegar,” but it sounds like something that would not taste very pleasant or really quench his thirst.

Commentators also suggest that when Jesus says, “I am thirsty” he may be indicating that he is willingly accepting his death which is going to happen very soon. They remind us of that moment when Jesus was about to be arrested and Peter drew his sword, attempting to stop the arrest. Jesus told Peter to put his sword away, saying “Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?”

So, here on the cross, when Jesus says, “I am thirsty,” the Gospel writer may be telling us that he is accepting the cup, the bitter drink, the wine vinegar – all metaphors for his suffering and death, which will ultimately lead to all people coming to know God’s love and being drawn towards God’s loving embrace.

I think that’s a fairly accurate representation of the theology of the Gospel of John, which was the last of the Gospels to be written around the end of the 1st century. John’s Gospel has a very high Christology, an understanding of Jesus as fully divine and not nearly as fully human as some of the other Gospels portray him.

But when we talked about Jesus’ declaration of thirst in our Lenten study groups this week, folks may have found these theological connections and theories interesting, but I don’t think they generally found them convincing. Instead, they said, “Okay, but what if Jesus was just actually feeling desperately thirsty? I mean, he was hanging up there in the heat, and he was probably losing blood, and he was trying to talk even as his life was ebbing away.”

It reminds me of times when I’ve been present with someone who is the last stages of palliative. After they have stopped eating and drinking, their mouths tend to get very dry and uncomfortable. Family members and friends usually make use of the little sponges on sticks that they provide in hospitals, wetting them with some cool water, and giving their loved one an occasional drink when needed. It’s a simple act of comfort and care at the end of life.

When Jesus said, “I am thirsty,” people nearby used a much longer stick with a sponge on the end of it, and they reached up and gave him a drink of sour wine. My initial thought, that wine vinegar would have done him more harm than good, was challenged when I learned that it was usual at crucifixions to have some wine mixed with gall nearby. I don’t know exactly what gall consisted of, but apparently it worked as a bit of an anesthetic, easing the pain of those suffering on their crosses. Perhaps this too was a simple act of comfort and care at the end of life.

Connie Vissers, the author of our Lenten Devotional Study, suggests that having needs may be among the most difficult parts of being human. She says that “In God choosing to become a person, living, walking, breathing among us, God chose to have needs – all human needs (food, water, shelter, physical activity, etc.)

When Jesus said, “I am thirsty,” it pointed to the full humanity of Jesus, the suffering that God underwent in human form. And the implications of this are huge for our theology – believing in the full divinity and the full humanity of Jesus.

“Yet the implications are also significant for our humanity. What does it mean for us to have needs and live into that reality? It should affect every area of life: how we purchase things, how we consume, how we take, how we eat, and how we share. We should also remember that we have much to share with those who lack much.”

As much as our society values independence and self-sufficiency, the reality is that as human beings we are in this together, and we are supposed to take care of each other. We know that’s true when we welcome a tiny, vulnerable, human child into the world and take up our responsibility to care for and nurture that new life.

We know that’s true when our loved ones get older, become more frail, and eventually near the end of life. It makes sense to us that we must be there for each other, even if we sometimes struggle to meet the needs of every person who needs the support of family, friends, and community.

In our study groups this week, we reminded each other (and I want to remind you as well) that each of us has needs – not only physiological and safety needs, but also needs for love and belonging, needs for education and freedom and esteem, and for opportunities to live out meaningful and purposeful lives.

God doesn’t just want us to be alive, but God wants us to have fullness of life, abundant lives. And when we are suffering or struggling with unmet needs, it is okay to ask… to say, “I am thirsty. I am lonely. I am lost. I need help.”

The Christian community is intended to be a place where we can ask for the help we need without fear of rejection or ridicule, and where we can learn together how to respond to one another in love.

Meanwhile, we know that there are many people in the world who are suffering as Jesus did from injustice, violence, hunger, and thirst.

Here in Regina, we know that many people are hungry on a regular basis because their incomes from work or social assistance are simply not enough to pay their bills and meet their other basic needs. Our contributions to food programs and other supports, as well as our advocacy for living wages, basic incomes, and affordable housing are some of the ways that we are called to respond to the needs of our neighbours.

Further away, we are well aware of the needs of people in war-torn countries including Ukraine, Haiti, Gaza, and other places featured less often in the news. Over the last several weeks, many of the stories we are hearing from Gaza concern the immense difficulty of getting food, water, and other basic supplies to millions of Palestinians who have been displaced and cut off by the Israel-Hamas war that is raging around them.

Last week there were horrifying reports of what was named the “Flour Massacre” in which Israeli tanks fired at a group of starving Palestinians crowded around a truck carrying sacks of flour and other food supplies. It resulted in the deaths of over 100 Palestinians and 700 others were wounded.

There were disagreements in the reporting as to whether most of the people were injured by the gunfire or whether they were crushed in the resulting stampede. But when we hear other reports about how many Palestinian children are dying from malnutrition, it’s not difficult to understand the underlying problem. The people are in terrible need. They are crying out for help, even as their lives are ebbing away.

I don’t understand the politics enough to say anything really profound about how the long history of conflict and land-claims in the region could be helpfully resolved. But I do know that the human community needs to do something to stop the bombing, to help the people, to feed the children, and to quench their thirst.

On the All-Ages Colouring Sheets from Illustrated Ministry that I put out for you this morning in the narthex, the artist has included Jesus’ words “I am thirsty,” along with the words “water,” “connection,” and “justice.” I think the suggestion is that when Jesus said, “I am thirsty,” he might not have been only referring to his physical need for water.

Perhaps he was also telling us that as a human person like us, he needed water for the health of his body, he longed for connection to others for the health of his spirit, and he cried out for justice in the world, so that all people would have their needs filled and experience the fullness of life that God intends for us all.

Let us pray with Jesus, that it may be so.