“I am thirsty.”
In almost feels underwhelming statement, for someone who is being crucified. It reminds me of other times when the Bible seems to have a way of understating things. Like, after Jesus fasted for 40 days, it just says, he was hungry. Yeah, I imagine he was! And “I am thirsty,” is certainly not as dramatic as the saying from last Sunday: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
And I guess what I’m most struck by is simply that, “I am thirsty” is not really what you’d expect Jesus to say right before he dies. He’s enduring this agonizing death, and thirst was no doubt an extreme part of that — he would have lost a ton of bodily fluid through what he had endured even prior to crucifixion. But of all the different pains he’s experiencing, why the emphasis on thirst?
John tells us it’s to fulfill Scripture, and of course that’s part of it — John would have been conscious of writing to Jewish audience who still didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah, so showing how he fulfilled Scripture is important. But surely that’s not the only reason he says this.
It’s also kind of challenging as a verse in Scripture to focus on in a sermon because it’s not giving us a moral teaching. And it’s not a big claim about doctrine or theology either, at least not directly. On the surface it’s more of an existential cry about his physical condition.
But we know that John is always making use of symbols and metaphors and choosing words with layers of meaning. And Water and thirst are literary themes throughout the gospel of John.
In his conversation with the woman at the well in John chapter 4, Jesus talks about the difference between physical and spiritual thirst when he refers to the living water that he provide for us — the kind of water that quenches our thirst permanently.
As human beings, we have a spiritual thirst and longing for meaning and purpose, and significance in our lives. We want to be whole. We want there to be abundance in our lives.
In the story of the woman at the well, in her case, she had apparently been trying to satisfy that spiritual thirst through her relationships with the men her life, and she had made a total mess of things!
So there’s definitely a spiritual meaning to this idea of thirstiness, and I want to come back to that. But I think it’s also appropriate to stay with the literal and physical nature of his statement for at least a little while. Because sometimes we overlook it, and sometimes as Christians, especially in church, we rush to the spiritual, we focus on the spiritual — for obvious reasons — but we can do this to the neglect of the physical. Or more dangerously, we risk dividing the spiritual and the physical.
So here are three things I want to suggest to you that we can see from this statement about Jesus’s thirst:
- First, God is with us in the physical, and Jesus fully experiences it.
- Secondly, the spiritual and the physical are inseparable — they’re not the same, but neither are they separate.
- And third, that God through Christ on the cross, is reuniting the spiritual and the physical, and healing the false divide that gets put between them.
Since moving to Charleston almost two summers ago, we have not had drinking water in our house because we’re on a well. I mean the water’s fine, we use for everything else, but even when it’s filtered, it’s not quite up to the standard of what you want for drinking. So I go to the grocery store every week, because there’s a place to refill water jugs in the back of the store. And it’s pain, I’m so spoiled, but it saves money by not paying to have water delivered, and it’s super close to our house, so I have no reason to complain. But it’s like this small discipline in my life that reminds of my physical need for water that I would normally just take for granted — I can’t just turn on the faucet.
So again, it’s a small thing, but it’s a good practice, even though it’s pathetic as I get annoyed by having to do it, but it’s a reminder of this basic physical need and dependency in my life.
You know there are also these crazy statistics about water, and it’s hard to make sense of them unless you’re a chemist or something, but supposedly our bodies are made up of 60%-70%. Water really is our life source — that and oxygen, which are the two things that kill Jesus — his lack of oxygen and loss of water.
If anyone saw the movie, The Martian this past year, it’s a pretty visceral depictions of the severity of the physical world and the elements that we need to survive. It was originally a book, I’m told, which I’m sure was better than the movie like everybody always says. But in this movie, and this doesn’t give anything away, the main character Mark Watney played by Matt Damon, gets stranded on Mars, and has to survive on a limited amount of water for several years. He has some water, but he has to make more — he actually makes water! — not only to drink it, but to grow more food, because there’s no vegetation. He literally has to make water.
And I guess it just put in perspective how fragile life is on our planet, how much it depends on all of these incredibly fine-tuned conditions, like the availability of water, oxygen, the right temperature the right pressure.
We hang in this delicate balance between existence and non-existence, and it’s just incredible that life came to be and that there’s something rather than nothing. I know I’m getting all philosophical, but I think it’s appropriate. When Jesus says, I am thirsty, it’s a profound. Because as Christians, what we believe about that is, somehow, God can relate to thirsting. God enters it, blesses it. Calls it good.
Jesus subjects himself to frailty and dependency on something as specific as water and oxygen, on this one little planet, in this gigantic, vast, expansive universe, for this one tiny little span of time. This Christian story that we’re telling and believing in is extraordinary and so remarkable, I just think we have to stop and meditate on the gravity of it, for a minute. Letting ourselves be made to wonder, and be awed by it.
II. The second thing, the thirst of Jesus shows, is the inseparable link between the physical and spiritual. The physical and the spiritual are not the same, they are distinct, but they’re deeply connected.
“The Bible’s aim is not the freeing of the spirit from the world. It is the handbook of their interaction.” – Wendell Berry
The story of the Bible is one that tells of the relationship between God and humanity, the divine and the human, and how we through our physicality, and our bodies, our material existence, get to receive and to participate in God’s redemptive work.
In the late first century when the gospel of John was likely written, there had started to develop in its early stages of what would become a popular movement or school of thought called gnosticism.
Gnosticism took many forms, but at its root was essentially the idea that the body and the soul, or the material and the immaterial world are separate, and that the significance of the immaterial far outweighed the material. In fact, you could even say that in its most extreme forms, gnosticism held that the physical world was bad, and the spiritual world was good.
So in the worldview of some ancient Greeks during Jesus’s time, this was the assumption — They separated the physical and the spiritual, the bodily and the mental/intellect, and the physical world was almost like a trap that you needed to escape in order to find salvation — in order to be free.
And so what gnosticism tended to teach as well was that knowledge was the key to salvation. What you believed, in your mind, was more important, more lasting, than what you did with your body, you could say. For this reason, too, there were some people who were saying, for example, that Jesus couldn’t have actually had a body, because if he did, then he would be corruptible like the rest of us. This was a heresy called Docetism. The claim was that in fact, he actually only appeared to have a body, and that he was really just a spirit.
The gnostics also believed that God couldn’t suffer, so Jesus couldn’t be God! But the writer of the Gospel of John is saying exactly the opposite of that:
“The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” (John 1:14)
This is a staggering claim, really, that Christians make. It always has been. It’s the most distinguishing claim, I think. Because, if you look at other religions, both Jews and Muslims reject the idea that God could share in human nature, because that would go against God’s nature. On the other hand, Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, tend to say that God is not really God at all — not in a personal sense, and not in a way that distinguishes between the physical and spiritual. For them, the physical and the spiritual are virtually the same. Whereas, for us as Christians, we still want to make some distinction, and Jesus gives us the picture of that.
You know it’s a common thing for non-Christians to question how it is that Jesus as a human could also be divine — that God could be fully in him. And that’s an understandable question. It’s a question we try to wrestle with in the Alpha course each fall at Saint Peter’s. But what’s more surprising is not that non-Christians question Jesus’s divinity, but that Christians forget Jesus’s humanity.
We tend to at least subconsciously, maybe, assume that Jesus was like superman or something because he the power of God is in him, so that it wasn’t very hard for Jesus to do the things that he did or go through what he went through in his life — not just his death, but everything else as well, and the ordinary things that we all go through. But I think we risk misleading ourselves if we assume that.
You know in the letter to the Philippians in the Bible, the Apostle Paul writes that Jesus humbled and emptied himself of his glory, taking on the very form of a human being to be with us, to live on earth, and so on. Ok — he gives us the advantages of divinity without losing his shared nature with God, which is of course a very mysterious doctrine, but as Christians I think we need to try take it seriously!
The past two Sundays, I had the privilege of leading us in the celebration of communion for the first time. And here are some of the words from the liturgy that we’re using right now: that Jesus “was tempted in every way as we are — and he is ultimately able to resist those temptations — but not because he has special powers. I’m serious! It sounds shocking at first, for Christians especially, but I think it’s true.
This may sound kind of crazy to say, but we forget that Jesus is able to live the way he does by accessing the same resources that you and I have. Namely, through his dependency on the Holy Spirit, and his intimately close relationship with God the father. He lived so much in step, so much in tune with God, that he was able to do what he did.
III. Thirdly, God’s reunion and healing of the physical and spiritual divide. There’s a famous quote for early church history around the time that the Nicene Creed was written — toward the middle of the Fourth Century, by a church Father and theologian named Gregory of Nazianzus:
“What is not assumed, is not redeemed.”
When Gregory wrote this, he was still fighting the old Gnostic battle against those who were suggesting that Jesus might not have been fully human. But Jesus had to assume all that it meant to be human in order to redeem humanity. He had to take on the physical in order to redeem the physical. God in Christ covers the deepest and widest possible distance between the sin, darkness and horror of the cross and the beauty and glory and goodness of God.
Through Jesus, God is stepping into the world in the most complete way, touching and taking on everything that human beings go through, absorbing it into himself and, and transforming it, so that there’s no longer any separation between us and God — between the physical and the spiritual.
Here’s a final thought: When Jesus says, “I am thirsty,” the guards take it as a request for something to drink. In response, the soldiers gave Jesus “sour wine” (v. 29), a cheap wine that was commonly drank by the lower class at that time. It would not have quenched his thirst at all. It would have been bitter. Most scholars that John had in mind Psalm 69 when he wrote this, which says,
Their insults have broken my heart,
and I am in despair.
If only one person would show some pity;
if only one would turn and comfort me.
But instead, they give me poison for food;
they offer me sour wine for my thirst. (vv. 20-21)
It makes me wonder what this passage might means to people who thirst or who have to drink unclean water in the world. Water that’s more like poison. Water Mission International here in Charleston reports that 842,000 people die each year globally from diarrhea due to inadequate drinking water, sanitation, and hand-hygiene. That’s about 2300 per day. And 2.4 billion people are living with unclean water. That’s about 35% the world population.
So this is another part of what I think we can see happening in the death of Jesus. It’s the kind of sin that Jesus dies for, and he tastes its sting. No child who dies of preventable, waterborne disease is alone. Jesus suffers with them. He too says I am thirsty, and then is given this sour drink.
Or I even just think of the stories of suffering in our own church. People getting cancer, cancer coming back, parents facing infertility, those who’ve lost children — there is this pain and this thirst, that you have, and Jesus identifies with it.
TJ talked last week about sin and judgment, and the hope that we have because God is judging the world for all of its sin — the sin that leads to children dying of waterborne diseases, malnutrition, the sin that leads to people living in sexual slavery or being exploited for their cheap labor, as was talked about at the Illuminated event this past week.
Jesus suffers the consequences of our broken relationships with God and each other, the consequences of which are what send people to the cross. You see, God doesn’t crucify Jesus! We do. And he dies for our sake, even though we reject him.
There’s a spiritual thirst, and there’s a physical thirst — they both matter, they can’t be separated, and God in Christ heals the divide between them by embracing and fulfilling our thirst.
You know when the woman at the well asks Jesus about the water he says he can give her (John 4):
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
There’s this song that I know some of you will remember it from growing up in church. I’m not going to sing it, but it’s goes like this. I’m going to let it be the closing thought here. About thirst. About the source of life. And about the living water that Christ gives.
I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me. Makes the lame to walk and the blind to see. Opens prison doors, sets the captives free. I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me. Spring up oh well, oh my soul. Spring up oh well, and make me whole. Spring up oh well, and give to me, that life, abundantly!
Also published on Medium.