In John’s gospel, Jesus rarely does anything that does not point to something else. He rarely says anything that does not contain a mysterious truth you’ll miss if you take it literally. And no one does anything to him that he does not first sense or foresee and, for some greater good or glory, permit. In John’s gospel, Jesus is aware, in charge, and everything is shot through with second meaning. And now John wants us to know that even on the cross, Jesus is still in serene possession of himself.
And yet, like any other human being who has been hung out to dry in the heat of the day, a very ordinary Jesus says, “I am thirsty.”
Our evangelist is quick to editorialize. You need to understand—Jesus said this so that the scriptures would be fulfilled. Which ones? John doesn’t say.
Perhaps it was Psalm 69, in which the suffering singer complains to God about the consequences of a single-minded faithfulness that has consumed him all his life:
I am worn out with weeping;
my throat is parched…
I looked for pity but there was none;
for comforters, but found none…
For my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
Or perhaps Jesus is praying Psalm 22, past the appalling opening phrase – “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” – and on into the poet’s description of the awful effects of that abandonment:
I am poured out like water;
my heart is like wax melted within my breast,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my mouth is dried up
and my tongue sticks to my jaws.
Or maybe it is Psalm 63, the song of a man desperately in love with God who is soon to be reunited with the source of his passion:
O God, you are my God,
my soul thirsts for you
as in a dry and weary land,
parched, lifeless, and without water.
John’s Jesus is not so self-possessed as to be a stranger to thirst. He has his own. And he always noticed other people’s. His first sign was performed on behalf of wedding guests who had made short work of the wine provided by their host. Some thirsts surprise even the most careful providers, and Jesus, seeing what sort of drink was needed, laid in a supply that was more than anyone could have asked for. And he gave it to guests who were unworthy of it, who by the time they took their first taste of it probably could not even tell the difference.
But he was always doing things like that. John tells us that on the last day of the festival of Booths, he loudly invited “anyone who is thirsty” to drink his living water. Now, no one who ever lived has not thirsted for the kind of refreshment he offers. So that’s a lot of water to give away. It could drain you, it could dry you up.
So you have to wonder whether Jesus’ cry on the cross had something to do with the effects of a life-long giveaway – maybe all the water he had in his soul, all the refreshment that was reservoired in his flesh and bone, in his every healing gesture and merciful word – the deep divine wells of worth and mercy he drew upon – maybe it was almost all used up, the last little eddy of it exhausted by some parched person, maybe even an enemy. Yes, it was surely an enemy who got the last drop.
Maybe the gauge had been dropping fast long before he was hoisted onto the tree. Remember that just three weeks ago in the liturgy, we read a story about thirst and emptiness and water. Jesus, thirsty in the noonday sun, goes into enemy territory, sits down at Jacob’s well and asks a woman for a drink. They start a conversation – John’s favorite kind, full of irony and revelation — until finally he gives her water, even though he has no bucket and the well is deep.
But through all that conversation and the dashing into town and back again that follows it, I can’t find it said anywhere that the hot Jesus ever got the drink he came for in the first place. And he really needed that drink.
Maybe this is what lies behind Jesus’ cry from the cross – that drink he really needed and never got. Maybe a drink of water, plain and simple, is all he’s ever wanted. Maybe it’s all he wants even now, all he will ever desire – and maybe one of us, maybe all of us together should be the ones to serve the drink he never got to this dried-up, dying scarecrow with a thirst so strong it compelled him past the age-old gates of fear into death itself.
The church, alas, is a great sinner. Always has been. Always will be. The only task Jesus ever gave us is that we give away the clean water that was entrusted to us – justice and mercy, clarity, refreshment, exquisite care for the least. Yet generation after generation we have always found the brazen nerve to worry about there being enough water; we have had the temerity to parcel it out looking over our shoulders, to refuse it outright time and again when the conditions we set were not satisfactorily fulfilled. “There’s no water here today,” we have learned too well to say, ”No water. But look, we do have sour wine…we can spare you some of that…”
But it’s a lie! The perverse mystery of divine love is such that the church, sins and all, is never out of water. We are a bottomless cistern that throughout the centuries collects endless oceans in our depths: the water that buoyed Jesus in his mother’s womb; the water John the Baptist poured over God’s beloved one; that water that by wedding’s end was very good wine; water dying down, rebuked from the swamped stern of a fishing boat; water firm like a road you walk on toward your frightened friends; the water of a woman’s tears falling on the teacher’s feet; tears falling from Jesus’ own eyes, weeping over the city, weeping, too, for Lazarus, who died; water in the basin: Jesus the slave at the feet of his friends; baptismal waters of old death and fresh life; outpoured water of ecstasy and delight, Holy Spirit, cool and abundant.
So when Jesus cries to us from the cross today, it will not do anymore for us to say, “There is no water.” Or “You may not have a drink.” Even today, even here, even now the fountain is flowing, the water sweet. There is refreshment for everyone and for all time, and then some to spare.
“I am thirsty,” he says to us. If today’s commemoration is about anything, it is about these two things: immense suffering and inexhaustible compassion. It is about, therefore, the call to refresh our good Friend and every bleeding scarecrow hung on trees, to be on the lookout for the lifeless, to be ready and able to give Jesus the drink he never stops needing from deep unending wells of worth and joy.
“Who is Jesus Christ?” the world always demands to know. So many answers have been given, but today just one is true: he is a thirsty man.
“What is the Christian community good for?” the desperate and the dying always have a right to know. Well, when all else about us is said and done, the answer is something like this: the church is good for insisting against the evidence that there is always water. That there is enough for all. That it is free.
Will you pledge today to be a witness to this truth? To tell this story? And when all the wells of the world go dry, will you dig a new one, will you tap into that ancient one, will you wring a precious drop from your own human heart and say to the land, to the nations, to the suffering blood and bone of your neighbor, “Here, good Jesus, brother mine, here is the best water; good Jesus, friend of my heart, take it! Take and drink”?