The following is a homily I delivered tonight as part of a Good Friday tenebrae service.
“Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I thirst.'” (John 19:28)
It was early summer in 1999 when I spent a month studying and traveling through Israel. I was taking a course on the religions, history and archeology of the Holy Land and spent hours each day hiking through ancient ruins. Having grown up in Ohio and lived in costal California, I wasn’t used to the intense heat and wilting sunshine of the desert. I remember one day where temperatures soared over 120 degrees and no matter how much water I drank, I remained incredibly thirsty.
When I chose these words of Jesus for my homily, my first instinct was to attribute his thirst to Israel’s oppressive heat. But then last week I spent an afternoon slowly reading the Gospel of John aloud, doing my best to pause and place myself in each scene as an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry. That exercise led me to a very different conclusion about Jesus’s statement, “I thirst.”
Just a few moments into John’s story, I found myself a guest at a wedding feast where Jesus, informed that the wine was running low, turned six vats of water into the finest quality wine. His very first miracle was to quench people’s thirst!
Missing Jesus’ involvement and the miraculous transformation, the master of the banquet says to the bridegroom, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.” I don’t think the master of the banquet realized he was speaking symbolically about Jesus.
A few months later I watch as Jesus, weary from a long journey by foot, stops to rest outside Samaria, a city of people scorned by Jews. There’s a woman sitting alone at the well. She’s an outcast among outcasts; she’s had a suspicious number of husbands and now lives with a man who is not her husband. From this unclean woman Jesus asks for a drink. They have a provocative conversation, during which Jesus tells the woman that he can offer her “living” water that will “spring up into eternal life.” He claims that if she drinks his living water she will never thirst again. It’s obvious he’s not talking about physical thirst or literal water.
Flash forward to the Feast of Tabernacles when Jesus tells the crowds gathered in Jerusalem’s temple courts, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”
Eventually I reach this point in the story – the crucifixion. By now, Jesus has been betrayed, arrested, questioned, falsely accused and handed over to Pilate. He’s been slapped in the face, whipped, mocked and ridiculed. Finally, he is stripped naked and nailed to a cross.
He’s been hanging there for hours. He’s exposed and exhausted and I’m not surprised when Jesus says he is thirsty. His thirst is certainly a result of his weakened state, the abuse he’s suffered and exposure to the heat and sun. But now, when I hear the words, “I thirst,” I think back over the three years of Jesus’ ministry. I remember the wedding feast when Jesus turned water into wine. I think of when he offered the lowliest of people living water, eternal life. And I remember his words from the day he preached on a mountainside, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
Jesus says he is thirsty and I watch as a nearby solider soaks a sponge in wine and lifts it up for Jesus to drink. Except, this is not fine wine fit for a king. It’s the vinegar extracts of a cheap wine too bitter to drink.
The contrasts are clear between what Jesus offered and what he received:
Jesus gathered disciples, loved them and taught them the way of truth; they betrayed, denied and deserted him.
Jesus treated people like honored guests at his Father’s banquet; they rejected and crucified him as a criminal.
Jesus gave the people the finest wine to drink; they gave him bitter vinegar.
Jesus offered to forever quench the spiritual thirst of undeserving sinners; they nailed him to two slabs of wood and left him to die, thirsty.
Physically thirsty – yes – but more than that. I think that Jesus, in his very last moments, is still desperately thirsty for the spiritually parched people witnessing his death, to believe that he is the Son of God able to give them the living water of eternal life.