Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 6 April, 2023. Readings – Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42
28After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty” (Jn 19.28)
Just before he dies on the cross, Jesus says “I thirst” (Jn 19.28). In the Christian tradition for Good Friday, we often consider and mediate on the so-called Seven Last Words of Jesus, and “I thirst” are counted as the Sixth Word, coming shortly before the final “It is finished”.
Today I suggest we pause for a moment and consider what it means for Jesus to thirst. Those of us who were in church almost a month ago, on the Third Sunday of Lent will recall another when Jesus was thirsty. “Give me a drink”, he said to the Samaritan woman at the well, and that conversation led to Jesus revealing himself as the Messiah who brings “living water”:
“The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (Jn 4.15)
The preacher Fleming Rutledge notes that Jesus can say that he is the water of life because he is the Son of the Father. The Father created order out of the waters of creation, the Father sent Noah’s flood and parted the waters of the Red Sea, the Father allowed Moses to bring forth water from the rock in the Wilderness. “The Lord sits enthroned above the flood” says the Psalmist (Ps 29.10).
When he spoke to the Samaritan women, Jesus used his thirst as a playful opening to a conversation and an invitation to the woman to come into the abundant life of God. But now Jesus is serious. The living water is stilled and dried up. The abundant life is ebbing away on the cross. The meaning of this, as Rutledge says, “is almost too staggering to absorb”.
What we can absorb at the foot of the cross is profoundly limited. Perhaps all we can say is that here is death, in pain and shock and thirst. The theologian Stanley Hauerwas notes that Good Friday tempts us to divide Jesus in two, to say that his last laboured words are spoken from his humanity, while part of him, his divine self, is somehow safe from the cross.
Hauerwas says no to our desire to somehow spare Jesus from this moment. If the Incarnation of God is true, as we the church believe, then Jesus is one hundred percent man and one hundred percent God. “The One who is the one God, very God and very man, is the one who thirsts”.
So it is not just Jesus the man who dies on the cross. It is Jesus as God who dies. The living water must dry up. Jesus fully knew this in the Garden. Again to quote Hauweras: [Jesus] has a cup to drink, but it is the cup of death. … the cup cannot be removed if we are to be saved from the dryness that is our lives” (Cross Shattered Christ 76).
Perhaps all we can say with certainty then is that the words “I thirst” signal the death of Jesus as God and as Man. It must be this way so that Jesus as God and Man can go to the realm of the dead and there confront and defeat death. It must be this way if the dry bones are to be knitted together and brought to life. It must be this way if we are to be saved by the resurrection and by the living waters of baptism, but that is a story best saved for tomorrow night.
Fleming Rutledge, The Seven Last Words From the Cross. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005.
Stanley Hauerwas, Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004.