"I Thirst." (John 19:38).
The agony of the Crucifixion that Jesus suffered during his hours on the cross are unimaginable to most of us. His body drooped as his muscles lost their power to support him. His breathing became labored as his ribs pressed on lungs that could not expand to push air to his organs. The pain from the nails and his distended, swollen body and drooping head was excruciating. His body had been pierced by a sword and he cried out, “I thirst.” We must not lose sight of the physicality of this abuse because this process - this pain, this thirst - are evidence of his mortality, the commonality he shared with all living creatures and his commitment to his Father’s mission to go through death so that death loses its power over us and we need fear death no longer. But the pain that comes with life on earth is still here, we all feel it at one time or another, and we need to know that there is an end to pain, a relief when we are back with God. Jesus never lost sight of that. But the very human cry from the depths of his suffering, the cry we know from our suffering, unites us in an elemental way. “I know this,” Jesus says to us. “We know this,” we reply
Jesus was a devout Jew who knew his psalms. So it is valid for us to hear the echo of Scripture in his cry from the Cross: “ I thirst.”
‘My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” (Psalm 42:2)
“You God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; my whole being longs for you in a dry and parched place where there is no water.” (Psalm 63:1)
“I spread out my hands to you; I thirst for you like a parched land.” (Psalm 143:6)
Water which comes from Nature itself is essential for life. The need for water is so strong that thirst is a powerful metaphor for our need for God. In times of drought, crops and vegetation die and we face death. Long dry spells are feared by those who provide our food and those of us who depend on them. “My whole being longs for you in a dry and parched place,” “My soul thirsts for God,” “I thirst for you like a parched land,” are vivid physical and spiritual pleas.
And we hear the words of the prophets.
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” (Isaiah 55:1)
“They shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them.” (Isaiah 49:10)
“‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord God, ‘when I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it. In that day the lovely virgins and the young men will faint because of thirst.” (Amos 8:11-13)
“I thirst as my ancestors thirst,” Jesus is saying. “I thirst and God will satisfy this thirst.” The “thirst for water” is equivalent to the need for “hearing the words of the Lord.”
Jesus himself taught us about thirst, that we may feel the same urgent need for what is right as we do for our basic human requirements. And he told us that those who thirst in this way are specially blessed. God will meet their needs.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." (Matthew 5:6)
And he speaks of the salvation he himself brings when he speaks to the woman at the well. He speaks in terms of water and thirst.
“‘…whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.’” (John4:14-15)
We see Jesus the man suffer on the Cross. We hear him as teacher and rabbi in the words he speaks from the past and his own words that he speaks for his Father. We see him as human and divine as the wound from the piercing on his side spills blood and water. We get this spiritual water, the word of God, God’s promise, and grace from Jesus Son of God.
We hear the words of the fifth saying today around the world.
“I thirst,” say the children and residents in Flint, Michigan whose water is poisoned by lead and pumped into their homes in municipal pipes.
“I thirst,” say the people in the Pavilion area of Wyoming, in Dimock, Pa., parts of Colorado and Ohio who can set their household water on fire when it comes from the faucet poisoned with the toxic runoff from fracking in their area.
“I thirst,” say the people fleeing with their families across the Sonora Desert and the Sahara Desert escaping death squads from government and paramilitary brigades.
“I thirst,” say the families who live on the borders of the Sahel in northern Nigeria and Kenya, in Nepal and India, whose young sons and daughters travel miles every day for potable water since their homelands have been drained by deforestation and climate change.
“I thirst,” cries the earth itself as climate change caused by human activity has parched miles of once-fertile land, as destructive agricultural and industrial practices have rendered the soil infertile and moisture does not hold.
“I thirst” is the sign on the wall of every convent chapel of Mother Teresa’s order of nuns, Mission of Charity. It reminds them that Jesus himself taught us that the act of bringing water to those who thirst is an act of mercy to Him.
Jesus lives in the hearts of the poor and dispossessed and sick and suffering. They thirst. We act as servants of God when we bring water that they need: water for their bodies and compassion for their souls.
Judith Scott holds a master's degree in theology from Union Theological Seminary.