This is our fifth Sunday exploring the final words of Christ from the cross. Last week, Pastor Jeff explored the painful reality that sometimes, we all feel abandoned by God – even Jesus felt that way as he uttered the words, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? This week, in John’s account, Jesus says, “I am thirsty.”
No preacher in their right mind preaches on just three words. Very few want to tackle just two verses. And it is folly to do an entire Gospel. And yet there is so much to cover today…in part because these words, “I am thirsty…” provide a key understanding of John’s gospel and our relationship with God.
Let’s begin by going back to the first chapter of John.
In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God
and the Word was God.
The Word was with God in the beginning.
Everything came into being through the Word,
and without the Word
nothing came into being.
The Word became flesh
and made his home among us.
We have seen his glory,
glory like that of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.
These words are typically read during the season of Advent. They are hopeful words about the Word becoming flesh to live among us. They are hopeful words that are a long way from the part of the story we are reading in this season of Lent.
John’s gospel was the last gospel written, late in the first century, perhaps as much as 20-30 years after Paul’s letters to early churches. While John’s gospel is recorded as if it was a first-hand account of Jesus’ life, it is written for a community some 50 years after Jesus’ active ministry.
With that in mind, it’s not exactly a news reporter account.
By the time this gospel was written, real theological conversations had begun. People who had not met Jesus, had not encountered Jesus, had not received their earliest exposure to Jesus’ story from one of the apostles, were trying to sort through recent history and second and third hand accounts to understand what was really happening.
Paul’s letters offer us clues as Paul shares with churches his belief about who Christ was and why his life, death and resurrection mattered. Think about it. Jesus was a mystery to his disciples as he stood before them. He had to be even more of an enigma 50 years later.
We’ve had 2000 years of scholars and church leaders arguing over this to shape our understanding, but these folks were just trying to wrap their heads around the recent past…and they didn’t have Wikipedia or Facebook helping them share and process and discover. (HA!)
Who was this Jesus?
Was he REALLY a man?
Was he a spirit who appeared like a man?
Was he JUST a man?
John’s gospel is a book written in part to help people see that Jesus was both the Son of God – divine and special - AND a human in whom God took on flesh to walk among us –
a man whose first miracle would be
to provide thirst-quenching wine for a wedding in Cana,
who would heal bodily illnesses and frailty,
and feed thousands with a few loaves and fishes,
who would need to take time away from the crowds to rest and to pray and to gather himself,
who would allow his feet to be washed in fragrant oil by a beautiful woman whom others dismissed,
and someone who would utter, among his last words, “I am thirsty.”
Sounds pretty human to me.
He would also be described as the WORD of God who was present at creation, call himself “I AM,” and speak a lot about his special relationship with his Father who sent him.
Jesus speaks very few words from the cross. Every word then is an important clue – an important indicator that points to something or maybe several somethings. In John’s gospel, Jesus uttered these words “I am thirsty” “in order to fulfill the scriptures.”
It has been historically understood that the scripture fulfilled here is an excerpt from Psalm 69 read earlier…
“insults have broken my heart.
I’m sick about it.
I hoped for sympathy, but there wasn’t any.
I hoped for comforters, but couldn’t find any.
They gave me poison for food.
To quench my thirst, they gave me vinegar to drink.”
So it was important for the community for which this gospel was written to know that this Jesus was the Messiah – that this Jesus had connections back to the revered texts of Judaism – that this teacher and leader was fulfilling the prophecies of old.
But he is fulfilling the prophesies by having human needs.
I am thirsty.
It might be easier to imagine that Jesus was either fully God or fully human. It seems really hard to swallow that he could be both.
And yet John is working hard to help us see that he was just that – both; both important.
In John 8:58, Jesus is addressing some naysayers who are questioning who he is and what he does and his response is, “before Abraham was, I AM.”
This Jesus is BEING. Human BEING. And like God responding to Moses, he is I AM. Divine BEING. The presence of God with us...
Here he is dying an agonizing death, feeling pain, experiencing thirst. Bleeding.
About to die. About to breathe a last breath.
Jesus also spoke a lot about thirst in the gospel of John. In John 4, at a well in Samaria in the height of the day when no respectable woman would be there, Jesus asks the one woman there, one who has been married five times and now lives with another man to whom she is not married, to draw him some water to drink. His speaking to her is scandalous by standards of the day, but his promise to her is even more amazing. He promises her that those who drink the water he has to give will never be thirsty again. The water he gives will result in eternal life.
In John 7, Jesus invites the gathered to drink his living waters. He suggests that believers will become rivers of living water.
Why thirst? Why does the Son of God resort to talking about such basic need…thirst.
We cannot live without water. We can go a long time without food, but only days without water. Our bodies are mostly water. Our planet is mostly water. Water is a building block…it is gas, liquid, solid. It is itself something of a miracle.
What can we take away from our shared humanity with Christ? What do we do with a God who chose to take on human form, to live and die among us?
It would seem that the God who created us, who loves us and returns to us again and again, who wants to be in relationship with us also chose to understand us as bodily creatures – as human beings who walk and talk and hunger and thirst.
Now certainly there is a big Easter message in all of this – but we need to hang on to that for a few more weeks I think. We can talk then about the importance of a God who chose to be human, who suffered and dies and was resurrected after Easter Sunday, right?
The fact that Jesus had and understood human need should come as great comfort to us…and it should point us in a direction of how important human need is.
We need to get enough sleep. We need to stay hydrated. We need shelter. We need to love and be loved. We need affection. We need human touch.
And so does every other human being on this earth.
This is why we serve at Elizabeth House, why we work with Linkages to Learning, why we are striving to pack 50,000 meals for Stop Hunger Now on April 20 and why we will open our doors at least twice a month, starting on Maundy Thursday, to feed people right here in our community. Without questions, without requiring proof. Because we understand that we share humanity with Jesus and being Jesus to others demands that we meet human need.
Sometimes we get caught up in the wrong things, like James and John clamoring for the chance to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus in glory. But we can’t go wrong when we are meeting and loving fellow humans as fellow humans – not as potential new members, not as potential new volunteers, not as “in” or “out”, “resident” or “alien”, “good” or “bad.”
But as human.
As we move toward holy week, knowing that we have to face Jesus’ death before we can gaze at Easter lilies and visions of an empty tomb, let us remember the very humanity of Christ’s suffering for us. A man, flesh and blood, scared and thirsty and feeling alone.
And let us vow to keep others from suffering that way.
God of Light, of Wisdom, of Companionship,
Help us see the places where human need goes unmet
So that we can step into the void
and love our fellow human
with your love
human love fulfilling human need.