If you’ve ever been to a Good Friday worship service centered around the “Seven Last Words” Jesus Christ spoke on the cross, then this morning’s Scripture lesson is probably familiar to you. “I thirst” is traditionally considered the fifth word among Christ’s last seven words. Looking ahead, if you plan to come to worship at noon here in this sanctuary on Good Friday, you will hear today’s Scripture lesson again.
I could’ve just waited then until Good Friday, when Jesus is actually hanging on the cross, to read this passage. For a couple of reasons, though, I decided to read it a few weeks early. The first is that there are some exciting things going on in worship at Wapping Community Church in upcoming weeks that will steer us away from a Lenten focus. On Sunday, March 11th, Bryan Nurnberger, the Director of Simply Smiles, will be here to preach. As a number of youth and adults in this congregation can personally attest to, Bryan and his staff and countless volunteers from this church and elsewhere have dramatically improved the quality of life for children living in poverty in South Dakota and Mexico. It will be a privilege to have Bryan here in two Sundays.
Then on Sunday, March 18th, members of our Senior High youth group will lead both worship services. Youth Sunday is one of the highlights of our church year…engaging, inspiring, and full of fresh insight and perspective. At the same time, the perennial support of this congregation has always been invaluable on Youth Sunday, as part of the morning offering will be earmarked for the Simply Smiles SPF Mission Trip coming up at the end of June.
Because there are two weeks of worship services in the middle of March that will have their own distinct flavor, I figured I would get a head start on the way to the cross this morning. What’s more, next Sunday I plan to preach on another one of the seven last words spoken by Jesus on the cross. Following next week, if we fast forward through Simply Smiles Sunday and Youth Sunday and Sunday, March 25th, it will be Palm Sunday. We’ll be on the threshold of Holy Week only a few days away from Good Friday, but we will have already spent some Lenten time reflecting on the most important event and the central symbol in the Christian faith…
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Traditionally, this is the first of the seven last words Jesus spoke from the cross. Followed by the second, third, and fourth words Jesus spoke. “Today you shall be with me in paradise,” “woman, behold thy son,” and “my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
Word number five is the shortest of the seven last words. “I thirst.” If you ask me, it’s also the most unusual of the seven last words. In previous and subsequent last words on the cross, Jesus offered theological statements. Words about forgiveness, paradise, and being forsaken by God. Those words and phrases were all mysterious and intense and emotionally heavy laden.
But this fifth word was simple and straightforward. As Jesus began to literally run out of breath on the cross, he stated a physical need. “I’m thirsty.” It was a phrase so mundane and so vulnerable and so carnal it makes you wonder for a moment whether Jesus actually gave the words voice…
For anyone inclined to think that Christianity is primarily a spiritual religion where people cling to pie in the sky concepts and much of what we believe seems ethereal and hard to grasp and skirting the edge of never never land, this morning’s fifth word is an antidote. When Jesus says he was thirsty on the cross, it forces us to picture him in that exact moment just as he was. With nails driven through his hands and his feet. With sweat on his forehead and a kind of raw, raspiness in his voice that some of us can relate to if we’ve ever been parched and exhausted and crying out in desperation for something to drink.
All of a sudden, basic, bodily, human craving intrudes into what is often portrayed as a strictly divine drama. Yes, even as he was dying, Jesus got thirsty. On the cross, even Jesus, the great leader of people, the teacher of timeless wisdom par excellence, the purveyor of some of the most noble and inspirational stories ever spoken out loud. Yes, even Jesus experienced deprivation and physical need.
I thirst. In those two simple words you and I confront Jesus in the flesh. And we can’t overlook this image of Jesus. Or sanitize the horrific crucifixion he’s enduring. Jesus with a crown of thorns on his head. Fresh whip marks across his back. The one who suffered and endured real human pain. In the end, he just wanted something to drink…
The other thing that makes this fifth word unusual is the fact that Jesus spent much of his life and ministry self-identifying as the thirst quencher. Over the course of the four Gospels, Jesus made this particular part of his identity clear on more than one occasion.
“Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty,” was a claim Jesus made multiple times. “If you’re thirsty, come to me,” he said elsewhere. “The water that I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Those were words Jesus offered earlier in the Gospel of John.
From a broader perspective, in the Bible the concept of “thirst” was usually related to something more than water. To thirst, as indicated throughout Scripture, was to be desperate with desire. Take Psalm 42, for example, where the Psalmist prayed, “my soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”
When I think about thirst in the Bible, it causes me to reconsider what Jesus said on the cross. To be sure, Jesus could simply have been describing his own physical need in that moment. On the other hand, it’s possible Jesus was pointing to something deeper.
The soldiers who stood at the foot of the cross heard Jesus cry out. And they decided to mock Jesus by soaking a sponge with vinegar. Far from a way to quench Jesus’s thirst, the soldiers intended to add insult to injury. And as they held the hyssop branch near Jesus’s mouth, they snickered amongst themselves.
But Jesus may have been talking about thirst in a way the soldiers would not have understood. Could it be that Jesus was talking about being thirsty for righteousness sake? Could it be that Jesus on the cross was thirsty for you, for me, for us?
Look back through the pages of the Bible, and another thing we know about God is that God has been pursuing human beings from the very beginning of time. Through the story of creation, the words of the prophets, the teaching of the law and the commandments, the birth of Jesus Christ and the proliferation of the Christian Church, God has been trying to get close to human beings for as long as anyone knows.
God is desperate to be in relationship with us. It’s not a stretch to make the claim that God “thirsts” for us. The God we follow, the God we worship is intensely and unashamedly personal. Our God is a God who gets angry with human beings and forgives human beings. Our God is a God who threatens to walk away from human beings and a God who goes out of the way to reconcile with human beings. In fact, our God wants to get so close to us that God chose to die on the cross…about as real and as close and as vulnerable as anything you and I could imagine.
This notion that God yearns for us and longs for us. This idea that Jesus Christ thirsts for you and for me, even as he hangs on the cross. It puts a different spin on some of the things we’ve learned and always assumed about who God is and who Jesus Christ is.
It’s one thing to talk about a God who goes before us and offers us goodness and mercy and love. And we can talk about Jesus Christ who walks by our side and promises us life abundant and everlasting. Those images of God and Jesus Christ are tame enough that we can keep them at a distance. Yet it’s another thing altogether to talk about a God who pursues us wildly and relentlessly. And a Christ who refuses to let us go and abandon us to our own whims and devices. There is no escape from a God revealed in Jesus Christ who acts that way.
In the end, you and I and our Christian brothers and sisters across the world and down through the generations could not find a way to climb up to God. So God decided to climb down to us.
As a result, this is the God we worship and the God we remember especially during this season of Lent. A God who thirsts for us and tracks us down and corners us and loves us so much that God willingly died on a cross. So you and I will see God’s grace and mercy displayed beyond the shadow of a doubt. And so you and I will know God up close. And personally. Amen.