[This message was delivered for Good Friday, April 2, 2021, at Perinton Presbyterian Church (and at Community of the Savior, both pre-recorded). The service can be found in video form on the Perinton Presbyterian FaceBook page, starting at noon, or the Community of the Savior page on FaceBook or YouTube.]
“After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’” John 19:28
When dying, one doesn’t engage in small talk. Every breath is precious. Every last word is labored. Of all the words Jesus speaks from the cross, one seems insignificant, the least momentous, far from memorable. The other six are compelling; they grab hold of us.
- “Father, forgive them….” What selfless grace.
- “Today you will be with me in paradise.” What a promise in the hour of extremity.
- “Mary, that disciple will look after you as his own mother.” What consideration; what a commitment to family.
- “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” What intense anguish.
- “It is finished.” What persevering purpose.
- “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” What unswerving submission and trust.
Then there’s this one that sounds so mundane, so unimportant, so ordinary, so every day. “When Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’”
Thirsty. Whenever I preach, I bring a mug of hot tea with honey, to soothe my vocal chords. I take sips before I preach and after I preach. This is not that. This is a dying man, hanging from a bloody cross. I have had the holy privilege of being alongside people in their dying moments. If they can speak, they often ask for water. More likely, they are too weak for words, but they gesture that their lips are parched. A wet cloth on the lips or some ice chips will soothe them. Thirst is powerful. Even when dying, parched lips cannot be ignored.
Jesus had said to a Samaritan woman as they stood beside a well, “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” And now he thirsts. In John 6, Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” The one who quenches our spiritual thirst is now thirsty. The one who is the river of life, now finds the river bed bone dry.
Jesus is suffering at an extreme level—spiritually, emotionally, relationally, and physically. This is no charade. He is not punching a clock. He is not playing a role. He is suffering. And he is thirsty. A careful reading of the passion of our Lord reveals that nothing is being done by accident. God is in the details. That does not absolve the religious and political leaders for their part in this cruelty, this miscarriage of justice. No one gets qualified immunity in this: not Judas, not Pilate, not Herod, and not us. We are all guilty, all complicit. We are all culpable. And he is thirsty.
In Jesus’ passion, God is at work. Jesus knows the scriptures and quotes them. He knows Psalm 69:21, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” Just hours before, in the garden of the olive press, he dares pray that the Father would remove the cup of suffering from him. While he will submit to suffering, he likes it no more than we do. He prays that the cup of suffering will be spared him. And now he prays for a drink of water to soothe his parched lips. Is that not a reasonable request? In our time, when we engage in the barbaric act of executing someone, we allow them to select their last meal—whatever they want. Can he not ask for a splash of water? Though the will of God is being done, we must not over-spiritualize the moment. He is parched. He is experiencing the worst kind of death. It is real, as real as when death comes to us, but far more raw. He is drinking from the cup of suffering, right down to the dregs. And he is thirsty.
Several decades ago there was a terrible accident in which 96 people were crushed to death at a soccer game in England. At a hospital to which the suffering and dying were brought, a doctor had the terrible duty of reading the names of the dead. Think of Atlanta two weeks ago: eight names read. Think of Boulder last week: ten names read. After the doctor read the names of the dead to the grieving, he said that he believed that God understood their grief and was with them in their sorrow. One parent said aloud, “What does God know about losing a son?” God knows everything about losing a son. God is not aloof and estranged from our suffering. God knows the way of suffering and loss. On the cross, Jesus thirsts and the Father grieves.
When dying, one doesn’t engage in small talk. Every breath is precious. Every last word is labored. Six of the words from the cross show us the heart of God: forgiving, granting eternal life, caring for a bereaved mother, hearing our sense of abandonment, finishing the work of salvation, committing all to God’s providential care. Six words clearly do that. The other one shows us the depth of the humanity of our Lord. There we see Jesus embodying our weakness, our frailty, our humanness, all lifted to God as Jesus cries, “I am thirsty.” Nowhere is the deity of the Messiah more on display than on the cross. Nowhere is the humanity of Jesus more apparent than on the cross. We see Jesus lifted up. Glorified on the wondrous cross. He brings our humanity with him, in him, as he thirsts from the cross.