I Thirst

By Chris Yoder

“After this, Jesus said, ‘I thirst.’”

An ancient hymn speaks of the “flaming mystery of the cross.” And this is what confronts us today. The cross is a mystery, not in the sense that it is something obscure, but in the sense that it is something that exceeds our comprehension. To borrow an image from Rowan Williams, before the mystery of the cross, we are like ants crawling around the foot of an elephant trying to make sense of that enormous reality up there.

Today, the cross looms before us, and I must say something that suggests its enormity, something that gestures toward its breadth and length and height and depth. I want to do this by focusing on one particular aspect of the great mystery of Christ crucified for us. I want to consider with you one of Christ’s last words from the cross: “I thirst.” I want to ask: What did the Lord Jesus thirst for? Why was he thirsty? I hope that pursuing these questions will help us to glimpse the enormity of what our Lord suffered for us, and so, as St. Paul says, “to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3:19).

To begin: when Jesus says, “I thirst,” he is, most obviously, thirsty for water. He needs a drink. He shares the most elemental of human needs. He needs water to live. He is fully human. In his Incarnation, our Lord became like us in every respect, save for sin. Like us, he wept at the grave of a friend, and once, we are told, he was wearied from a journey and asked for a drink from a woman at a well. But now, nailed to a cross under the midday sun, he is thirsty like never before. Few of us have experienced thirst anything at all like our Lord’s. The closest I have come to being really and truly thirsty was during soccer practice one summer day in junior high when I got so thirsty I could no longer produce saliva. But that barely even counts as thirst.

Our Lord knew real thirst, knew the kind of thirst that kills. Perhaps he had even begun to suffer the effects of severe dehydration, when the cells in the body begin to shrink, including the brain cells, leading to hallucination and coma and death. True, he did not die of thirst, but he bore in his body the suffering of all his brothers and sisters who do. They, the thirsty multitudes, cry through parched and cracked lips, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isa. 53:4).

When Jesus said, “I thirst,” someone gave him a sponge full of vinegar to drink. This “vinegar” was probably a diluted vinegary wine drunk by soldiers and laborers to quench thirst. Here the gesture is one of compassion. And, as the Evangelist knows, it is also an action that fulfills Scripture. “After this,” we read, “Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, to fulfill the scripture said, ‘I thirst.’”

In other words, Jesus’ thirst evokes and encapsulates the story of Israel. Christ is thirsty like the people of Israel. He is thirsty like the Israelites were when Moses led them out of Egypt and into the wilderness and “there was no water for the people to drink” until the Lord brought water out of the rock (Ex. 17).

Thirsty like the righteous sufferer in the psalms, who laments, “My mouth is dried out like a potsherd; my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth” (Ps. 22:15), and again, “They gave me gall to eat, and when I was thirsty, they gave me vinegar to drink” (Ps. 69:23).

And he is thirsty like his people sent into exile for their sins, “their honored men [dying] of hunger, and their multitude [parched] with thirst” (Isa. 5:13). In his thirst, Jesus the Christ embodies the whole history of Israel.

In all this, Christ’s thirst demonstrates his humility. Because this man, this Jew, is also God. What Jesus does is what the God of Israel does. In Jesus, the One who gives his people drink takes on their thirst. Jesus is the Son of God who says, “As the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (John 5:26) — and now, dying, he says, “I thirst.” The same Jesus who says, “Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst” (John 4:13), also says, “I thirst.” The one who says, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink” (John 7:37), is the same one who thirsts on the cross. The Lord Jesus did not have to be thirsty, but he chose to become thirsty, both physically and spiritually. He emptied himself for our sake, plumbing the depths of our thirst, taking on himself “the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6).

Just how spiritually thirsty did Jesus get? How far down into the abyss of our thirsts did he go? I would say that the man Jesus shared the psalmist’s desire for God, praying, “O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a barren and dry land where there is no water” (Ps. 63:1). And when he cries, “I thirst,” with his arms stretched wide on the cross, doesn’t he, in effect, pray with the psalmist, “I spread out my hands to you; my soul gasps to you like a thirsty land” (Ps. 143:6)? At least these are the prayers of someone looking to God to quench his thirst.

But what about the thirst of those who turn away from God? Did he know the thirst for fame? for money? sex? power? How about the thirst of the alcoholic? To what extent did Christ experience the thirst that comes from forsaking God, the fountain of living waters, and turning instead to what cannot hold water and cannot satisfy? Was his “I thirst” also a cry of abandonment? God knows.

But I know that the prophet Isaiah says that Christ was “numbered with the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12), and we confess in the Apostles’ Creed that “he descended into hell.” And so part of the mystery of the cross is that it is a sign of the eternal Son of God going to the utter limit — and doing this for us. This is how much he loves us: he will go to the place of utter barrenness for us. As theologian Romano Guardini puts it, “God followed man … into the no man’s land which sin had ripped open. God not only glanced down at him and summoned him lovingly to return, he personally entered into that vacuous dark to fetch him.” In short, Christ became thirsty, went down into dryness and desolation, even damnation, to deliver us, to save us, to slake our thirst.

There remains one more sense in which Christ was thirsty. St. Augustine says that in Christ’s “I thirst” we can hear him saying, “Give me what you are,” “Give me yourself.” That is, Jesus is thirsty for us. Thirsty for us because he loves us and wants us to return his love, but we repeatedly respond to his great love half-heartedly or indifferently or worse. He wants our good wine, as it were, but we respond with what amounts to vinegar. Jesus Christ is thirsty for you. When Jesus Christ cries, “I thirst,” he is crying out to you, as Pope Benedict XVI has observed. Christ thirsts for you and for me. He loves you. He is thirsty for your love, thirsty for your whole heart: will you quench his thirst?

The Missionaries of Charity is the religious order founded by Mother Teresa. It is said that in every chapel of the Missionaries of Charity there is a crucifix with the words “I thirst, I quench.”

“I thirst, I quench.” We call this Friday “Good” because the one who said, “I thirst,” is also the one who quenches all our thirst. For when Jesus had died, “one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water” (John 19:34).

Lord Jesus Christ, you said, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink.” Draw together our scattered thirsts, that we might thirst only for you. Quench our thirst, quench our thirst with the living water that flows from the deep well of your side. Give us your overflowing wine to drink; we are thirsty for you.

The Rev. Christopher Yoder is rector of All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Oklahoma City.

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