After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst. (John 19:28)
Down by the river I have often stood where the water sweeps from left to right, pouring towards me and then passing away, inexorably, indifferent to my presence. As I immerse myself in it I get used to the cold and I find my way along the bottom, my feet searching stable places between the stones, until I find that one deepest pool. There I stand, the fresh clear cold water washing against me, and I look up river and down. It is always here, always moving. I am here today. I will not always be here. I will be in desert places.
In one of those desert places a group of pilgrims traveled following the footsteps of Jesus, from his childhood home and his early ministry paths, to the long uphill climb to Jerusalem. As the bus carried us along downstream through the Jordan Valley from Galilee toward Jericho, someone asked about keeping kosher, and the practice of separating meat and milk. (“You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” Deut 14.21) And I thought, you are keeping separate that which gives life – milk – and that which comes from dealing death – meat. But there is a time when life and death are brought back together, the time of baptism. We die to our own old life; we rise to new life in Christ.
We turned off the highway and went west toward the hills, to the border marked by the river Jordan. There we walked down the bank and stood where a curve of the river swept toward me from the left and away again to the right, carrying with it silt – and sorrow. There we stepped into the water and there we renewed our baptismal vows, and received anointing.
Jesus stood by that river, accepted the baptism of his cousin John, and received the blessing of the Spirit: “This is my Son, my Beloved. In him I am well pleased.”
There was plenty of water for baptism. It was a little dirty, a little fast, and the bottom was uncertain. On either side of the river soldiers kept watch, weapons ready. Perhaps that was no different in the time of Jesus and John. What were they up to? Sedition?
And yet the real revolution was yet to come. It would come when there was no water. It would come when there was no hope. It would come when there was no life. And yet. It would come. Beyond hope, beyond despair, beyond death… but he did not know that yet.
Jesus was on the cross. And like any human he was thirsty. And he said, “I thirst.”
Water is the sacred essential of life. For in all the universe, when wise men seek turning heavenwards eyes of knowledge, what they look for is this same sure stuff, essential to life. When they look for life in the universe, astronomers say, they look for water. And they say there are therefore twenty billion inhabitable plants in our galaxy alone. Where it is, life is possible; where it is not, nothing lives.
And yet here he is without it. Imagine him, pinned there between heaven and earth, on a rock outside the city, surrounded by soldiers, lookers-on, and a few faithful women. There is no solace now, no comfort. There is no life to look forward to. He lacks the basic stuff of survival. He is a human being without resource. He is one of us. He needs water.
In all the universe, water is sacred, the primal substance of life. Combine of two common atoms, it is found on twenty billion planets in our galaxy. Where it exists life is possible; where there is no water, nothing lives. Exclude the possibility. On earth three per-cent of fresh water lies on the surface, ten per-cent of that three per-cent in Lake Superior alone. But it is not evenly distributed. Need it as we may, we cannot always get it. Ask farmers with crops stricken by drought. Ask people who have crossed the desert. Ask this man, hanging on a cross.
Like thousands before him and millions after, he thirsts.
Think of all the times and places turned to dust now hallowed by his presence.
Mary’s well, in the childhood village of Nazareth, was perhaps the only source of living flowing water there. From it they drew and drank.
Jordan River, where John his cousin put him under, covered his head with glad stream, sounding the depths of rebirth. He submitted to that ritual and received his blessing. Down on the river he found death and life together: death in immersion, death of a sort, of the part of all of us that needs to be shed, and there from the living water he emerged newly alive, proclaimed beloved, ready for his mission.
Along the lakeshore of Galilee he walked, among fishing boats and nets in small villages, gathering his first disciples. By that sweet sea he found his first fast friends, fisher folk, and called them to a new life and a new task.
Back up the hill then, to Cana, they went, where the wine ran out – until ahead of his time his hand revealed what would be poured out, what would be transformed. The water of life he changed into sacrament’s prefiguration, like Eucharist wine. Joyous in recreation yet sorrowful in anticipation, blessing the jars marked thereafter for the cool clearness reddened and heated, fore-speaking that which was pouring from him now. Remember later what it means.
And the well woman of Samaria: what had he said to her? I know of living, flowing water, you know not of – for I am the source, the spring for the well from which eternally it comes.
From Jericho’s ancient spring, where people have drunk for eight thousand years, on the road to Jerusalem the travelers tread.
By the pools of Bethesda he brought healing … and yet the precious element was soon to be lacking, for him. He himself, the source of life, would soon be in need of it. A meal ended, betrayal began. He prayed in a garden. You know the story. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate. And so we find him –
– suspended between death and life, between those heavens and this sordid torturing rock into which his mocking tree is planted. (It is said below him rests Adam on whose head his precious blood descends and cleanses, symbol of all our release.)
And from his side the living water flows.
Our freedom restored to worship without fault or folly we start fresh now except this wellspring man from whom this freedom comes pinned to board and upright suspended gasping dying parched and dried out like an overcooked chicken nobody wants to see, even on a dung hill, now there is nothing left in him to exhaust or extinguish, now he is dying: I thirst.
Humanity on the cross. Not some illusion. Not some fake. Not some cheat. Not some cheap grace. No. The expensive, all costing, kind of grace. The absolute obedience that compels us to think unpleasant thoughts. If that was his cross, and he picked it up, what does it mean to pick up mine? If he could thirst, I could thirst; how could I live? Would God save me?
Or is something more expensive, all costing, in mind for me, too?