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March 30th, 2018

A Good Friday Meditation

Jesus knows what it’s like to be needy.

 John 19:28-30

March 30, 2018

The simplest word?

“Alas, and did my Savior bleed, and did my Sovereign die?”

How could he?  He, the Son of God, all-powerful and eternal, one with the Father and the Holy Spirit, how could he die?  He, the rescuer, the one who gentle and lowly of heart, the compassionate one, the one who said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” how could he bleed?

And how could he thirst?

On the surface, the fifth word from the cross seems like the simplest to understand.  Of the seven last words on the cross, it is the one that regularly comes closest to our own experience.  We all thirst, all day, every day.  Or we would if we didn’t regularly drink something.  We may even have had the experience of being dehydrated.  For me, it was back in the day when I played basketball hard enough to sweat a lot and pay the cost later with muscle cramps.  Still today, when my old man toes cramp up 15 minutes after I fall asleep, my wife asks me, “Did you drink enough water?”  I have a hard time making it through a sermon without a water bottle.

The fifth word is not only the simplest, it’s the shortest – only two syllables in both English (“I thirst”) and Greek (dipso).  It seems simple, doesn’t it?  Jesus is thirsty, and they give him a drink.  I get thirsty.  I understand this one.

Irony

As you might suspect, there’s more.

First, there’s why he’s thirsty. Given where he is, honestly, I’m a little surprised that this is his complaint.  He’s hanging on a cross, infamous as one of the world’s worst forms of torture.  He hands and feet have spikes in them.  His back is a mangled mess from a flogging.  His head has puncture wounds from thorns.  Through all that it’s not recorded that he complained, “Ow!” or even winced, though he may well have.  Of all the human needs he could articulate, it seems this very common one of thirst would be low on his list of priorities.

That’s what I thought until I said something along that line to my men’s Bible study on Thursday.  A military veteran in our group answered that he had come across severely wounded men on the battlefield.  Their first complaint is not “My leg was blown off,” but “Water!”  With all the loss of blood and perspiration from the Garden of Gethsemane through the execution, his need for water may actually be worse than the various pains and even the inability to breathe.

Let’s go deeper still.

The fifth word from the cross is recorded only by the fourth Gospel.  Of the four Gospels it is most ironic that John is the one who records Jesus saying, “I am thirsty.”  If you add up all the times Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention the word “water” it equals the number of times in John (25).  Jesus baptizes with water.  His first miracle in John is turning water into wine.  He meets a woman at a well and tells her he is he living water.  He walks on water.  He washes his disciples’ feet with water.  It’s John who records Jesus saying not once but three times something along the lines of “You’ll never be thirsty if you come to me.”

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that John’s gospel begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”  What’s the most common substance on the earth’s surface?  Water.  John says he made every molecule of it.  The Creator of 332 cubic miles of water on our planet is craving a few drops?  Can’t he just snap his fingers?

Completed

To get to the heart of Jesus’ fifth word from the cross, of course, we need to go not just to our experience or even to John’s gospel, but to John 19:28-29.  In context we learn now that Jesus is not just on the cross, but he’s drawing near to the end.  “Knowing that all was completed,” John writes, “Jesus said, ‘I thirst.’”  And as soon as he sipped a bit he spoke once more in John’s gospel, twice more as put together the four gospels, and then died.

I spoke this morning with my friend Todd Byrd, who was a Hospice chaplain in his former life.  He said he can recall multiple times when someone asked for water shortly before passing away.  It’s possible that Jesus’ humanity is simply taking over here and he’s virtually delirious.  He is so close to the end that he hardly knows where he is, so “I thirst” is practically an instinctive human response.

What’s given to him is “wine vinegar,” according to John’s gospel.  Again, there are different opinions among commentators and preachers about this drink.  Some think this was an act of mockery, that the vinegar would actually create more thirst, like drinking salt water.  I tend to go with the theory that this was cheap wine the soldiers kept for their own use (sort of like keeping a bottle of water handy), but sometimes they would give it to their victims.  It could be compassion, but it could also be that they wanted to extend the suffering of their victims by offering them a little hydration.

As we examine John’s words, there’s yet more.  What John actually says is that Jesus spoke these words “so that the Scripture would be fulfilled.”  Many preachers at this point will speak of another of the “prophecies” Jesus fulfilled.  In my opinion, the word “prophecy” is overused if by that you mean “predictions.”  When the New Testament quotes part of the Old Testament, more often than not it’s not referring to a prediction.  Rather the idea is that there is an existing fabric of God’s character and purposes in the Hebrew Bible, and the New Testament adds its threads to complete what God started.

The word John uses for Scripture is “complete.”  The Greek verb is teleo, the same word that is behind the sixth word from the cross, “It is finished.”  That verb occurs three times in three verses.  If we translate it consistently, John says, “After this, Jesus, knowing that all things had been completed, so that the Scripture would be completed, says, ‘I thirst.’…When therefore he took the sour wine, Jesus said, ‘It is completed.’”  Same word all three times.

This helps with a bit of a puzzle related to the fifth word from the cross.  When John says Jesus spoke these words so the Scripture would be “completed,” what Scripture was he talking about?  Many point to Psalm 69:21, “They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst.”  See?  Prophecy fulfilled!  But if that’s a prophecy about Jesus on this day, why didn’t anyone give him food on the cross to fulfill that prediction as well?

No, what we have here is a completion of something else in the Psalms.  More than once a psalmist utilizes the metaphor of thirst:  “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God” (Psalm 42:1).  Everything in the Old Testament is a setup for the New, and every yearning and longing of individuals and of the people of God is found in Jesus Christ.  Jesus’ deepest thirst is for God, and his words on the cross reflect this craving in the same way he had pursued his Father all through his life.

He’s been there

But don’t misunderstand me.  Even though the quenching of thirst is a metaphor in the Old Testament and in John’s gospel, this thirst Jesus experiences and expresses in John 19:28 is real.  It is physical.  His throat is parched.  His body is cramping.  Fluids have drained from his body, and his mouth is dry.  He is, indeed, drawing close to the end, and he wants to utter that strong proclamation that everything has been completed.  His mouth needs to be moistened.  We believe the Son of God hanging on the cross is fully human.

Having considered so many possible angles to what’s happening here, we come back to where we started.  This really is all quite simple.  Jesus is thirsty, and that means Jesus is needy.  This is where we find him most like us, which is the whole point of the incarnation, when God became man.  He knows what it’s like to be needy.

The writer of Hebrews says that when we have “a time of need,” we can go to Jesus because he is a “merciful and faithful high priest.”  We can hold firmly to our faith.  We can approach the throne of grace confidently.  He can help us in our time of temptation (Hebrews 2:14-18; 4:15-16).  He knows what it’s like to be us.

If you’ve ever been thirsty, he’s been there.

If you’ve ever been hungry, he’s been there.

If you’ve ever been misunderstood, he’s been there.

If you’ve ever been rejected, he’s been there.

If you’ve ever been mocked, he’s been there.

If you’ve ever been lonely, he’s been there.

If you’ve ever been betrayed, he’s been there.

If you’ve ever been tempted by the devil, he’s been there.

If you’ve ever cried out for God to make a different way, he’s been there.

If you’ve felt ignored by God, he’s been there.

If you’ve ever been desperate, he’s been there.

If you’ve ever been needy, he’s been there.

Whatever your situation, whatever your neediness, he’s been there.  Go to your merciful and faithful high priest.  He will not only hear, he will understand.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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