Dying of Thirst

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Dying of Thirst
The Fifth Word from the Cross: “I am Thirsty” (John 19:28)

“I thirst.” – John 19:28

The fifth word from the cross is the most mundane of Jesus’ sayings. In light of the preceding profound and mysterious words (“Father, forgive them; for they know now what they do”; “Truly, I say to you, this day you shall be with me in Paradise”; “Mother, behold your son. Behold, your mother”; and, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), it comes as a surprise that this fifth word is so, well, unsurprising. In contrast to Jesus’ previous words, “I thirst” is something we would expect to hear from a victim of crucifixion.

We come now to the end of the six-hour ordeal of the cross. In the previous word, Jesus expressed his mental, emotional, and spiritual anguish (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). Now, Jesus’ physical pain is on display.

Exhausted, drained of bodily fluids, absolutely dehydrated, Jesus speaks his first truly self-referential word. Though the previous word communicated his inner experience of forsakenness, it was expressed in the form of a prayer to God. This word simply states a fact. Jesus’ pain forces him to focus on himself. He expresses his desperate desire for satisfaction of a basic human need – the need for water.


Why Thirst?

Why, out of all the physical abuses of the cross, is thirst singled out? Water is a basic need. Our need for water is evident from the cradle to the grave. Our first sound from the womb is a cry of thirst. Should we die in a hospital bed surrounded by care-givers, it is likely that thirst will be our last great physical desire. Peter Storey compassionately notes, “A moistened cloth to the lips is the last ministry we can offer a dying loved one.”[1]

Jesus’ overwhelming thirst is an indication of his great bodily pain. It is an expression of the deepest measure of agony. Though it certainly pales in comparison, I recall when I had my tonsils removed at the age of thirty-two. For two weeks, my throat felt like a raw exposed wound. Although I experienced ravenous thirst, it was only with great difficulty that I could drink water. I could not eat anything solid. Swallowing soup was torturous. One never realizes how many times a human swallows during the day, until one’s every gulp is riddled with spasms of pain.

In 1986, a team of doctors wrote an article that appeared in The Journal of the American Medical Association titled “On the Physical Death of Jesus” that offered a medical account of crucifixion. Though the language is dense and difficult, it provides an interesting take on the contributing factors to Jesus’ death, including the role of dehydration:

The major pathophysiologic effect of crucifixion, beyond the excruciating pain, was marked interference with normal respiration, particularly exhalation.  The weight of the body, pulling down on the outstretched arms and shoulders, would tend to fix the intercostal muscles in an inhalation state and thereby hinder passive exhalation.  Accordingly, exhalation was primarily diaphragmatic, and breathing was shallow.  It is likely that this form of respiration would not suffice and that hypercarbia would soon result.  The onset of muscle cramps or tetanic contractions, due to fatigue and hypercarbia, would hinder respiration even further.
Adequate exhalation required lifting the body by pushing up on the feet and by flexing the elbows and adducting the shoulders.  However, this maneuver would place the entire weight of the body on the tarsals and would produce searing pain.  Furthermore, flexion of the elbows would cause rotation of the wrists about the iron nails and cause fiery pain along the damaged median nerves.  Lifting of the body would also painfully scrape the scourged back against the rough wooden stipes.  Muscle cramps and paresthesias of the outstretched and uplifted arms would add to the discomfort.  As a result, each respiratory effort would become agonizing and tiring and lead eventually to asphyxia.
The actual cause of death by crucifixion was multifactorial and varied somewhat with each case, but the two most prominent causes probably were hypovolemic shock and exhaustion asphyxia.  Other possible contributing factors included dehydration, stress-induced arrhythmias, and congestive heart failure with the rapid accumulation of pericardial and perhaps pleural effusions.  Crucifracture (breaking the legs below the knees), if performed, led to an asphyxic death within minutes.  Death by crucifixion was, in every sense of the word, excruciating (Latin, excruciatus, or “out of the cross”).[2]

Along with his emotional, mental, and spiritual sufferings, Jesus suffered great physical pain. This truth is preserved in the ancient creed, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate.” He was sinless; but not painless. He was God’s suffering servant, “a man of sorrows acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:2-3).

Strangely enough, Jesus understood his physical sufferings to be a fulfillment of Holy Scripture. According to John’s Gospel, Jesus said, “I am thirsty” for a reason: “in order that the scripture might be fulfilled” (John 19:28). Jesus embraced his role as God’s suffering servant, giving his life as a ransom for many. Passages such as Psalm 69:21 and Psalm 22:15 must have informed his self-understanding:

  • They gave me poison for my food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink. (Psalm 69:21)
  • I am poured out like water… My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaves to my jaws. (Psalm 22:14a, 15)

Jesus’ pain was deep. Yet he was able to cling to God’s will in spite of it – and even through it. Identifying his pain with the fulfillment of sacred scripture enabled him to understand his suffering in light of God’s will. “His absolutely unique experience of God’s judgment and absence was described with language already at play in Israel’s experience of God.”[3] His pain was not a mistake, but a part of the plan of God. Through the Lamb of God, the sins of the world – including all that brings great pain and suffering to human beings – would be embraced and atoned for, once and for all.

The soldiers responded to Jesus’ cry by offering him “sour wine” to drink.[4] This was most likely cheap, vinegary wine that may have been carried by the soldiers. It is impossible to ascertain their intentions in giving wine to Jesus. Were they providing Jesus with a narcotic to relieve his pain, or was this no more than a hostile gesture meant to increase his suffering? Did they desire to quench his tormenting thirst or prolong his life to intensify his torture? Was this a merciful gesture or cruel smelling salts? It’s impossible to know, but one thing is sure. Any relief would be slight and momentary. No amount of water or wine could ultimately dull the pain of the cross.


A Deeper Thirst

Though Jesus’ fifth word refers to his physical pain, I think it is likely that more is being communicated than appears on the surface. Water and thirst are rich words that are often used metaphorically in scripture. William Willimon notes that,

In the Bible, to ‘thirst’ is usually for more than water. To thirst in Scripture is to yearn, to long for, to be desperate with desire. Jesus, in the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount, blessed a certain sort of holy desperation. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6). Blessed are those who want God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven as if they were desperate for a drink of water after a week in the desert. The psalmist prays, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Ps. 42:2).[5]

The call of scripture is to nurture and sustain a deep desire for God. Willimon continues, “Most of us long for balance in our lives, equilibrium and serene contentment. But that was the way of the Buddha, not Jesus. Jesus blessed those who thirsted after God like a thirsty animal.”[6] In Judeo-Christian theology, human desire is not the problem and eradication of human desire the solution. Instead, there is a recognition that human desire is often inordinate and misdirected, resulting in the shrinking rather than the flourishing of our humanity. God does not call us to eradicate our desires, but to repent of idolatrous desires and redirect our desires toward the true, good, and the beautiful. James W. Jones puts its succinctly: “human desire is not to be suppressed but refocused.”[7]

Jesus is fully human, but more than human. Jesus is God-in-the-flesh (John 1:1-5, 14). As the God-man, Jesus could have satisfied his thirst at any time. Jesus’ suffering is unique in that it is freely embraced. He willingly suffers for our sin and for our sake. For example, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus rebukes Peter’s violent response to Jesus’ captors by saying, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53)

In John’s Gospel, Jesus demonstrates the same control and power. When confronted by his captors, Jesus asked, “Whom do you seek?” When they answered, “Jesus of Nazareth,” he said to them, “I am he” and they fell to the ground. Again, Jesus rebukes Peter’s violence, but with these words, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:11)

The point is clear: Had Jesus desired to do so, he could have satisfied his physical thirst. However, Jesus’ desire for water, for relief from his pain, was not as great as his desire to redeem humankind. In other words, Jesus’ thirst for us trumped his thirst for water. Jesus knew that in order to save humanity he must embrace the cup of suffering:

When onlookers sneered, “He saved others; he cannot save himself,” they could not see that only because he had never thought of saving himself could anybody be saved at all. And those who shouted, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” could not see that it was precisely because he was the Son of God that he would not come down from the cross. In the end, the deepest thirst of this Jesus—the thirst that held him to that cross—was the thirst of unrequited love. Jesus thirsts to see all people discover God’s love for them through forgiveness and new life. His dying tells us, God longs like this, thirsts like this, bleeds like this, always.[8]

Jesus deepest thirst was to do the will of God. It was his food and drink (John 4:32). Here, Jesus thirsts more for us than himself. His cry, “I thirst,” is not simply identification with human pain, but an expression of deep passion. Jesus longs for us with great passion – the infinite and eternal passion of God.

In the face of human disobedience and the pain it brought Jesus, his passion to perform God’s will and show God’s love remained steadfast and unmoving. In this, Jesus fully embodies the God spoken of by the Hebrew prophets. It is a common feature of their writings to represent God as enduring the sinfulness of humanity while simultaneously expressing steadfast love. Though they identify and condemn human sin, they continually repeat the message that the sinful rejection of humanity does not thwart the steadfast love of God. This becomes the basis for repentance: God’s passion for us is greater than our passion for sin.

For this reason, Christ is willing to suffer all manner of evil in order to embrace a lost humanity. Jesus loves, no matter the cost. And in this, Jesus embodies – and thus reveals plainly – the love of God. This love is greater than we can possibly imagine: “In whatever tiny measure we awaken to desire for the Beloved, we become aware that the infinite depths of the Beloved’s desire for us preceded us: the eternity of divine love for us walks before us, follows after us, protects us from above, nourishes us from below, and burns within us.”[9]

Jesus’ cry of thirst not only reflects his physical desire for water, but his soul’s desire for humanity. The dual nature of Jesus’ cry is evident in Thomas B. Pollock’s hymn, “Jesus, in Thy Dying Woes”:

Jesus, in Thy thirst and pain,
While Thy wounds Thy lifeblood drain,
Thirsting more our love to gain:
Hear us, holy Jesus.
Thirst for us in mercy still;
All Thy holy work fulfill;
Satisfy Thy loving will:
Hear us, holy Jesus.
May we thirst Thy love to know;
Lead us in our sin and woe
Where the healing waters flow:
Hear us, holy Jesus. [10]

Jesus’ thirst continues to the present. In the book of Revelation, Jesus tells the church, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and share a meal with you” (Revelation 3:20). This message is not addressed to the unbelieving world, but to people of faith. It makes clear a point we constantly need to revisit: Jesus desires fellowship and friendship with us far more than we do with him. It is his great passion; his deep thirst. He longs for us to share the same passion toward him. He longs for us to know how deeply we are valued, cherished, and loved. He reminds us that, first and foremost, it is not we who seek God, but God who seeks us. If we seek God at all, it is only in response to God first seeking us. Put simply: “We love, because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

How can we respond in any other way than in love? In a world where an endless cacophony of voices claims to satisfy our deepest thirst with every new product or experience, we must learn to quench our thirst in the “living water” that comes from Jesus and the Spirit of God (see John 4:10, 13-14; 7:38). We must learn to see through the pale substitutes and pursue God as the object of our greatest desire.

If we fail to make this our passion, we cannot fulfill our mission to the world reflected in the closing lines of the last book of the Bible: “And the Spirit and the Bride [that is, the church] say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost” (Revelation 22:17).

Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, offers us a prayer to guide our response:

You thirsted for me,
You thirsted after my love and my salvation:
as the deer thirsts for the spring,
so does my soul thirst for you.”[11]

[1] Peter Storey, Listening at Golgotha (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 2004), 64.

[2] William D. Edwards, M.D., Wesley J. Gabel, M.Div., and Floyd E. Hosmer, M.S., AMI, “On the Physical Death of Jesus,” Journal of the American Medical Assocation 255 (1986), 1455-63.

[3] Christopher R. Seitz, Seven Lasting Words: Jesus Speaks from the Cross (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 39.

[4] The text does not explicitly state the Roman soldiers did this, but the Synoptic Gospels speak of this action by the soldiers.

[5] William H. Willimon, Thank God It’s Friday: Encountering the Seven Last Words from the Cross (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006), 54.

[6] Willimon, Thank God It’s Friday, 55.

[7] James W. Jones, The Mirror of God: Christian Faith as a Spiritual Practice (New York: Palgrove Macmillan, 2003), 17.

[8] Storey, Listening at Golgotha, 70.

[9] Wendy Farley, The Wounding and Healing of Desire: Weaving Heaven and Earth (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 124.

[10] http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/j/d/jdyingwo.htm

[11] Karl Rahner, Watch and Pray With Me (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1966), 55.

© Richard J. Vincent, 2008

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