Jesus knew that his mission was now finished, and to fulfill Scripture he said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of sour wine was sitting there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put it on a hyssop branch, and held it up to his lips.
Now that’s a God for you. Those words were written by the English poet John Donne in his 14th Sonnet. John Donne’s God kicks butt and takes names. We know all about this God – the God of unlimited power and might who breaks down prison doors and bends human will like Superman curls an iron bar. We were taught to put our hope in the One who shatters the chains of evil and conquers death. And don’t get in this God’s way. His anger and fury are notorious. Many of us were raised with this image of an eternal, almighty, irate Being who smites enemies for all eternity.
But God on a cross? We’re not so comfortable with that. SuperGod is nowhere to be found on Good Friday. Jesus feels abandoned. And he’s thirsty. Maybe the words of Psalm 22:15 come to his mind: My strength has dried up like sunbaked clay. My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. You have laid me in the dust and left me for dead. Jesus begs his torturers for the smallest sip of relief. At this moment, Jesus is just so fragile. Dehydrated. Powerless.
Scholars think John’s Gospel was written around the close of the first century. Right around that same time, a political exile banished off the shore of modern-day Turkey, also named John, records some visions he’s had. This John is part of a growing group of Christians known as Followers of the Way. The members of his church have a tough decision to make. The Roman Emperor, Domitian, summoned citizens to the dedication of his new temple in the city of Ephesus. You don’t say no to Domitian. The Christians need to decide, do they worship Christ or Caesar? Will they protest the invitation and face punishment and death? In John’s vision, The Book of Revelation, those who stay true to Christ lose their lives, but gain the reward. They enter a new paradise where God wipes away every tear from their eyes. And get this: these martyrs get to drink from streams of living water. As soon as they drink, they thirst no more (Revelation 7:9-17).
Thirst no more . . . You know what that means to me? Those Christians might have felt like Jesus on the cross -- laid in the dust and left for dead. They dare to thirst for an end to violence borne of intolerance. They thirst for a renewed earth where everyone has enough, where children survive, where the oppressed go free, and the strangling grip of evil is finally undone. They thirst for a world where the poor and needy have enough, where those on the margins get treated with dignity and respect, where aliens and immigrants are welcomed.
Sound familiar? Sound familiar you dreamers who can see a word where beauty is restored, tears are wiped away, and thirsty souls drink the waters of life?
Sound familiar you prophets who call us to build societies based on equity and justice?
Sound familiar you servants who work to soothe and heal the pain of injustice?
Sound familiar, you who are tired, weary and worn … You who feel forsaken by God and left for dead … You who feel fragile … weak … thirsty?
We still follow the Ancient Way, and we must decide who we worship and whether we participate in the unjust structures of empire. The church was supposed to create redemptive communities who find strength in weakness. Instead, Christians started using theologies, rituals and political power to shame people instead of healing their thirst.
Rich was diagnosed with cancer when he was a student in college. He was not that religious, but in his physically wasted state, he remembered a teaching from his boyhood church. He had not been baptized, which meant he was not saved and would go to hell. He was terrified by the thought of eternal punishment. One morning, after a fit of coughing and with death’s face staring back at him in the mirror, he called his mother’s pastor to come and baptize him by immersion, the only method acceptable to their tradition. Rich had no idea what baptism meant, but he feared the consequences of not going through with it. The logistics were complicated. The hospital staff secured a large tank, loaned from the physical therapy department. Lowering Rich into the tank would be painful, as would be his trip from his room to the basement where the tank was located and filled with warm water. Lifting him off the bed caused excruciating pain. Even the most experienced therapists winced at Rich’s screaming. Some had to leave the room as Rich prepared to receive his sign of God’s acceptance. When they lowered Rich into the water, he was too weak to keep the fluid out of his mouth. He came up out of the water strangled and close to drowning. Then the tortured trip back to his room began. Rich died three days later.
Just to be clear, I’m not criticizing Baptists or immersion baptism. I’m talking about the ingredients in our theological recipes that feed Empires and create outsiders. I’m talking about what happens when Christians offer an overflowing chalice of guilt when someone asks us for a drink. I guess I’m feeling kind of thirsty, too.
- I’m thirsty for an honest church where fear is not used as a technique to manipulate others into obedience.
- I’m thirsty for a church that gives preference to the other; the-called “weak people” who are the victims of the world's power.
- I’m thirsty for a church where we have one and only one immutable claim on each other – the claim of love.
- I’m thirsty for us, people of God. I’m thirsty for us to sit by the bedsides of people like Rich and say, no matter who you are, what you’ve done, where you come from or where you’re going – no matter what, you belong to God who formed you in the divine image and will never leave you or forsake you.