Wednesday, July 29, 2015

“I Thirst”—Seven Last Words Service at University Church, 2015

John 19:28-29
After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the Scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there.  So they put a sponge full of wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.

Here we are, at the foot of the cross.  We women, the only ones who braved the sight of our savior being crucified.  Helpless, powerless, witnesses to the shattering of our world.  This man in whom we’ve put all of our faith, who we would follow to the ends of the Earth, our savior is broken.  The heat has made him delirious, his skin is burnt by the sun, his lungs are wheezing against the pressure of his ribs.  Yet even now, we still hope that the heavens will open up, that he will perform another miracle and get down from the cross.  Any minute now because he surely can’t take much more of this suffering. And then, “I am thirsty.”

Once Jesus utters those words, all of his divine aura disappears.  There is nothing left.  If our savior, the messiah, were still in control he would not ask for such a simple, human, thing.  With those words, our whole understanding of Jesus is crushed.   For three years Jesus has been telling us that he is the source of life, the fountain of living water.  We have believed, we have drunk from that stream, we have been sated.  In Jesus we have finally experienced abundant, steadfast love, that “hesed” love that the rabbis always talk about.  Society has doubted us women, silenced us, made us into property and denied our humanity.  But not Jesus.  Jesus has accepted us, empowered us, and affirmed our ministry.  He has given us life, sated our thirst to know we are truly equal partners in God’s covenant.   And now, that fountain has become a cracked cistern.  “I am thirsty.”

Jesus has been transformed from the Messiah into a man.  An enlightened man to be sure, but still just a man.  A man who we love, crying out in pain and bewilderment, “I am thirsty.” Find something! Anything!  Here, a jug of wine, sour but still wet.  Not the good wine that Jesus made in Canaa, spoiled wine, but still able to provide some relief to those dry, cracking lips.  How can we get it to him?  Here, a branch of hyssop.  Quick! Dip this sponge in the jar, tie it to the branch, let us give our beloved teacher the only consolation we can.  “I’m thirsty.” We can’t slake his thirst, we can’t relieve his pain, but we can let him know that he’s not alone.  We’re here.  To the end. 

As we wait with the women for the end, we must ponder these words, “I am thirsty.” Have we ever heard Jesus speak his needs before?  He has never expressed hunger, thirst, loneliness, pain, or exhaustion.  He has asked for food and drink, but has never expressed that deep yearning that underpins all suffering.  Surely, he must not have such human needs, God is all-knowing, ever-present, eternal, all-powerful.  God doesn’t need us. And yet, these words: “I’m thirsty.” 

“I am thirsty” is a proclamation of suffering.  These women know what it is to thirst.  As Israelites, they suffered under the oppression of Roman rule.  As women, they suffered under the societal codes that relegated them to mere property. Thirsty for what?  For water?  No.   If we have learned anything from the Gospel of  John we know that no one thirsts for plain old water. We thirst for that which gives us the strength to live in this broken world.  That which gives us hope in the midst of oppression, war, and famine.  We thirst for assurance that we are not alone, that God’s mercy, faithfulness, and compassion are steadfast.  We thirst for that hesed love, the defining feature of God’s covenant with us. Jesus was the good news for the women at the foot of the cross, those marginalized by society, desperately needing to know that they were not alone.

The suffering, the oppressed, the marginalized are never alone.  Jesus, God incarnate, hangs on the cross proving once and for all whose side God is on.  This is the good news, that Jesus suffers and dies with us.  But we have to push further if we are to witness the transformation taking place. It must have been so unsettling for the women, so frightening, to see Jesus enter that space that they had occupied for so long.  Jesus was strong, Jesus was persistent, Jesus was powerful.  Imagine, they had so recently come into their own and felt the liberating power of God’s favor.  This is their teacher, who affirmed their own power and wisdom, he is their guiding star, their fountain of justice and righteousness, their friend.  Hanging on the cross, broken, and empty.  “I am thirsty.” 

With these words, Jesus turns the tables once again, turns the world upside down and reverses the roles that these women are familiar with.  They’ve traded places. These women, the marginalized in society, they understand suffering, they recognize it in Jesus and they rush to meet him in that suffering to offer love and comfort that only they can. No, they couldn’t give him water, but Jesus didn’t ask for water.  Jesus needed that final human connection, the knowledge that he was loved and that he was not alone.  The women reach deep within themselves and find that hesed love and offer it back to him.  Sour wine on hyssop?  No.  Mercy, compassion, faithfulness, living water. 

Like always, it is the women who are the first to understand, the first to hear the good news.  Even here.  Even now.  Only here, and only now could they understand what he had been telling them for three years.  He told the Samaritan woman that “the water that I will give will become in you a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”  He told the crowds in Jerusalem “let the one who believes in me drink, and out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” Like so many of Jesus’ teachings, these words were misinterpreted and misremembered.  It’s not only Jesus who is a fountain of living water, we are too.  And that’s what the women at the foot of the cross realized.  Jesus didn’t cry out for water, he was crying out for the same thing those women had cried out for, what we all are thirsty for: affirmation of hesed love. 

The three women gave Jesus more than temporary relief from a parched mouth.  They gave him the strength to die.  And he had to die.  I don’t know why, I’m not sure anyone really does.  Whether it was to forgive our sins, to demonstrate the power of the covenant, to truly experience the depth of human pain and suffering, to liberate us from oppression, or all of these things together, Jesus had to die.  And yet he couldn’t do it without us.  This ultimate manifestation of God’s grace, love, and faithfulness, this ultimate affirmation and sealing of the covenant, could not happen without the assurance that Jesus was not alone, that he was loved.  The women didn’t give Jesus sour wine on hyssop.  With that last physical connection, that last act of solidarity and love, they gave him living water. And it is through that hesed love, made manifest by the women at the cross, that salvation is achieved. Jesus on the cross calls to the fountains of living water that we hold in our hearts and souls, the living water that saves the world.