Thirsting for the Kingdom

Part 5 of a Lenten journey through the last seven sayings of Jesus.

Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:28-30)

Though I have repeated Jesus’ words “I am thirsty” many times, I have never known real thirst. Like most people in the Western world, my thirst has only ever been temporary, easily remedied in a variety of flavours and taste sensations.

The only time I ever came close to the distress of dehydration was when Emma and I visited Pompeii during our honeymoon. In keeping with our reputation for poor planning, we set off on a tour of the ancient city in high summer with no more than a 500 ml bottle of water between us. It wasn’t long before the scorching Mediterranean sun and the cruel lack of shade confronted us with our error. We were left parched and panting, increasingly desperate for a drink. In our distress, we could think of nothing else. All other desires faded away for want of a cup of water. Even the marvel of Pompeii could not distract us. We abandoned our visit without hesitation, eschewing all for the first bottle of acqua we could find.

The fifth last saying of Jesus from the cross reveals that he too knew thirst. In the last moments before death, he asks for a drink and is offered a vinegar-soaked sponge. It is a heartbreaking picture. As I child I always thought it to be the cruellest moment in the passion narrative. Desperate and alone, this acid drink offers little relief. And beyond the cruelty, this image taught me an important lesson about Jesus’ humanity – he thirsted just like anyone. He felt the same parching of the throat, the same drying of the lips as any poor victim of Roman execution. 

But of course, physical thirst is only part of the story. Though there are many instances of him eating and drinking in the Gospels, Jesus also talked about thirsting after justice-righteousness (Matthew 5:6). We miss this dimension of Jesus’ desire if we stop at the fifth last saying. But “I am thirsty” must be read in tandem with “It is finished.” This sixth last saying reveals that Jesus’ greatest desire was to fulfil the Father’s mission to bring God’s justice-righteousness to the world.

When we were in Pompeii, quenching our thirst took priority over everything else. Without hesitation, we were prepared to abandon the plans we had made to satisfy our physical need. But it wasn’t this way for Jesus. Thirst and distress were an anticipated part of his final hours. By willingly submitting himself to this ordeal, Jesus reveals his supreme desire to finish his mission. As Paul Dominiak puts it, he reveals “God’s utter and radical commitment to us” – a commitment realised in God achieving God’s purposes to water the desert of this world with never-ending streams of justice-righteousness.

Understood in this way, “I am thirsty” is more than the desperate plea of a dying man; it is a defiant shout against injustice. Jesus cries out for all those who thirst, all those who hunger, and all those whose cup is filled with bitter wine instead of life-giving water.

Such a thirst could not be more different from my own. This Lent is a case in point. Yesterday, in a moment of weakness, I broke into my daughter’s Easter egg – much to her horror! A trivial example, perhaps. But one that is illustrative of how my physical desire frequently trumps my best intentions (and often with less than trivial consequences). But the example of Jesus asserts that our thirst should not be so different from his. This God-man calls us to follow him, even in our weakness. He asks that we swap our burdens and our desires for his. 

We do not always pursue this calling with faithfulness. There are many Pompeii moments on the walk of discipleship, to be sure. But there are also glorious moments when we get a taste of the Kingdom, moments when God whets our appetite for the world to come.

This Lent has been an occasion for such moments. Though I have failed to reflect adequately on all seven last sayings of Jesus as I had intended, the little time I have spent on this project has been enough for God to interrupt. Christ’s words from the cross have expanded my vision of what this world ought to be, and what it will be when God’s Kingdom (or kin-dom) is fully established, when all our thirsting is finally quenched and we can join with Christ at last in saying, “It is finished.”