I ThirstMarch 25, 2016 at 5:11 pm | Posted in world water crisis | 4 Comments
Tags: Climate Change, St. John's Passion, the crucifixion, the woman at the well, Thirst
The following is a sermon I preached ten years or so ago as part of a “Seven Last Words of Christ” service at Allen Temple Baptist Church, the largest Black church in Oakland, California. It suggests that the death of Christ calls us to much more than repentance for personal sin–that it calls us to repent for the thirst we are allowing to afflict people, especially women and children, all around the world.
After this, knowing that all was now finished, Jesus said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put the sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. (John 19:28-29
Jesus is coming ever closer to the end of his journey. He has forgiven his persecutors. He has asked his dear friend and his mother to care for one another. He has cried out with incomprehension at being forsaken by his father. And now he speaks of an experience shared by human beings all over the world: He says that he is thirsty.
Someone who suffers what Jesus suffered has every reason to be thirsty. Blows, scourging, multiple falls, nails hammered through his wrists and feet, and the terrible struggle to breathe that comes with being hoisted up on a cross—Jesus endured them all. Scientists tell us that his dehydrated tissues would have sent a flood of stimuli to his brain, eliciting the very words we hear: “I thirst.”
But there’s something puzzling about the verses that we just read from John’s gospel—and let’s be clear, John’s is the only one of the four passion stories that includes the words “I am thirsty.” However much we may be concerned with Jesus’ thirst, the text tells us that Jesus says what he says “in order to fulfill the scripture.” What does this mean?
Recall that the community for whom the evangelist wrote this fourth gospel was not the kind of Christian community that we are accustomed to today. Rather, it was a community of Jewish Christians, still trying to convince their Jewish brothers and sisters that Jesus was the messiah. And so they paid great attention to the parts of Jesus’ life that seemed to fulfill passages in the Torah, the Jewish scripture. With this in mind, some biblical scholars claim that John inserts the words “I thirst”—and the verse that follows, about the Roman soldiers giving Jesus sour wine to drink—to highlight the way Jesus fulfills two passages in the book of psalms. In one of these a forsaken individual cries out that his mouth is dried up like a piece of broken pottery; in another, persecutors give their victim vinegar to drink.
But the passage that we read today doesn’t actually say which scripture Jesus’ words fulfill; it only asserts that they do so. Let’s consider, then, that Jesus’ words—“I am thirsty”—also refer back to and complete an earlier passage in the gospel of John itself, the story of the woman at the well.
I begin by noting the similarities between these two stories. Here, too, Jesus is thirsty. He is sitting by a well near the Samaritan city of Sychar, worn out by his journey, a weariness that foreshadows the far greater weariness of his journey to Calvary. A woman comes to the well to draw water, and Jesus says to her “Give me a drink.” Then they talk to one another.
What Christians generally remember about this story is that in this conversation, the woman tells Jesus that she has no husband, and Jesus responds that she is right, she has had five husbands, and the man she currently lives with is not her husband. From this exchange many conclude that the woman at the well is sexually loose, an adulteress, and that Jesus’ only reason for speaking to her is that their conversation gives him an opportunity to display his great knowledge.
But there is nothing in John 4 to indicate that this woman is sexually immoral; there are a number of stories in the Bible about women obligated by the Law to marry the brothers of their deceased husband in order to raise up children in his memory. Mark 4, where the Sadducees ask Jesus about a series of brothers who marry a widow is just such a story, and there is no suggestion there that the woman is immoral. What is far more likely is in the story of the woman at the well is that the woman herself is very poor, living with a man who is not her husband, because she has no other way to survive. We all know poor women in such situations; in the time of Jesus, it was even harder for poor unmarried women to support themselves than it is today. Another indication that this woman is poor is that she is hauling water, a task so hard and unending that it damaged the postures of the women required to do it.
But despite this woman’s poverty and her bad living situation, Jesus enters into conversation with her. He doesn’t just talk to her; she takes the initiative with him, asking questions and moving the conversation in new directions. She makes such an impact on Jesus that he sends her off, the first Gentile disciple, to evangelize the people of Sychar. In fact, this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is so powerful that the woman’s entire life is changed. We know this because, as the scripture says, when she went into the city to proclaim the Messiah, she left behind the essential tool of her former way of life, her water jar.
But what does this woman’s water jar have to do with Jesus’ words from the cross? To clarify this, recall that early in their conversation, the woman wondered aloud how it could be that Jesus, a Jew, would ask for water from a Samaritan. Jesus tells her that if she had known whom she was speaking to, she would have asked him, and he would have given her “living water.” Those who drink this living water, Jesus says, will never be thirsty again.
Now many interpreters think that the main purpose of the story of the woman at the well is precisely this teaching about “living water”—perhaps they would call it “spiritual water.” For them, spiritual water is far more significant than the actual water this poor Samaritan woman hauls back and forth. They highlight the connection between these verses and the seventh chapter of John’s gospel when Jesus cries out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me… (for) out of the believer’s womb shall flow rivers of living water.” Indeed, when this passage says that this living water is the Spirit whom believers will not receive until Jesus is glorified, it seems to refer directly to the crucifixion. This emphasis on the superiority of living, that is to say, spiritual water, makes the woman at the well look even worse than she did before; first, she was a sexual sinner; now she’s so stupid that she confuses Jesus’ living water with real water. Even after Jesus proclaims that his water is the water of eternal life, this poor woman says, “”Sir, give it to me, so that I may not have to keep coming here to draw it.”
But I have a feeling that these people who are so taken up with the superiority of “living water” don’t understand what it is to be really thirsty. Perhaps they are like the great majority of us Americans, who simply turn on our taps, and out comes as much water as we want, at a very low price. It seems unlikely that they are the billion people around the world who lack access to clean drinking water, or the three billion people who have no sanitation. Neither are they the millions of contemporary women who, like the Samaritan woman, spend their days hauling water over long distances. And they are surely not the 40,000 children who die each day from diseases caused by contaminated water.
Finally, those who argue that the spiritual replaces or transcends the material in John’s gospel are not really the followers of Jesus. For when Jesus on the cross prepares to give up his spirit, he does not say: “I am thirsty for living water.” He says “I am thirsty.” We know that this is not just a question of symbolic water divorced from the body because we feel in our own bodies how Jesus must have felt when he got nothing but sour wine to quench his last thirst. And we know that the first gift he bestowed on his newly created church was the water that flowed out from his pierced side along with his most precious blood.
All over the world, men and women are crying out with Jesus on the cross, “I am thirsty.” They are thirsty for the word of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ. And they are thirsty to become sources of living water for their sisters and brothers, as the Samaritan woman was to the citizens of Sychar. But they cannot do this if they are literally dying of thirst, as is the case with so many in Africa, and India, and Latin America. How can women study and preach the gospel if they are doomed never to leave their water jars behind? How can girls go to school to learn to read the gospel if they are never free, as so many of them are not, from the endless task of hauling water? How can babies and small children grow up to be the disciples of Jesus if they die from cholera or dysentery before they are five years old? And last of all, how can we ever reach the kingdom of heaven if we allow such things to happen?
Jesus is hanging from the cross, preparing to send the Spirit onto the church to carry his word to the ends of the earth. When he cries out “I am thirsty,” let us not give him sour wine but the fresh and living water he so desires.