The Pilgrim God: Reflections on the Story of Jesus
111. Scenes From An Execution VI: "I Thirst" (John 19:28-29)
Jesus lived our life and died our death. There is no human experience that he does not understand. He has gone through all of them himself. He knows how we feel about our life and about our death.
He knows that, given the choice, we would much prefer not to die at all. But we do not have that choice. He knows that, given the choice, we would like at least to die well ... to die with dignity. But sometimes even that is taken from us. We who so much pride ourselves on our freedom, who so loudly proclaim our right to control our lives, sometimes at the very end we cannot even control our bodily functions. It is a truly humbling experience.
It is humbling because it reminds us that despite all our pretensions, we are still very much animals. When our poor old body cries out for attention we must put down all our great philosophies, we must stop looking fondly at loved ones, we must excuse ourselves from that great business deal of our lives and take care of our body's physical needs. In our dying as in our living, we are proven to be dusty angels, poor old wounded animals who dream of being like God.
It is embarrassing to be brought up short at such a crucial moment in our lives. We feel compelled to make our dying a memorable moment. We want to die a noble death. We want to make our last words wise sayings about the meaning of life and death. We want to express our final farewells to loved ones in words that they can treasure for the rest of their lives. How embarrassing, then, at the moment of death to be able to think only of the needs of our body. How embarrassing to want to say "I love you" or "God lives" one last time and to be able to say only "I thirst".
This is what happened to Jesus. When he arrived at Calvary only a few hours before his death, the soldiers saw not a God or a great prophet. They saw only a thirsty human being and one of them offered the Son of God a drink. He offered him the only thing available ... a bit of cheap wine. It was better than nothing but certainly water would have been preferable. Wine may make a party more enjoyable, but water is necessary that we might live!
If love is the life of the soul, water is the life of the body. No human can live long without loving, living water. Like the world itself our bodies are mostly water. Precious liquids are the bearers of life to our highest powers. Cut off blood and our brain dies. Dry out our lungs and breathing stops. Water cleanses us. It cools us. It is the foundation for taste. It is the necessary condition for perceiving the delicious aromas of life.
A philosopher once proudly proclaimed: "I think, therefore I am." He could just as truthfully said: "I drink, therefore I am."
Just as the presence of loving, lovely water is the source of our pleasures, so too is its absence the guarantee of our most terrible physical pain. The final physical act of love that we can do for the dying is to give them a little water. In giving them water at the end of this life we give our loves a precious memory to carry with them into eternity ... the memory of a thirst satisfied.
In a world truly filled with love every human being would die with moistened lips, and it is sad that sometimes this does not happen. It is sad that some die with no one there to give them a little water. It is even worse that some die with everyone there but no one there who cares enough to give even a "cup of water for the sake of the Lord." (Matthew 10:42)
It is sad because water is so easy to give and is always well-received. It enriches both giver and receiver. Best of all, you don't need special gifts to give water. Anyone can do it. The cries of the suffering soul are indeed many and they tear at the hearts of those who want to help but cannot. Our loved ones cry:
"I am so afraid!"
"I am so alone!"
"I feel so guilty!"
"I am in so much pain!"
And we don't know what to do. But when they cry "I'm thirsty!" we reach for a sponge filled with lovely, loving water and touch their lips ... and through their pain they smile and know that they are loved.
One of the happy events in the dying of Jesus is that there was someone on Calvary who saw his thirst and responded ... indeed, responded twice. The first time Jesus was too weak to drink, but later he asked for a drink, crying out:
and, hearing the cry, a soldier filled a sponge with some of the cheap wine that he himself had to drink and lifted it to the lips of Jesus. This time Jesus sipped the liquid. It was the last gift given to a dying God by a human being.
It is interesting that this last gift was given by a stranger. Mary and John and the holy women were there at the foot of the cross but they could not give the gift that Jesus wanted. Only the pagan Roman soldiers had anything there to drink. They did not know that Jesus was God. All they knew was that he was a human being who was thirsty. And one of them took pity, and gave the dying man a drink.
The last gift given on this earth to Jesus-God was a drink and it was given by a human being who had just met Jesus, had no idea of who he was, and had no expectation of a reward. Jesus had performed no miracle for this soldier. He had not explained the meaning of life to this soldier. Jesus came to this pagan Roman soldier as a dying member of a supposedly inferior race and the soldier took pity.
We don't know what happened to that soldier. We don't know how the rest of his earthly life turned out. But this we do know: wherever the story of Jesus Christ is told on this earth, that soldier will be remembered for what he did for God. We must believe that this good soldier will be remembered in heaven too, because long before that terrible day on Calvary, Jesus had promised:
"Whoever gives a cup of cold water will not go without reward."
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