After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. (John 19:28-29)
“Louisiana, they’re trying to wash us away…”
Randy Newman—“Louisiana 1927”
Good Old Boys
Water. You can’t live without it, but sometimes living with it can be devastating. On the sixth day of creation God offered humanity dominion over the birds of the air and the fish of the sea, but God never offered dominion over the sea itself. In God’s story, water first represents chaos. God’s spirit moved over the waters as if to remind the waves that it still must obey at least the wind. When we see water where it shouldn’t be, our sensibilities urge us to build levees, dig channels, fill sandbags, yet is we redirect the water entirely we would live only for a few days.
Throughout scripture water offers a complex picture of God’s world. It represents chaos, danger, and a barrier to the Promised Land, but it is never evil. Evil is easily defined. You know to avoid it, it profits nothing, and it is the enemy of the good. Water is much more ambiguous than evil. It sustains life, and drowns it away. It transports goods and knocks down walls. Water is neither evil, nor entirely good because water itself has no shape. It is so ambiguous that it takes Jesus himself to offer it new meaning. One day Jesus sat with a Samaritan woman at a well and said, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14). Water takes the shape of the vessel in which it is carried, as Bruce Lee once said, “You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.” Jesus is saying that unless it is he who carries it, you will continue to be thirsty. You see, it is we who are the water in the story!
In the Gospels water begins to take on new meaning. It is categorically “more.” It becomes something through which we find rebirth. It is something transformed into wine. It becomes something living that is offered to the outcast in Samaria. It flows from Jesus’ side from the cross. This is what Jesus accomplishes. He takes a symbol of chaos and transforms it into something life-giving, something than can wash away the dirt life sometimes brings. And yet, from the cross, Jesus says, “I thirst.” How can this be? How can the one who offers living water now be thirsty? If we allow it, Jesus’ thirst bothers our souls even more than Jesus feeling forsaken. We know what being forgotten feels like. We know betrayal on one level or another. But have we really been thirsty to the point of death? Or imagine that when we open the tap that the water is not drinkable, or worse, that we are unaware that it is poison like the folks in Flint, Michigan have experienced. In essence they were told that offering them safe drinking water was just too expensive to maintain. To put it another way, your life doesn’t matter as much as tax breaks and the bottom line. Don’t think we are immune! Our state government is about to cut $800 million from our state budget, and I would hope that cutting infrastructure maintenance to our poorest brothers and sisters is not how the budget will be balanced.
When Jesus was near death he cried out, “I’m thirsty,” and what he received was a sour wine. It could be that Jesus was actually thirsty. Crucifixion quickly leads to dehydration, if the pain and suffocation doesn’t get you first, but because Jesus’ thirst is recorded only in John’s poetic and theologically symbolic Gospel, there is something more at work here. Jesus’ thirst goes beyond sustenance. Jesus thirsts for righteousness. Jesus thirsts for justice with mercy. Jesus thirsts for the kind of vessel in which living water would pool.
Diving even deeper into the story, wine plays a crucial role in John’s Gospel. Jesus’ first miracle was to turn water into wine at the wedding in Cana. He took the water stored in six stone jars, and transformed them into the best wine the steward had ever brought to his lips. These six stone jars were used for purification, which is kind of like John’s little “inside joke.” You see, six is the number for imperfection. It was the day humanity was created. It’s close to seven, the number for perfection, but it will never be. Using six stone jars of water for purification is like using muddy water in order to get clean. It just doesn’t work. Jesus takes this imperfection and transforms it! Jesus offers the best wine to humanity, and what he received in turn was a sour concoction meant to further his humiliation. And yet, Jesus accepts this disgrace and leaves it powerless when the tomb was empty on the third day.
Although the institution of the last supper is never mention in John’s Gospel, the wine at the beginning and ending of the story is a symbol of covenant, transformation, and resurrection. Jesus could have transformed the wedding cake into three tiers or switched out the DJ’s Spotify playlist to play only family friendly hits. He chose to transform the ordinary water into the extraordinary and best wine, just as Christ transforms us into his own body set for resurrection. We are the water in the story!
In Cross-Shattered Christ, Stanley Hauerwas writes:
The work of the Son, the thirst of the Son through the Spirit, is nothing less than the Father’s thirst for us. God desires us to desire God. We were created to thirst for God (Psalm 42) in a “dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63). Such a desire is as “physical” or real as our thirst for water, our thirst for one another, and our desire for God. Surely that is why our most determinative response to those who ask how we can ever come to worship this Jesus is to simply ask, “Do you not need to eat and drink?” Our God, our thirsty God, is the One capable of saying to us: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37–38).” (page 52-53).
For what do you thirst? I hope when you come to the communion table you thirst for more than what is in the cup. I pray you thirst for what the cup represents and calls us to become—one body with one Lord, taking the sour divisiveness of humanity, and transforming it into reconciliation and peace. Water takes the shape of the vessel in which it is carried. We are the water in the story. Ambiguous, life-giving, sometimes destructive, helpful, chaotic—sometimes you can’t live with each other, but we can’t live without each other either. Jesus thirsts for us, so that we might be carried by him, and thus become a vessel of living water for others. The Well’s logo says, “Living Water for a Thirsty World.” Let us live into who we claim to be! In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!