“I Thirst” – John 19: 28-29National Geographic magazine not too long ago devoted a special issue on the topic of the vital role of water to our survival. To emphasize both the dependence of all life to it, and the fragility of this critical resource, the report reminds us that 97.5% of water on earth is salty. Only 2.5% of that is fresh. But about two thirds of that is locked in snow and ice. Right now nearly 900 million people in the world have no access to clean water. Water is fundamental to all life on earth. Fresh water is essential for human survival.
In that report is a story of Aylito. She is a 25 year old woman who lives in a very remote and arid district of southwestern Ethiopia. It says that Aylito's feet know the mountain, because even at four in the morning she runs down the rocks on the face of the mountain to the river by starlight alone, and then climb the steep mountain back up to her village with 50 pounds of water on her back. She has made this journey three times a day for nearly all her 25 years. And so has every woman in her village. She dropped out of school when she was 8 years old, in part so she can help her mother fetch water. No one in her village could survive without water.
The science of Physiology tells us that humans can survive without water, in average surroundings and temperature, for 8-14 days. But without shelter, in the desert, with the sun beating down on the unprotected human body accelerating dehydration, death comes in a matter of hours. And so it goes without saying that Jesus, nailed to a cross, mortally wounded and exposed to the afternoon sun of the Judean desert, was completely dehydrated, his organs having failed irreversibly. His spontaneous cry for water was, on one level, a physiological necessity.
And so it is a legitimate question to ask our text why, if quenching thirst is such an irresistible physiological craving, Jesus didn't ask for water earlier but rather saved such plea just before he uttered his last words before dying. In the course of the narrative of Jesus’ last words on Golgotha, various things are said to have taken place in order that such will fulfill scriptures, like the soldiers dividing his garments. But these soldiers had no idea that what they were doing was fulfilling scripture. The gospel of John, however, is explicit in reminding us of Jesus’ personal autonomy in deciding when to utter his cry, “After this, knowing that all things had now been accomplished…” Jesus was aware that such cry was to fulfill scriptures, in Ps. 69:21 (“for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink”), and perhaps Ps. 22:15 (“my tongue cleaves to my jaws”).
Mark 15:23, tells us something profoundly significant, for there Mark reports that Jesus, upon arriving at the place of his execution, was offered wine mingled with myrrh, which he refused. That mixture was given by kind people in Jerusalem to people facing excruciating and brutal execution as a sedative, to dull their senses. Jesus refused “morphine”, so he can die with a clear mind.
The witnesses around the cross remember Jesus talking in short phrases, simple sentences. Crucifixion kills by asphyxiation, and a point comes when it becomes painful even to inhale air necessary for speech. In his cry for water, his dry tongue cleaving to the roof of his mouth, we behold the full humanity of Jesus that he shares with our own. In his clear intent to link such cry to the prophetic words of ancient scripture, Jesus reminds us that God is sovereign, and chooses to be present with us even in the abyss.
This is why many Christian martyrs who died for their faith, triumphantly faced their executioners! Eleven American Baptist missionaries were executed in the Philippines by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. Before their execution they asked for a time to pray. After that they went to their executioners singing a hymn and said, “we are ready!”
The last words of the risen Jesus before ascending to heaven were, “and lo, I am with you until the end of the age!” This is the same promise that our martyrs claimed. There will be times when following Jesus here on earth may take us to the abyss, and thrust us into the dark night of the soul. Yet, even there, we find assurance in our shared humanity with Jesus, and at the same time in the triumph of the risen Lord. To claim this promise exacts a price on us. Are we ready to pay that price when called upon?