A Meditation on the Third Word from the Cross
Given During the Three Hours Preaching, April 9, 1993
In St. John’s Episcopal Church, Stamford, Connecticut
By The Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding
“I thirst,” is the shortest of the words that Jesus speaks from the cross. In Greek it is just one word, dipso. We know that part of the agony of the wounds that Jesus suffered in his scourging and upon the cross is thirst. When the body loses a great deal of blood, a tremendous all consuming thirst is produced. In every war the terrible cries of those abandoned on the field of battle is, “water, water.” At this point in his passion, Jesus flesh, like all human flesh, would be desperate with a burning thirst. Crucifixion was designed to be slow torture for criminals. The victim, though horribly traumatized by being nailed to the cross, actually died from slow loss of blood and slow strangulation. It is want of water and a want of air that does the killing. Now here on the cross in the mystery of the incarnation God gets inside human suffering. All of us are afraid of death in one way or another. In our day there is a special fear of slow death, especially the kind of slow death that it is only possible to die in a modern hospital. Here God in Jesus tastes of that suffering. Now there is truly no place where we might have to go where He has not gone before.
There are other kinds of slow death and some of the exaggerated fear of what might happen in a hospital might be a kind of cipher for types of slow death with which we are more familiar. There are other thirsts caused by a different kind of bleeding. The soul, the identity, the center of energy, the very most inmost self of a person can die slowly for want of life-giving water and life-giving breath. In both Hebrew and Greek the word for air, wind, breath and spirit are the same word. You can imagine what it might be like to be spiritually and emotionally dried up. You can imagine what it might be like to live a life day after day that is bleeding you to dry. You can imagine what it is to have a life in which each passing day leaves you with less vitality than the day before. You can imagine what it is to have a burning, all-consuming thirst, to say from the depth of your soul, “I thirst.” You can imagine what it is to have a kind of life which causes you to say in agony, “I am suffocating, I can’t breathe.” Each of us had had times like that in our lives. You may be having a time like that right now. There is a way in which humanity as a whole, the human race, bleeds from wounds like Rwanda and Iraq, from city slums and country shacks and from an empty life, of empty production and empty consumption, and says, “I thirst, I can’t breathe, I am dying.” We should have no problem joining with Jesus on the cross as he gives voice to a humanity that croaks from thirst and gasps for breath.
It is to satisfy our thirst, to breathe new life into us that Jesus has come. He wants to take from us the old life, the thirsty life, the life without breath and wind and give us a new life. He said to the Samaritan woman by the well, “I will give you water which will be in you a fountain gushing up to eternal life.” When he appears to his disciples at the resurrection he will breathe on them who are spiritless, who are winded. God thirsts to give us drink. To give us who are suffocating breath, the saviour breathes his last on the cross.
When someone is dying of thirst he or she cannot help but drink if the opportunity presents itself. When someone is strangling, suffocating, he or she cannot help but breathe if the chance comes. With spiritual bleeding and spiritual suffocation, it is different. The spiritually dying person can refuse to drink and bathe in God’s Spirit, refuse to inhale God’s life-giving breath. This obstinate panic that refuses God’s answer to our prayer when we cry, “I thirst,” is what pushes Jesus to the cross. This is what nails him there. There in the agony of Jesus, God makes his appeal to us. There God says, “I thirst also. I am crucified also. I am like you. I know your pain and your struggle. I know also a deeper struggle, a deeper passion. I know the passion of having your dying lover reject your life-giving gift. Here on the cross beloved, I follow you into death and when you are bled white and have breathed your last, I am there with the shed blood of Jesus to give you drink, I am there with the Spirit to give you breath.”
On the cross God is showing us our own suffering, showing us that God knows from the inside our suffering. On the cross God is showing us our thirst and our refusal to drink. On the cross the Father is showing us what it costs God to endure our rejection of his love, our refusal to drink and to draw breath. On the cross God meets our suffering with the suffering of Jesus in such a way that with Jesus we cry out and by Jesus our thirst is met and we have our spirits revived. In your baptism you were promised that God’s life would come into you when you were bleeding and thirsty. You were promised that God’s breath would be in you when you were out of wind. In your baptism you were asked to die with Jesus, so that you could live with him. You were asked to cry out with him, “I thirst,” so that he could give you drink. Where the thirst of the human heart and the thirst of God to give life come together, Jesus prayer from the cross, his work upon the cross is finished. Amen.