Did you ever have one of those days where everything seemed to go right? Things just fall into place? Good Friday was not one of those days. Instead, on Good Friday a cross had center stage and a brand of Roman execution that we call crucifixion. Crucifixion was intended to send a message “do not resist the powers of Rome.” Rome hoped the torture and humiliation would make the message clear – “Rome rules the world.”
Somehow, we have softened the cross by making it into furniture or jewelry. We have made crucifixion into a religious term. We talk casually about things that would have made our ancestors shudder. It was likely that every time Jesus mentioned the cross his disciples shuddered. Yet Jesus made it very clear that to follow him included a cross.
It is helpful to reflect on the words Jesus spoke from the cross. Words that help us understand what it means to be a disciple. Words that help us find meaning in what happened. One of these words is “I thirst.” It sounds so rational. It makes sense. It sounds so much less religious than other words spoke that day. There is a danger of making more of this phrase than the story intends. There is equal danger to overlook any significance.
The gospel makes it sound a little more religious when we are told Jesus said this in order to fulfill an old psalm. Considering the day he was having we might suspect thirst is for real. At least we suspect it might come up before a desire to fulfill an old psalm. But John states clearly “so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said ‘I am thirsty.’” In fact, it sounds like Jesus is operating from some type of checklist. We are told “knowing that everything had now been finished and so Scripture would be fulfilled…” Jesus said “I am thirsty.”
In response he is offered a sponge of sour vinegary wine. While we might think about declining this offer – Jesus has already said that he must drink the cup offered him. And here on the cross he is determined to drink the cup even if it is full of sour wine.
Interestingly, this is not the first time Jesus gets thirsty in John. Fifteen chapters earlier we find Jesus near a well in Samaria talking to a woman and saying “give me a drink.” This conversation grows until we learn “everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give will never thirst again.” The more they talk, the less the woman seems to understand thirst. But the more she begins to believe Jesus is the one who can quench it.
We remember how the gospel began “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God.” Not too many verses later, we hear “And the Word became flesh.” Ever since that first chapter, we’ve been getting glimpses of “The Word was God” mixed with “The Word became flesh.” Jesus was God. Jesus was human. Perhaps that is most clear when he says from the cross “I thirst.” There is some irony here. The one who turned water into wine is now thirsty. We might start to wonder, can he turn sour wine into water?
People tend to take Jesus so literally in John’s Gospel. Nicodemus asks “how can I climb back into my mother’s womb to be born again?” The woman at the well says to him “You have nothing to draw water with and the well is deep.” Perhaps Jesus is not thirsty for literal water. The more we try to figure Jesus out the more the waters flow back and forth from literal to figurative. Maybe John wants us to ask if we are content with sour wine when living water is so readily available.
Maybe John hoped we might give up sour wine so we might enjoy what Jesus is offering. To follow the one who said I thirst is to follow one who knows the weariness of the journey. It is also to follow one who offers us living water, that we might never thirst again.
Maybe John wants us to ask ourselves what one who is able to turn water into wine is doing on a cross in the first place. What is someone in such command during his own crucifixion that he is forming a new family and thinking about fulfilling scripture doing on a cross? Perhaps John wants us to ask if Rome is really in charge. Does Caesar rule the world? Or is there something going on here on this Friday that is changing the order of things?
Crucifixion was intended to put people in their place but here the crucified one is going through some divine checklist and fulfilling scripture as if this is some moment of triumph. There is danger is making too much of this statement “I thirst” and danger of overlooking its significance. But in this gospel instead of mockery, darkness, earthquake, and a cry of being forsaken is a Jesus who is busy forming a new family and working to fulfill scripture. Who is really in charge around here? John wants us to know that it isn’t Rome. The statement “I thirst” is part of the story of the triumph that is the cross.
J. R. R. Tolkien, famous for writing about hobbits, elves, and dwarves, is credited with a word that is fitting for John’s story of the cross – euchatastrophe. It means “a fortunate disaster.” That is what John gives us on the cross. John talks about the cross as if there is something going on that is not visible to bystanders. John talks about the cross as if the world is changing on account of a crucifixion. John talks about the cross as if there is another surprise just around the corner. John talks about the cross as if it’s a victory.
If this crucifixion is only what it appears to be, only what Rome intends it to be – let’s just skip Larry’s next song about the power of the cross and call Billy Joel up here to sing “Only the Good Die Young.”
It may be puzzling. It may be against the odds. We might not understand how it happens. But John’s Gospel turns the crucifixion into a moment of triumph. The gospel does not want us to retell a history. It does not want us to explain crucifixion. John has already given us an explanation – euchatastrophe! And what John wants is for us to believe.
This is true at the cross. There is a witness present who tells us that his testimony is true. He goes on to say that he writes this so that we might believe. John wants us to know that the crucified one who stated “I thirst” on the cross is the same as the one who offers to quench our thirst with living water that we might never thirst again. May we believe.