James Tissot (1836-1902): I Thirst. Vinegar Given to Jesus
Our Saviour Lutheran Church
2 April 2010
The text for our meditation on this Good Friday comes from the twenty-eighth and twenty-ninth verses of the Gospel reading we have just heard:
After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfil the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth.
“Water, water everywhere
And all the boards did shrink,
Water, water everywhere
Nor any drop to drink.”
These haunting lines, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, form one the most famous descriptions of the agony of thirst. Of all our bodily needs, the need for adequate drink is the most urgent, the most pressing. Left without food, a healthy adult may survive for up to two months. Deprived of drink, we will be fortunate to last four days.
Thirst can come upon us in different ways. Perhaps we fail to take in adequate water. Or perhaps salt or other toxins will enter our body and upset the balance of fluids. Whichever the cause of thirst, left unsatisfied it is not only agonising, it is lethal.
In the Old Testament, early on in the Exodus, the people of Israel found themselves camped in the wilderness without drinking water. Little surprise, then, that they were feeling more than a little anxious as they contemplated what seemed like an uncertain future. It is not at all unnatural if our sympathies lie with the Israelites as they worried and, eventually grumbled and complained.
In the desert, without water, Israel had run into one of the great temptations that the people of God has to face time again: the conflict between promise and reality, between faith and sight. God himself had promised to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land; yet here they were, in the middle of the arid wilderness, facing death through thirst. Where was God’s promise now?
Predictably, the people lost faith, despaired, and turned against God and His servant Moses. But instead of pouring out His righteous wrath, God performed one of the great reversals in human history. The agonised complaint of the faithless Israelites became an occasion for an overflow of God’s grace. His anger expressed itself in mercy. In the middle of the wilderness, God gave his people drink out of a dry rock.
The people of Israel had failed to recognise the power of God’s promise. They had mistaken their want for their need. They thought their real problem was their thirst for water, whereas, in fact, their real thirst was for faith in God and His word. It was the thirst of sin.
And this is where the story of Israel meets our story. In their original created state, our forebears had not known the thirst of sin. But when sin entered the world, humanity was beset by a permanent thirst. The life-giving Spirit of God was drained from the veins of our souls. Instead, they are filled with a sin-saturated brine, which leaves us gagging for refreshment. Yet when we seek for water to flush out our sin, all we find is the false drink of idolatry, of the worship of created things rather than the God who created us for fellowship with Him. Like the waters surrounding the Mariner’s stricken ship, such water may look promising but it will only make our suffering greater. Left to our own devices, we too are lost in a wilderness with no water to drink. — And so we thirst.
How different it was for Jesus. Here was the Son of God, the Agent of creation Himself. Free from sin, he had no need of drink. Here was the one who had offered the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar living water. Here was the one who had promised, “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never thirst again.” Here was the one who declared at the Feast of Booths, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ’Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’’’ And, as St. Paul tells us, here was the one who was the spiritual Rock out of which the people of Israel drank in the wilderness. Here was no arid wilderness, no thirst of sin, but the very oasis itself.
How ironic, then, that the spring of life-giving, living water is now bleeding, dying and thirsting. As in the wilderness, we behold on the cross a great reversal. But now that which was a mere figure of what was to come is fulfilled. At Rephidim, the dry rock issued water. At Golgotha, the water flows out of the side of Christ, the Living Rock—while He Himself is left waterless, lifeless. The bottomless spring of water is turned into a waterless wilderness. Both places were places of immeasurable grace.
For Jesus’ thirst was the thirst of sin—your sin. It was the salt of your transgressions that poisoned His sinless soul. And so He was cut off from the Father, placed under the curse of sin. Separated from God, He was cut off from the source of life-giving drink. He who issued water out of a rock for His people, he who had turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana, had nothing to drink but that which sinful men had to offer Him: sour wine.
But this bitter, desolate scene is the sweetest Gospel for each one of us, for you and for me. Jesus thirsted, but he thirsted so that we might drink the water of life. When He was poisoned by the salt of sin, it was your sin that was killing Him. And in return, He offers you His pure, untainted blood in a miraculous transfusion. After Jesus died and His side was pierced by a soldier’s spear, it was water and blood that flowed out of His side. And the water and the blood still flow in great rivers of mercy to repentant sinners. In the waters of baptism, we are washed clean of the poison of sin. According to Jesus’ promise, the Spirit of God dwells in His children, like a spring of living water, flowing from the heart. The life of faith is one continuous drinking of the water of eternal life. Moreover, not content to give us mere water, in the cup of wine at the Lord’s Supper He gives us His own blood to drink, to nourish us and to gladden us. And so in the place of our sin-infested blood our veins are filled—quite literally—with His holy, unblemished, life-giving blood.
And so, with the salt of sin washed away and the thirsting soul having been brought back to the spring of living water, we are brought back into Eden, into fellowship with God.
And yet, how often we seem to find ourselves back in the wilderness, thirsting for God, thirsting for life. How often it is that we, like the faithless Israelites, find ourselves suspended between promise and reality, between faith and sight, want and need. It is all too easy to identify with the Psalmists’ cries of despair:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
My God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.
Where is God when we enter those dark nights of the soul? Where is He, when our loved ones die; when our relationships fail; when our life seems to lose its direction? Where is He when our needs are not being satisfied?
Where is God when we find ourselves empty and dry, wilting in a wilderness of temptation and sin, when the oasis of life with God seems but a mirage. Where is that water He promised, the drink that would never leave us thirsty?
And where is God when congregations wither and are brought to the very brink of existence, when churches close and it seems that the very voice of the Gospel is being silenced forever?
It is into such wildernesses that the Passion Gospel speaks. Christ has already thirsted your thirst, has Himself taken the poison that would have killed you. When He gave you the water of baptism, He did not offer you just a one-off washing. Instead, He has given us a pool of cleansing for daily, constant refreshment in repentance and faith. With His word as your compass, you will be led through the wilderness of this life safe into Promised Land. With His body and blood as food, you will not faint on the way.
Likewise with the Church. Like a doomed vessel, she is tossed on the stormy waves of the sea, or else languished in the doldrums, seemingly destined never to reach land again. And yet, her all-conquering Captain has promised: “I will be with you always. Go, make disciples—baptise, teach. I will build my church on the solid rock of the Gospel. And the gates of hell will not be able to prevail against Her.” And where His word and sacraments remain, the Church will prevail onto Her heaven-haven.
Yet, while we are on the way, the poison of sin still clings to us. We are tempted, we are tried, and we will often go the way of the wandering Israelites, failing to recognise the power of God’s promise, mistaking our wants for our needs. As soon as we contemplate our life apart from the God’s promises in Christ, consider our situation apart from His grace, we too will despair. God allows us to run into these dead-ends in order to remind us that His grace is sufficient. In the darkest depths of despair, He assures us,
The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
The promise is the reality. Faith takes hold of what the eyes do not yet see. On the cross, the Rock was struck. The waters are flowing, and they flow for you. Yes, He leads us away from the fleshpots of Egypt, along the narrow way. But it is the way to the Promised Land, to the land flowing with milk and honey, led by our Lord, who has promised, “I will never leave you, nor forsake you.”
In the name of † Jesus. Amen.