“I am thirsty,” Jesus said from the cross.
It was plea. His insides burned, and he craved even just a drop to ease it.
It was a declaration. Jesus stood with us in our humanity, beginning to end. He felt, all the way down, what we feel: I am thirsty. He knew the wanting in us that is never fully quenched, never quite satisfied.
My dad was thirsty.
For many years, from his late teens to his early 30s, he had a bottomless capacity for scotch whisky and, when that wasn’t on hand, rye whisky. I don’t know the difference between the two, but he did. Put 2 or 3 drinks in him, he was funny, charming, witty. Put another 2 or 3 in him, he was sour, mean, belligerent. And he never stuck with just 2 or 3. It gradually took over his whole life. He squandered all the money. He couldn’t hold a job. He couldn’t keep friends. He was about to lose his marriage.
And then one day, a miracle: he stopped.
My dad was home sleeping off a bender. My mom was often home, too, but she’d slipped out while he slept and took the bus downtown to meet with a divorce lawyer. But she got turned around – she never had a good sense of direction – and went to the wrong lawyer, who listened to her anyhow and who, without charging her a dime, told her go back home and tell my dad that either he stopped drinking or she would leave. While she was gone, a Fuller-Brush man (ask your grandfather) happened by the house and found my dad in his drunken stupor. The Fuller-Brush man had recently sobered up through the help of AA, and he forced his way into the house, against my father’s loud and foul protests, and read my dad the riot act.
When my mom got home, she said, “Bruce, I have something I need to tell you.”
And he said, “Joyce, I have something I need to tell you.”
“Okay,” she said. “You go first.”
“I quit drinking,” he said.
He told her what happened, and then said, “What did you need to tell me?”
She said, “That I love you.”
That was all in the early part of the 1960s. My dad never touched liquor again. Not once. He could serve it to others – he kept a well-stocked liquor supply in his home office, and routinely poured and mixed for others. He just never indulged.
But he was always thirsty. Always trying to fill some dry empty place in himself, slake some wild dark craving. I am so thankful for that Fuller-Brush man, who himself slipped back into active drinking 6 months after he met my dad, and died from liver failure 2 years later. But for many years I was also bewildered by my dad: if he wasn’t a drunk anymore, why could he be sometimes so funny, charming, witty and then, with no warning, sour, mean, belligerent?
It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I started to figure that out: he was still thirsty, always thirsty. And he kept reaching for something, almost anything, to fill it.
In my early years, I judged him for that.
In my later years, I got it.
I’m thirsty, too.
It’s actually how God made us.
Jesus doesn’t judge our thirst. He gave it to us. He experiences it with us. Goodness, Jesus wouldn’t know what to do with us if we ever lost our thirst. Our thirst is how he’ calls us to himself: “Is anyone thirsty?” he says. “Come. Come to me. And I will give you real drink.”
No, Jesus loves the thirsty, and he honors our thirst.
It’s just that many things we turn to, often over and over, don’t satisfy it. Some things we turn to even destroy us, though usually at first they show us a fine good time. The well we keep going at first thrills us, then poison us. Retired seminary professor James Nelson in his book Thirst, about his own struggle with alcoholism, puts it this way: “the more I drank, the thirstier I became.”
When Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well (John 4), the topic of his thirst, and then hers, thirst drives the encounter. “Can you give me something to drink,’ is how Jesus starts. I am thirsty. But very quickly, he turns to her thirst: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
“Give me this water!” she says. She loses all politeness. All decorum. All dignity. Thirsty people tend to do that.
One of the things that older Christians – such as Augustine, Ignatius, Chesterton, Lewis – understood but more recent Christians often forgot (though thankfully are starting to remember) is that our hunger and our thirst – our desires – are not all carnal. Indeed, at root they’re all spiritual. One writer calls our desires, even our worst and darkest ones, “the ruins of our search for lost transcendence.” They’re hieroglyphs of our deepest longings.
C.S. Lewis writes:
The Christian says, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.”
Jesus doesn’t intend to take away our thirst. He just wants to give us a drink. When he goes to the the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem (John 7) – a carousing week-long whoop up of eating and drinking like none other – and does this:
On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”
And then John, helpfully, adds this “By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.”
I am thirsty. You are thirsty. It’s okay: it’s how we’re made. But sometimes we go to wells, over and over, that don’t satisfy. But if you knew the gift of God, and who it is who meets you at your well, you would ask him and he would give you living water.