22 April 2011

Seven Last Words (5): ‘I am thirsty’

‘Give me a drink’ … icon of the Samaritan Woman at the Well, in the Church of Aghios Nikolaos in Vathy on the Greek island of Samos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

5, John 19: 28

Patrick Comerford

John 19: 28-29.


The words: “I am thirsty.”

Reflection: (5) Distress

“I am thirsty.”

This is the fifth of the seven last words and is traditionally called “The Word of Distress.” Commentators regularly compare the thirst of Christ on the Cross with the request he makes to the Samaritan woman at the Well of Sychar: “Give me a drink” (John 4: 7), and the promise that follows: “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty” (John 4: 14).

In expressing his thirst out loud in that cry from the cross, Christ shows his humanity and his humility. In expressing such a basic need, he shows his solidarity with all those in humanity, living or dying, healthy or sick, great or small, who are in need and who in humility are forced to ask for a cup of water (see Matthew 10: 42).

Saint John tells us Christ spoke these words, “I am thirsty,” “in order to fulfil the Scripture” (John 19: 28). Once again, the dying Christ calls out drawing on the words of Psalm 22: “My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death” (Psalm 22: 15). And again, later in the Psalms, we hear the words: “and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” (Psalm 69: 21).

The Psalmist’s words treat of physical thirst. But on the lips of Christ on the Cross they give a messianic perspective to his suffering.

In his thirst, the dying Christ seeks a drink quite different from water or vinegar, as when he asks the Samaritan woman at the well: “Give me a drink” (John 4: 7). Physical thirst on that occasion was the symbol and the path to another thirst – the thirst that leads to the conversion of the Samaritan woman.

On the cross, Christ thirsts for a new humanity to be formed and shaped through his incarnation, life, passion, death, resurrection and ascension, and that looks for his coming again.

The thirst of the cross, on the lips of the dying Christ, is the ultimate expression of that desire of baptism to be received into the Kingdom of God. Now that desire is about to be fulfilled. With those words Christ confirms the ardent love with which he desires to receive that supreme “baptism” to open to all of us the fountain of water which really quenches the thirst and saves (see John 4: 13-14).

‘The voice of the hidden waterfall’ ... above the beach at Loughshinny, Co Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Recently, on one of my beach walks near Skerries, I was climbing up behind the shoreline in Loughshinny, and came across what I imagined to be a secret waterfall.

I was reminded how the poet TS Eliot concludes his poem Little Gidding (1942), the last of his Four Quartets, with his deep thoughts about the spiritual refreshment to be found in water, in rivers and in the sea:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always –
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

And I was reminded too how we take water for granted in this country, despite the water shortages we suffered, north and south, just four months ago at height of winter. We use it freely. We baulk at any efforts to charge us for it in restaurants. I can imagine that the great political battle in a few years to come may not be over the cost of recapitalising the banks but on the follow-up to introducing water charges.

Already the world is suffering from a scarcity of water. Those who analyse future security risks point to the danger of wars in the Middle East caused not by militant Islam, nor by militant Zionism, but by competition for access to the waters of the Nile, the Jordan and the rivers of Mesopotamia, the Euphrates and the Tigris.

We take water for granted at the moment. But last winter’s water crisis was created precisely because we take water for granted. It was not caused by us using too much water, but by us wasting too much water, mainly through not maintaining the pipes that bring water from our lakes and rivers to our homes, factories, offices and schools.

If we do not remedy this soon – and it can only be remedied through political will, political action and public spending – then we face a series of major water crises, every year, each winter and each summer.

If this problem is not addressed, and water charges are introduced, then we can be sure, that like all taxation, those charges will rise steadily, drip-drip-drip, that people will be cut off, that major health problems will arise. Profit, not health and cleanliness, will soon become the primary motive for supplying water.

At present, this may appear to be a prospect so dismal that it is almost a fantasy of Orwellian dimensions. But it can come about through our own complacency, our own carelessness, the way we continue to think that water … well … that water is going to continue flowing freely, in saecula saeculorum.

Why do we take water for granted?

Why, when we ought to be in wonder and in awe?

Up to 60% of the human body is water, the brain is composed of 70% water, and the lungs are nearly 90% water. About 83% of our blood is water, which helps digest our food, transport waste, and control our body temperature. Each day, each human must replace 2.4 litres of water, some through drinking and the rest taken by the body from the foods we eat.

When water finally flows from Christ’s side on the cross, we know that he has given us all.

God gives us all in the water of life.

Yes, we ought to be in wonder and in awe.

To quote again from TS Eliot, he writes in The Dry Salvages (1941), the third of his Four Quartets:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god — sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities — ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget...

Yes, we ought to be in wonder and in awe.

But so often we forget about water in our cities until it becomes a problem. And then, when the problem goes, we forget about the way in which water is the first and the last of God’s great blessings in nature, immediately after creation itself.

● Creation comes on the first day, in the story in Genesis, and life begins to have possibilities and to take shape on the second day, when God separates the waters.
● The slaves are led from captivity to freedom and promise through the waters of the Red Sea.
● The exiles weep and dream of promise by the waters of Babylon.
● In the waters of the Jordan, Christ is revealed as the Beloved Son, and the Spirit hovers above the new creation.
● We hear Christ thirsting on the Cross in his dying moments.
● Water flows from the side of the Crucified Christ.
● The waters of Baptism incorporate us into the Body of Christ.
● And then, God’s creation reaches the climax of its potential, its potential beauty, with that image in Revelation of the City of God with the River of Life running through its centre.

Too often we see water as a problem – rivers to be bridged, tsunamis to clean up after, storms to clear up from, leaky roofs, dripping drains, flooded fields, stormy shores, barren deserts when water fails ...

And we blame not ourselves.

I begin each day in the shower, thanking God for water, not just the water that cleans me, restores my health and quenches my thirst, but thanking God too for the waters of baptism, in which I was bathed in the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, when God called me his own.

Christ shares water at the well in Sychar with the Samaritan woman, who is an outsider in so many ways. Sharing water with her, he tells her she is not an outsider, she is accepted by God, she is truly called into the Kingdom of God.

He offers her living water, and those who drink of this water that he gives us will never be thirsty. The water that he gives us will become in us a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.

It is water that cannot be tainted, water that cannot be commoditised, water that privatisation cannot stop from flowing freely.

Lord, I thirst. Give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This is the fifth of seven reflections on “the Seven Last Words” on Good Friday, 22 April 2011, in Saint Mark’s Church, Armagh, where the Rector is Canon John McKegney.

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