“I Thirst”: A Reflection on One of the Last Words of Christ

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This is a sermon I preached this morning to my congregation.  It is a sort of sequel to my homily on Ash Wednesday.  Then I spoke about true hunger and this morning I spoke about thirst.  It has occurred to me this Lenten season that the words “hunger” and “thirst” are forms of pain.  We are not called to want to want a better world.  We are called to actually experience discomfort and pain in making righteousness happen.  So this sermon, with Ash Wednesday, captures much of my own Lenten journey this year.

Introduction: A Very Human God

Two of the last words Jesus spoke from the cross were “I thirst.”  It is a rather short phrase but it is pregnant with meaning.

“I thirst.”

I remind you that this is Jesus saying this and it is John’s gospel which records it for us.  John also reminded us back in chapter 1 that Jesus is God.  He is the word made flesh.  He is the one through whom all things were created and without whom nothing was made that has been made.   This is the fully God who became fully human.

As such we are tempted to think of his thirst as the more human side of Jesus.  We might say that his thirst represents his humanity.  After all, this is a human body needing nourishment that only our physical earth can give.  We think back to that wonderful Latin word “humus” from which we get our English word, “humility.”  “Humus” does not describe the sauce made from chick peas but refers to anything that sticks close to the dirt of the earth.  Surely to be thirsty is to be “humus” or to be “humbled.”

There all kinds of humbling physical symptoms that come with thirst.  You get a pounding headache.  You have a dry mouth.  You get dizzy and your vision can become momentarily blurry.  The thirsty become lethargic.  They can’t seem to stay awake and wonder why it is always so hard to move their muscles.  These symptoms are debilitating and quite humiliating.  They make you pathetic as you desperately long for material nourishment for your physical body.

So when our Christ says, “I am thirsty” he is sharing in some of the ugliness of our humanity.  We might say he is becoming pathetic to save the pathetic.

In fact, around Christmas time we talk about the incarnation, that moment when God became flesh.  We sometimes give each other the impression that when Jesus was born the incarnation was completed.  Yet I do not believe God truly experience life as a flesh and blood human until that flesh was stripped and the blood was spilt.  In a way the cross completes the incarnation because on the cross Jesus didn’t just take the form of wealthy humanity or powerful humanity or even blue collar working class humanity.  On the cross he took the form of crucified, thirsty, criminal humanity.  A God who thirsts for material nourishment is a God truly experiencing a fleshly, humble existence.

Jesus, the crucified criminal says, “I thirst.”  “I need water.”  “I desire something very concrete, very material for my concrete, material body.”

All that to say, this is the God who created water now saying, “I need some water.”

 

God knows what it’s like to thirst.

The Concept of “Thirst” in the John

But when Jesus says, “I am thirsty” it refers to more than just a physical need.  After all, John’s gospel and the other gospels have spoken about thirst before.  They have taught us some things about being thirsty and those things hide behind the two words, “I thirst.”

John’s gospel tells of another time when Jesus was thirsty.  It is clear back in chapter 4.  Jesus is going through Samaria, a place where good little Jewish boys and girls avoided.  Jesus, not being a good Jewish boy, walked right through the heart of it.

In Samaria they stop at a town and he sends his disciples in to buy food.  While they are gone a woman comes to draw water from the well in the middle of the day.  Many have noted that in that time there really was only one reason to draw water in the middle of the day.  You wanted to be left the heck alone.  The middle of the day was when the horribly introverted drew their water.

Jesus crashes her “me time.”  He says, “Give me a drink,” which I think comes really close to meaning, “I’m thirsty.”

The poor woman is startled by this.  After all she wanted to be left alone and didn’t want to be around people.  That’s why she is at the well in the afternoon.  So she asks a deflection question.  She says, “Why are you, a Jewish man, asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink of water?”  You can paraphrase that as, “Leave me alone you outsider!  I don’t even like the insiders!”

Jesus’ reply is just as indignant.  He says, “If you would know who asked you for water, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water!”

She replies or rather argues, “Well how are you going to get it?  The well is deep and you don’t have bucket.”

Jesus says to her, “Whoever drinks this water will just get thirsty again but whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst.  The water I give will become a well inside them bursting forth to eternal life.”

Jesus had a physical body that needed material substance.  The woman had a spiritual soul that needed spiritual nourishment.  There is a water better than H2O.

During the crucifixion, when John tells us that Jesus was thirsty, he is doing that on purpose.  He wants his readers to remember this conversation towards the beginning of the story and recall that there is a type of water that once drunk becomes a seed planted inside you that grows and creates an abundant and eternal life.

Thirsting for Righteousness in the Synoptics

We have hints of this in the other gospels too.  In fact one of Jesus most popular sayings was, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

Don’t be scared of that word “righteousness.”  If you grew up in the households I grew up in righteousness often referred to that person who was legalistic.  They followed a list of archaic and weird rules and they were proud of it and very disappointed by those who did not do likewise.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned that word “righteousness” doesn’t really refer to following a list of rules.  We are not righteous when we are legalistic and legalism rarely every produces the righteousness which God requires.

Instead righteousness is a synonym of harmony.  Righteousness defines any sort of state or action where people do right by one another.  If I am righteous that means I am doing right by you.  I am treating you fairly.  I am giving you that which you deserve.  Of course there are some rules involved in that.  I think of the 10 Commandments.  If I am doing right by you that does mean I am not lying about you.  I am not coveting your stuff and thus letting jealousy come in the way of our friendship.  I am not lusting after your wife or your husband or your house.  I treat you like a fellow human being. If you reciprocate that, if you treat me fairly and squarely, then we call that state, “righteousness.”  So a righteous world or a righteous community is one where everybody does their best to treat each other fairly and live in harmony with each other.

Logically then, to hunger and thirst for righteousness is to long for a world where people treat each other with fairness and love.  It is to want it so much your are willing to experience pain over it.  Hunger and thirst, by the way, are forms of pain.  Think of the symptoms I listed earlier.  To hunger and to thirst for righteousness means you want it so much you are willing to hurt for it.

A Very God Human

So Jesus at the cross says “I am thirsty.”  The deeper meaning is that he is thirsty for a righteous world where people are treated fairly and squarely.  He longs for a world where we don’t cheat, lie and steal, where we don’t gossip and lie and where we don’t covet each other’s stuff.  He longs for a world where we don’t nurse grudges against each other, grudges that lead to murder.  He longs for a world where there isn’t bullying and intimidation but we all treat each other as friends.

In this case his thirst is not from his human nature.  This is a God natured thirst.  He is thirsty because he is God.  After all, if you read your Old Testaments, you will find that on almost every page God longs for a harmonious world.  Again and again throughout the Hebrew scriptures God says that God wants the world put to rights.  God is thirsty for righteousness and God longs for that world.

When Jesus says, “I thirst” he is not just physically in need of a material want.  His human mouth isn’t just dry but he is saying, “I thirst for the living water.  I thirst for the righteousness that creates an eternal and abundant life.  I thirst for a better world.”

Jesus’ thirst is a God thirst.

But on the cross, he wasn’t just thirsting after a better world.  He was also creating it.

His thirst for a better world was so great that he took up a cross and he carried it up to Golgotha and there died to give us a living water that wells up inside of us to eternal life.  He wanted the world to be righteous so much that he died to make it so.  He suffered the agony, the rejection, the humiliation and even the symptoms of dehydration to make the world more righteous.

If you want to know what hungering and thirsting for righteousness looks like, look no further than the cross.

And this is grace, a God who suffers to give us the righteousness that wells up to eternal life.

Conclusion: What Hungering and Thirsting Looks Like

But this is grace which calls us to emulate it.  This is grace that enables us to respond by suffering ourselves for the better world we long for.

On that note, I get a little frustrated by those who claim they want a better world but don’t ever sacrifice anything for it.  These are the people who want the world to become righteous so badly that they spend a good 15 seconds tweeting about it, then put their phones back in their pockets and live their wealthy existence.

Other people I know are so hungry and thirsty for righteousness that they tell everybody else how wrong they are.  They live in middle class mansions.  They have ready access to clean water and safe food at the local grocer.  But they are so convinced that everything is wrong that they make lists of rules for other people to follow.  Then they go around telling everybody else how unrighteous they are.  But they themselves never change anything about their lifestyle to make righteousness come.  They never sacrifice anything in their own lives to make the world a better place.

For this reason I have tried hard in my life to not express an opinion for which I do not suffer.  I do have strong opinions and I think one or two of those opinions may even be accurate.  But if I am not willing to suffer for that opinion I try not to express it.  Or when I find myself inevitably doing so I try to preface it with, “This is my two cents but am not in a position to do anything about it or test it out.”

If you are not willing to physically suffer for your beliefs, then don’t let them come out of your mouth!

To hunger and thirst for righteousness is not to make others suffer or to point the finger and play a blame game.  To hunger and thirst for righteousness is to suffer yourself, to hurt inside of yourself, to fast, to give of your money or your time in hopes of creating a better world.

This is what Jesus did on the cross.  The cross itself was God’s thirst.  He wanted a righteous world so much he was willing to be crucified for it.

And because of his suffering, living water poured out upon us so that all of us who will drink it will have a well of righteousness springing up inside of us to eternal life.

And blessed are those who do likewise, who are willing to actually thirst and actually sacrifice for a better world.

 

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Why Ministry is About Slavery and Why That is Not That Bad a Thing

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Over the last year I have gone through a very uncomfortable and vexing process of losing my religion and finding it again.

I hope it goes without saying that “my religion” isn’t the Church of the Nazarene and her doctrines, polity and preferred ethic.  I did not lose or even really question any of those in the last year.  I also hope it goes without saying that “my religion” is not a set of doctrines or creeds or religious structures.

My religion is humble love a love that submits to all, (see Ephesians 5:21 and also 1 Corinthians 13 and also 1st John and also the entire Bible).  Not surprisingly, this sinful world has still not come to grips with humble, submissive love.  In fact, there many who still crucify those who dare preach it and I have been crucified more times than I can count.

This world is also filled with a variety of self help leadership books and “self made” leaders.  As I dealt with my crucifixions, I read those books and talked to some of those leaders.  They all give the same basic and well meaning pep talk.

“You are the leader.  You have the title.  You have God given authority!  So just tell them your vision and force them to follow it no matter the cost!”

The problem with the pep talk is that isn’t biblical.  It flies in the face of the humble, sacrificial love prescribed to us in Scripture and modeled to us by Christ.

There are also practicality problems that stem from a total lack of respect for positional authority in the 21st century.  Titles are liabilities, not assets.  If you have one you are immediately suspect.  The Church of the Nazarene is even worse.  In our polity , I am the only person who is actually paid money to be at church.  The church board cannot fire me outright but they can vote to change the locks of the church so I can’t get in and they have no legal binding to continue to pay me to be their pastor.  They can vote to reduce my paycheck to zero and throw my family out of the parsonage.  Furthermore, the members of my board are more liked and respected than me and have more relational authority simply because they have been around longer and don’t have pesky authoritarian titles like, “preacher” or “senior pastor.”

Still, the pep talkers sounded wise enough and what they advised was being reinforced in well marketed leadership books that are given to me for free.  So I gave in.  I cast my vision and tried to force people to follow it, not backing down from the brutal fights that ensued.  Things got bad, really bad.  There were four hour long conversations that went nowhere and ended with all parties offended.  There were accusations and gossip.  There were long sleepless nights, not so much caused by the conflict but by the reality that I had just taken everything I believed in and flushed it down the toilet for a model of leadership that is not biblical and does not work in the 21st century.

Don’t listen to the pep talkers or even read the books.  If you are in ministry, you are a slave.

But that is a great thing because that is exactly what Jesus became.

Paul spells it out poetically in Philippians 2.  “Though Jesus was in very nature God, he didn’t consider equality with God something to be added, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.”

A chapter later Paul infers that because of Jesus’ slavery, he is also a slave.

The role of ministry, dating clear back to Jesus, is not about having authoritarian titles and using them to cast vision and force people to follow them.  It is about slavery.

To be a pastor means absolutely no freedom except the freedom of knowing the suffering of Christ through enslaving myself to the following:

First I am a slave to God.  This means that even if I did have the luxury of positional authority (and some pastors still do) I absolutely cannot use it without violating the ethics of the Bible.  To “lord it over” others is contrary to the heart of God.

I am a slave to my family.  This is one of the most frustrating and debilitating, but also one of the most life giving.  I am certain that I would be 30 times more effective in ministry if I were single.  I do not say that lightly.  I really believe it.  Over the last month I have tried to be pastorally present to no less than 6 people or groups of people.  These were people who were going through very tough situations, situations that needed attentiveness.  In every case my children were screaming in the background or running up to me begging me to fulfill their latest desire.  I constantly have to cancel important things because my kids can’t thrive in those settings and we can’t afford child care or baby sitters.  I am not complaining though because there is this horrible day not too far on the horizon when my children will move across state lines and forget to call me on my birthday.  When that happens I at least want to know that I cancelled important things to play with them at the park and that their relationship with God is strong enough to see them through the situations life will throw at them.

Finally, I am a slave to my congregation.  As I detailed above they have all the power.  I am a slave to their political and theological views, having to be constantly worried about offending them.  I am also a slave to their calendars.  If they don’t want to show up or don’t have time to show up to very important meetings, they will not come.  I am a slave to their expectations for a pastor.  I am contractually and morally obligated to analyze how I am measuring up to them.

All this means that when they schedule an event right over the top of my birthday, an event I believe will provide long term benefits for my congregation, I humbly submitted myself to it, knowing I wouldn’t get any birthday present, birthday cake or even anybody singing “Happy Birthday” to me but also knowing that the church would benefit from it..  What did happen was an angry congregant stormed into the church first thing on my birthday, in the middle of the event, and told me, “I thought God would kill you for what you said in your sermon a couple Sundays ago.”

I was frustrated about that for a couple days.  How could a pastor have their birthday on a Sunday and not have it acknowledged, not have the church make a cake or give cards and presents and have a leader chew him out over one stray line from a sermon, all while several people looked on and not one came to my defense?  In the moment I apologized and changed the subject, defusing the situation.

Then I spent time in prayer and self reflection and remembered that God didn’t call me into this gig to invent new ways of “lording it over” or find new means of being offended, but to be sacrificial and humble.

God has used situations like that to slowly restore my religion.  I have recommitted myself to letting God work humble love in me and reject the constant calls to “lord it over.”  In so doing I have re-found the freedom I once had, the freedom that the Apostle Paul calls, “participation in his sufferings,” so that we might obtain “the resurrection from the dead.”

The Psalms sing it better, “those who sow with tears with reap with joy.” (Ps. 126:5)