I thirst

The Revd Dr William Lamb
Maundy Thursday



John 13.1–17,31b–35

Jesus said, ‘I thirst’

These words come from John’s gospel, and they are words uttered by Jesus from the cross. John tells us that these words were said to fulfil the scripture – Psalm 22 ‘I am poured out like water and all my bones are out of joint, my heart is like wax, it is melted within my breast, my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.’

These words seems like an odd place to start a reflection for Maundy Thursday, when we remember that moment when Jesus gathers with his disciples for the last supper, when he invites his disciples to remember him by sharing bread and drinking wine. This is my body, This is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.

And yet this evening, we cannot do this. We cannot gather to celebrate the eucharist – we are hungry and we are thirsty.

And yet the important thing to remember is that when we gather to celebrate the eucharist, every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we are not simply commemorating an event in the dim and distant past, we are being drawn anew into the mystery of Easter. We become part of that eternal drama of the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And this is true because we gather to break bread, to drink the cup, to receive the body and blood of Christ.

But this year, because we cannot gather to celebrate the eucharist, we are perhaps drawn into the paschal mystery in a different way as we reflect on these words of Jesus, ‘I thirst’.

Jesus is thirsty and the gospel tells us that those attending him gave him some sour wine, on a sponge on the end of a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. Like so much in John’s Gospel, there is powerful symbolism here, for hyssop, far from being a large tree, was in fact a bitter herb (most impractical for the purpose John suggests for it). But the stalks of this better herb were used in the Jerusalem temple for sprinkling blood and water in the solemn sacrificial rituals of purification and atonement.

So John is here making a powerful connection between the death of Christ and the Temple ritual of sacrifice. In those two little words, ‘I thirst’, with all the imagery and symbolism of the worship in the Temple, which would have been so familiar to his original hearers, John speaks of sacrifice, of redemption, of the redemptive power of sacrificial love. It is no accident that we find at the heart of John’s description of the last supper, - yes there is the story of the footwashing, - but Jesus goes on to speak of the glory of God which is revealed in the redemptive power of love: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ The Eucharist, this divinely-ordained sacrament, speaks of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it also bears witness to the redemptive power of love.

In the gospels, there are words which we often miss when we remember the institution of the Lord’ supper. According to Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus has shared the cup with his disciples, he says, ‘I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom’. Some biblical scholars point to the seeming contradiction of these words from Matthew’s gospel and the situation described in John. But I think it is fruitful to contemplate the tension between these two accounts.

When Jesus says that he is thirsty, perhaps there is some resonance with these words in Matthew. Jesus thirsts not only for righteousness and justice. He thirsts and longs for the Kingdom. And that should remind us that when we celebrate the Eucharist together, we receive a foretaste of the kingdom of God. Again and again, Jesus describes the kingdom as a great banquet, a feast, a celebration, where the poor, the hungry and the oppressed occupy the seats of honour, where everybody is welcome amd where everybody is fed. The kingdom is a place where in spite of the injustice and inequality which we encounter through our lives, there is no stockpiling - for in the kingdom all bread is shared.

And our willingness to share with one another, with all the cost and vulnerability that demands of us is one of the signs of the Kingdom of God.

And yet, we find ourselves in the midst of a crisis, a time of testing, a time of challenge. We yearn for answers, for reassurance, particularly for those who are sick or in hospital.

The other day, I was reading a reflection by Mark Goldring, the former head of Oxfam, and I was challenged by his words. He said this: ‘We might never have seen anything like this; I’ve certainly never lived through anything quite like it. But others have. Those people hit by famine, earthquakes and tsunamis, those in Syria bombed and besieged by their own government, refugees threatened at home and on the road; people across the world enduring conflict or those living in the Congo under endless civil wars; communities surrounded by Ebola. These people have faced all our challenges and more, often with less support and fewer resources’.

When we hear those words of Jesus, ‘I thirst’, we are reminded that there are many who are hungry and thirsty, and that we forget too easily the scandal of sharing bread in an unsharing world. We are only beginning to understand again the precariousness of our existence, and our dependence upon each other. It is worth contemplating the fact that when Jesus and his disciples gathered for this last meal on the night he was betrayed, it was most probably a Passover meal. And this Jewish festival commemorates the story of the Exodus, Israel’s freedom from bondage and slavery. It’s a story which has been rehearsed and retold in homes and villages, in streets and cities, across the centuries in times of plenty and in times of hardship. It’s a story which has been told in the face of persecution, amidst untold suffering, and yet in telling that story, its subversive memory offers again and again the promise and the assurance of hope.

Jesus said, ‘I thirst’. As we observe Maundy Thursday this year, we too are thirsty. We cannot share in the sacraments. Some of us will face illness and struggle, without the comfort and consolation of the sacraments. But as we reflect on everything that has happened in recent days and weeks, let us pray that we may listen again to those words of Jesus ‘Love one another’, that we may care for one another and support one another in our need. Perhaps the longing, the thirst, that we experience this evening may be not just for ourselves and for our own needs. Pray that when the day comes and we can rejoice in receiving the sacraments again, when we can celebrate the eucharist together, our hearts may still respond to those words ‘I thirst’ and challenge us to long for and thirst for God’s justice and God’s kingdom.