The Fifth Word: 'I thirst'

Holy Week 2011 Daily Reflection on the Last Words of Christ

John 19. 28-29

28Jesus knew that he had now finished his work. And in order to make the Scriptures come true, he said, "I am thirsty!"

29A jar of cheap wine was there. Someone then soaked a sponge with the wine and held it up to Jesus' mouth on the stem of a hyssop plant.

The Fifth Word hardly seems surprising. The physical pain of the torturous cross would make breathing difficult. The loss of blood, exposure to the elements, and the poor condition of Jesus would have left him severely dehydrated. The most literal and obvious meaning of the Fifth Word expresses Jesus’ physical need: drink. Someone offers Jesus the most commonly available drink for the simple people of the area, “cheap [or sour] wine.”

But John’s Gospel refuses to see this Word in just a literal sense. “Jesus knew that he had now finished his work. And in order to make the Scriptures come true, he said, ‘I am thirsty’.” John tells us that Jesus gifts us this Fifth Word for a purpose: to make something foretold in Scripture come true. John doesn’t tell us what exact text he thinks Jesus fulfils. I think it could be a number. It’s likely that John is thinking of Psalm 69, which includes this passage:

Their insults have broken my heart,

and I am in despair.

If only one person would show some pity;

if only one would turn and comfort me.

But instead, they give me poison for food;

they offer me sour wine for my thirst.

(vv. 20-21)

As Jesus suffers, he suffers with and for both the historical people of Israel and the new citizens of his kingdom. Jesus is broken by the world, by friend and foe alike, and only has the cheapest drops of drink left to him. But he also is broken for that world.

Apart from this biblical allusion, however, I think the Fifth Word points to a gift that Jesus offers all who suffer and thirst in some way, whether it’s for justice, peace, or healing. Here, on the Cross, Jesus, the “living water” as he calls himself, knows in his body and in his spirit what it means to thirst. (cf. John 4. 4-26) What an apparent paradox: the living water is dying and thirsts. But this isn’t a paradox at all, it’s a gift: himself the victim of torture and violence, himself knowing the agony of thirst, offers himself to the whole world as a new way, a stream of living water that washes away the sin of the world. Jesus’ thirst is a kind of baptism of the Cross, a taking of spiritual dryness and the pouring out of living water from Jesus’ crucified body.

The apparent paradox and actual gift doesn’t end there. The only comfort that Jesus is offered is “sour wine for my thirst” as the psalm puts it. The night before Jesus has shared the Last Supper with his disciples. He offers them the wine and says “this is my blood, shed for you all for the forgiveness of sins.” What a paradox for Jesus to offer the rich wine of his own blood when the world needs it, only to receive sour wine in return on the Cross. But this is again more a gift than a paradox: we can do nothing to deserve God’s love, but it is poured out to us freely in the blood of Jesus on the Cross, dying for us, meeting our thirst for God and wholeness.

So it is, I think, that in this Word we hear in that one verb, to thirst, both the origin and the gift of baptism and the eucharist. Our thirst for God is met in the water and the blood that were denied to and taken from Jesus on the Cross. That’s what makes the gift of Jesus all the more remarkable: God so loves the world, even though it may hate in return, that He sends His only Son to save us from brokenness. Such an amazing love means that we no longer have to thirst. Such an amazing love means that we don’t have to remain crucified. Such an amazing love of water and blood means that we will be resurrected along with Jesus.

So it is that John Donne joins his poems on the crucifixion and resurrection with the same line: “moist, with one drop of Thy blood, my dry soul.” (La Corona, ‘Crucifying’, ‘Resurrection’) The difference in the second poem is, however, that Donne’s soul has received the ‘one drop of blood’:

Moist with one drop of thy blood, my soul


Freed by that drop from being starved…

…I again risen may

Salute the last, and everlasting day.

Donne receives the living water and eternal life, as we are invited so to do. Yet, that resurrection moment has to come out of the crucifixion. It is only when Jesus thirsts that we most clearly see how great a gift his ‘living water’ is.


Thirsting on the cross,

your Son shared the reproach of the oppressed

and carried the sins of all;

in him, O God, may the despairing find you,

and the afflicted gain life.