The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, April 15, 2017

When The Well Runs Dry: A Meditation on John 19:25b-28

[What follows is the text of my meditation given yesterday at St. Bartholomew's The Three Hours service for Good Friday. At the link, you can hear not only my meditation as delivered, but those delivered by St. Barts clergy and lay preachers. The meditations of my friends and colleagues are well worth your time.

It is an honor to be invited to participate in this service, and I am grateful, as always, to St. Barts, which has been my spiritual home for over a decade now.

“I am thirsty.”

Such a banal, boring sentence, normally.

But not here.

Not today. Not at the execution of Jesus of Nazareth.

We have heard him forgive his executioners. We have heard him promise the Repentant Thief that they will meet again, in Paradise.

We have heard Jesus entrust his mother to his beloved disciple, and the beloved disciple to his own mother. Out of the wreckage of the Jesus Movement, he has salvaged a family.

Then the hard one: We have heard him despair, crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Even in the extremity of pain, he is quoting scripture—Psalm 22. He still affirms that the God who watches him in this moment is his God.

He is still our teacher, our rabbi. Our Messiah.

But now this.

“I am thirsty.”

For the one and only time, Jesus comments on his physical state. But not on the pain from his wounds, or the exertion of keeping himself from going limp and suffocating as he hangs from the Cross.

It’s the thirst that gets under that serene confidence, that brings him to his one and only complaint through the whole bloody ordeal.

When I read this passage, Jesus always sounds a little surprised to me.

“I am thirsty.”

Maybe it’s unexpected that the normal routine needs of the body persist so far into these last hours. He expected mockery, he expected pain, he was even ready with an apt quote for despair, our rabbi was—but thirst?

Maybe the very normalcy of thirst makes him realize that this could still all end—he could be cut down from the Cross, he could still walk away from all of this—he’s still able to be thirsty, and yearn for some cool water.

Either way, that moment of thirst is so concrete, so not what a storyteller or myth-maker would focus on, that it feels completely authentic.

It’s the moment when we know there’s no miracle to come. There’s no escape, no happy ending—not this side of the grave, not yet.

Throughout this Gospel, Jesus has passed through the authorities’ efforts to capture him, he’s out-debated them, out-witted them, and just dared them to act against him.

And now they have, and, in worldly terms, Jesus has gone to the well once too often.

We’ve seen him, in this same Gospel, at Jacob’s Well, where he met the Samaritan woman. Jesus asks her for a drink, and she is surprised that he crosses boundaries of gender and traditional hostility to ask a Samaritan woman for a drink of water.

He says to her “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

She asks skeptically where he will get this living water, with no bucket, and a deep well.

He tells her that “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

And then she wanted that living water.

But now, on the Cross, the man who offered the stranger, the Samaritan woman, living water thirsts for ordinary water to relieve his own pangs.

We have left behind John’s mystical discourse of living water and the bread of life.

We are in the world of harsh fact, of blood and iron.

You might say that this happened in our world. We can look around us and see injustices at home and abroad. We live in a world where a state will try to rush through a series of executions before the expiration date of the medicine made to save life that they will use to end it.

A world, in short, of blood and iron.

But we can’t blame it on the world; that’s a cop-out. Thirty years ago, I sat in a darkened theater and watched a movie called The Mission, about Seventeenth Century missionary priests in South America whose students are betrayed and sold into slavery by their government and the Church. The priests who stayed behind with the students are killed trying to protect them, some by taking up weapons, but others by standing with their students in prayer.

They all die.

The scene is watched by two men, an official of the Crown and a Cardinal. They react to the bloodshed differently.

The representative of the State tries to comfort the Churchman, reassuring him that “we must work in the world; the world is thus." But the Cardinal responds, "No, thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it."

The gift of God who offers living water is dry now, and his thirst will not be quenched until it is quenched in death.

On this day, at the foot of the Cross, it is hard—very hard—not to think of ourselves as trapped in that world of blood and iron. Thus have we made the world.

But before we surrender to that that bleakness, maybe we need to look at the response to Jesus’s confession of need, of thirst.

Where you would expect none, compassion stirs in some of the soldiers guarding the crucified. They give him a little of their own wine, It’s “a diluted, vinegary wine drunk by soldiers and laborers,” called posca, and its offered in a moment of kindness. [1]

Blink and you miss it. But think for a moment, and let it stay with you.

Hard men, living a hard life, in which cruelty was routine. A life, we could say, of blood and iron. Yet somehow Jesus touches them; compassion is awakened, and an unexpected, unlikely act of mercy lightens the darkness for a moment.

That act of mercy should remind us that the acquiescence in despair of “thus we have made the world” is a lie, after all.

Because we didn’t make the world; it isn’t ours to make.

It’s God’s world, not ours, and the men of blood and iron are not beyond redemption; they respond to Jesus’s need when they could have just mocked him, or, even easier, ignored him.

They aren’t blood and iron at all, but flesh and blood. God’s children, whatever kind of life they are living. And they are capable of being moved into a better life.

As they have just demonstrated.

As are those we fear, and those who seemingly are trying to fashion that world of blood and iron, and shackle us to it.

As are we.

Throughout his life, Jesus spread that most wonderful of diseases, a thirst for that living water. A thirst for a better world, for God’s world, not the defaced muddle we seem so often to make of it. He spoke of the blessing of a “thirst for righteousness,” even as he spread that thirst.

And so Jesus has answered his own question, “Am I not to drink of the cup the Father has given me?” He does it, in faith, even though in his case the cup is one of suffering and death. Now, in his last moments, Jesus “thirsts to drink that cup to the last drop, for only when he has tasted the bitter wine of death will his Father’s will be fulfilled.”[2] He has been faithful to the end.

But on the way, he has met with an unexpected affirmation that this death will be a catalyst that will reshape the world. His very executioners have shown that the Gospel—the Good News—of love, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, can banish the Gospel of Blood and Iron. The Sun has not even set on Golgatha, and already the first hints of the Easter sunrise are mixed with the dying of that light.

[1] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XX1 (1970) at 909 (Anch. Bib. Vol. 29A); William Temple, Readings in St. John's Gospel: First and Second Series at 368 (1945).

[2] Brown, The Gospel According to John, at 930.

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