Vicar's Sermon - Tuesday of Holy Week
When President Obama spent time with Bear Grylls the main talking point in the news reports of his time in the wild was the fact that the President drew the line at the suggestion that he might drink his own pee. He did though dine on a salmon that had previously been half eaten by a bear. “I’ve seen some of the stuff Bear eats, and it’s gotta be something that doesn’t still have its legs and eyes on it. I want it not to be too recognizable,” Obama said. “Bear’s a mediocre cook, but the fact that we ate something recognizable was encouraging. Now, the fact that he told me this was a leftover fish from a bear, I don’t know if that was necessary. He could have just left that out.”
But the line was definitely drawn at drinking his own urine: “I suppose, in extremis, it’s something that I would do—if the alternative was death,” he said. “It’s not something I’d make a habit of. And I probably wouldn’t do it just for a TV show.”
Tonight we come to the second of Jesus’ words from the cross as they are recorded in John’s Gospel. Last night we heard him unite Mary, his mother, with John the beloved disciple in a new family: this evening’s word comes just before Jesus’ death: I am thirsty
Here we are...in extremis and thr TV cameras are nowhere to be seen, this is a brutal fight for life itself. The end is near: Jesus’ mouth is dry, his lips are cracked. In hospitals relatives might be given a small sponge on a stick to moisten the lips of their loved one, to tend to this most basic of needs for water... but here there is nothing, there is no-one...at least no-one who can really help.
John tells us that he said these words to fulfil the scriptures: ‘which scriptures’ I wonder? Psalm 22 comes to mind: 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. The psalm captures the scene: the servant of God totally drained, dried up, gasping for the life that water represents.
Water floods the scriptures: it is such a powerful symbol of life, supremely a symbol of the gift of God’s life, his cleansing, renewing presence.
Take Psalm 1 for example: Blessed are those who delight in the fear of the Lord...they are like trees planted by streams of water. How do these words relate to this moment in Jesus’ ministry. Everything gone from Him? His strength having been sapped by the beatings, the flogging, the journey to the cross and now the pain that held him. No wonder Mark’s gospel shows him wondering whether God has abandoned Him, questioning God’s presence. For where is that source of Life, that source of spiritual sustenance that the Psalm speaks of?
Or think of Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones. Death and drought, images of a bleached, parched landscape – these are images used in scripture to describe those who fall under God’s judgement. Jesus may well have wondered ‘Is this what is happening here on the cross?’ Is God’s judgement falling on Him? The wicked are like chaff that blows before the wind, says Psalm 1. Soon there will be nothing left of him and he will be forgotten and remembered no more. It is no accident that Golgotha was a rubbish heap, a place to pass quickly, a place of smouldering fires, ravenous dos and other vermin. A place for all that was to be cast out of the city – of no use anymore. As his thirst intensified did Jesus begin to wonder whether the whole of his ministry had been worthless, built on a lie, for everything within him now suggested that he had been wrong in his understanding of God and his death simply marked God’s judgement upon those who would lead others astray.
He had spoken of water Himself. At the well, with the woman. ‘Those who drink of the water I will give them will never be thirsty.’ Yet where now was this water for Him? He had promised a spring of water gushing up to eternal life, yet now he himself was thirsty. Later in John chapter 7 he had announced to the people in Jerusalem itself ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture says ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’. He had omitted to say that the believers’ heart would first need to be broken, or pierced as His would be before the water might start to flow.
Maybe we all have to reach a point where the most basic of questions is asked of us before God can fill us with his grace: what is it that you truly most want in life? Perhaps this is the question being forced upon Jesus in these dying moments.
Psalm 42 gives us a picture of someone thirsting for God: every fibre of their being wanting Him and Him alone. The image in the psalm is of someone who is assailed by enemies, his body is wounded and he says to God words that Jesus too says in the other gospels ‘God, why have you forgotten me?’ This thirsty man knows darkness, he is no stranger to questioning and trouble: he describes the waves coming up over him, he is overwhelmed by difficulties but is still able to place his trust in God. Twice he says ‘Hope in God: for I shall again praise Him my help and my God.’ If this is the scripture Jesus is fulfilling in John’s gospel then it is a scripture that looks beyond His death: he quotes it in extremis but looks beyond death to God’s help bringing him to a point where he might offer praise again.
And from this believer’s heart, from Jesus’ heart, filled with hope and trust in God we learn that water flowed. After His death the soldier pierced Him with his lance and John is extremely careful to inform us that blood and water came out of his side. From the temple of Jesus’ body living water starts to flow. As Ezekiel had prophesied centuries before, water would flow out into the desert from the new temple bringing life to all that it touched, healing to the nations, a source of overwhelming grace and goodness to all people.
I am thirsty: said Jesus. He thirsted for God and for God alone. As St Augustine realised all those centuries ago, so easily we seek to satisfy ourselves with God’s good gifts and find that they turn to dust in our hands when what we really need is God, the Giver of good gifts: only He can truly satisfy our thirst.
Tonight’s word from the cross is a reminder to direct our desires aright – and the question to take from this evening is one of the hardest of all: ‘what do you want most in life?