Famous Last Words, V: I Thirst
When Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said 'I am thirsty.' —John 19:28
St. John famously launches his rollicking little Jesus biography like this: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”
John wants to launch his Gospel exactly like the Bible itself launched, right? He’s alluding to Genesis 1: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a shapeless void, and darkness covered the earth, and the Spirit of God brooded over the face of the waters.”
In the beginning, says John, God spoke, and at that Word a spinning blue planet began to fly around a burning star, and it is blue because it is 70 percent water. In a trajectory which carries this planet 595,000,000 miles in a year, the earth stays roughly 93,000,000 miles from the star’s blazing surface, just distant enough so that the star’s fires can’t vaporize every last drop of surface moisture, which is what happens to its nearest sister planets; and just near enough so that the star’s heat coaxes vast amounts of water off the ocean’s surfaces, carries it thousands of miles, and drops it on dry land.
And it is precisely this phenomenon which provides conditions favorable for the nurture of complex, self-replicating organisms, in fact a whole prodigious, prodigal panoply of protozoa, plankton, peonies, Ponderosa pines, platypi, porpoises, and Presbyterians.
So far as we know, it is the only place in a universe of a hundred billion galaxies where this has happened. We’ve looked in every far corner of the universe for signs of life, but we haven’t found it yet. That search will be successful, only if the star-gazers first find water, life’s necessary condition.
Ninety-eight percent of the earth’s water is in the oceans, and therefore of course undrinkable. Of that remaining two percent, two-thirds is locked in the polar icecaps of Greenland and Antarctica, which leaves a mere one percent for the six billion human beings of the earth and the uncounted trillions of land plants and animals.
One-tenth of one percent of the world’s water is available for human use. The water you made coffee with this morning and showered under is 800 million years old; it is all we will ever have. It was there when the earth was made. For that reason, it is the most precious liquid on earth. Cape Town is one of the richest and most beautiful cities in Africa, but if it runs out of water this summer on what they are ominously calling Day Zero, it will be uninhabitable.
I was so happy after my first visit to Kenilworth Union Church years ago, when I discovered that you can see Lake Michigan from the church yard. Well, almost; you might have to walk down the block a few yards.
People who live in Illinois or Minnesota or Michigan take it so for granted. I have to go visit my son in California to remind myself how parched and dusty and brown the earth can get. Eighteen percent of earth’s fresh surface water is in the Great Lakes; six quadrillion gallons.
Well, back to the Bible’s story. In the beginning, when everything was just right, God spoke again, and God said, “I think I’ll make me a man, and a woman.” And God stooped down and scooped up a handful of this crumbled star dust called earth, and he molded it into the shape of a man, and a woman. And the man he called Adam, or Adamah, which means ground, or dirt, or earth. And I guess it should come as no surprise that the man and the woman, like the earth from which they came, are 70 percent water.
Several thousand, or billion, years later, God spoke again, and said, “I think I’ll go down there to see how my children are doing.” And the Word became flesh—70 percent water—and dwelt among us.
“In the beginning was the Word,” says St. John, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. That was in the beginning. In the ending, says St. John, the Word cried out, and said, “I thirst.” The message of the Gospel according to St. John is that the Creator of this blue sphere became flesh—70 percent water—and cried out in the end for a cup of cold water, or sponge-full of wine, this one who early in the story turned water into wine.
It is a unique story, some would say a preposterous story. It’s a beautiful story. It is a horrible story, sometimes too horrible to watch. The Roman historian Cicero called crucifixion “the worst extreme of torture inflicted upon slaves.” Religion, or Christianity at any rate, is not for the faint of heart.
Religion, or at least our religion, is not for sissies. Karl Marx tried to teach us that religion is the opium of the people. Wikipedia tells me the principal effect of opium is to relieve or suppress pain. It deadens anxiety, relaxes body and mind alike, and induces euphoria.
Have you ever had morphine? They gave me morphine once. Isn’t it wonderful? You just don’t care what they do to you. That’s what Marx thought of religion. It would dull the pain of the people, and induce a state of euphoria, so that they would not notice their wretched condition.
But if you were building a religion from scratch and your aim was to dull human sensibilities as if with a narcotic, is this the kind of God you would brew up in your laboratory with its flames and tubes and distilleries? The trouble with Marx is that he never seemed to bother to read the New Testament.
Sigmund Freud said that God was the product of infantile illusions. Dr. Freud said that religion was a pack of delusions, “fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of humankind.” Freud kept counseling the human race to grow up and drop these infantile illusions. “Men and women cannot remain children forever,” he said. “They must in the end go out into ‘hostile life.’ We may call this ‘education to reality,’” he said. Education to reality! How much reality can you take?
A few years ago, one of my colleagues on the church staff had three daughters. She came into a staff meeting one Thursday morning in a panic telling us that she and her husband had thought it would be a good idea to sit down as a family to watch the old television film Jesus of Nazareth, and she shared with the rest of the church staff how troubling it was to watch the crucifixion scene.
She said, “You know, that’s the kind of stuff I normally don’t let my kids watch on TV—all that blood and violence. They wanted to go see Bruce Willis in Die Hard, but I wouldn’t let them. This was worse.” And then she told us that her youngest daughter, about six at the time, if I recall, had watched them put Jesus on the cross, and the little girl covered her eyes and turned to her mother and asked, “It isn’t real, is it Mommy?”
Years ago in my Philadelphia church we had so many great friends who were raising their kids like we were. We would take turns hosting dinner parties for the whole group. And around the table we all got to talking about church, as we always do, because church is always at least as entertaining and dramatic and colorful as any dysfunctional family.
And we all got to talking about why church was important to us, and almost everybody said that we went to church because it was such a peaceful respite from the busy working world. On Sunday morning we could escape into a lovely sacred space beyond the seen and tangible. It was such serene and placid refuge from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. And we were right, of course. It is a serene and sacred place.
But there was a young woman there, one of my best friends. She just loved her life. Her husband adored her, and she adored him, and her children were funny and bright and kind. Her eldest was headed to Northwestern with an academic scholarship, a middle daughter was playing first singles on the high school tennis team, and her youngest was a lovable imp who created just enough trouble to make him charming. Do you watch Stranger Things on Netflix? He sort of reminded me of Dustin on Stranger Things.
Her father was a 70-year-old orthopedic surgeon retired to Naples with his neurologist wife. All four of her grandparents, in their 90's, were still alive. She had never known an intimate grief, never lost a person in her immediate family. She had this perfect life.
Except…she was a deacon in the church where we all went. And when she heard us talking about church as a serene and tranquil escape, she said, “Holy Smokes, if peace is what I wanted, church is the last place on earth that I’d go. If I stayed away from church, I would never have to confront a single ugly reality in my life. If I didn’t go to church, I could live in my little estate and never once face the dark world outside.
“But then I go to church and what do I hear? The minister keeps reminding us about the Rohingya and the people of Syria or the homeless in Center City, and he keeps trying to get me to give all my money to the church instead of buying a new BMW. And then we get to prayer time and they remind you about all the people in the hospital dying of cancer and Lord knows what all, and you have to go visit them and take flowers and food.
“And a 22-year-old kid takes his own life with a shot-gun, and the minister wants you to sit down with his parents and have something to say, but there’s nothing to say, absolutely nothing, so you sit there, and they just sob and sob and sob.
There’s a widow in the church who lives alone and she just had her hip replaced, so I walked her dog three times a day for ten days in a row until she could do it herself with her walker.
“The other day I went into the city at ten in the morning to cook 300 meals for the street people, and it took all day because someone else didn’t show up, and I got home at ten that night, and my husband was out of town so there I was all day feeding the hungry and I came home and my own three kids hadn’t had a thing to eat since lunch except a gallon of Butter Pecan ice cream and a pound of potato chips.
“And then on Sundays you sit there in the pew with a bunch of unpleasant people you’d never speak to in a million years if you weren’t in church.”
And on and on she went. She taught us a lesson that night. Christianity is not an escape from reality but a reluctant journey into its dark and jarring center. Christianity is a call to follow the Crucified God who in the beginning launched a shimmering sphere into orbit around a flaming furnace, and lacquered its surface with blue, six miles deep in some places—the Amazon, the Nile, the Mississippi, the Ganges, Lake Superior, the Atlantic–and who, in the end, from the cross, cried out for a cup of cold water, and died, quite literally, of thirst.
Jon Magnuson says that for him The Great Lakes are sacred, almost like a sacrament. Jon is a Lutheran minister at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, on the south shore of Lake Superior, but years ago, Jon had been a chaplain at Children’s Hospital, long before it was called Lurie, when it was still in Lincoln Park, about ten blocks from Lake Michigan.
One afternoon about 4 p.m. during Lent, Jon’s pager went off. A nurse called him to the ICU because a mother and father wanted someone to baptize their six-week-old baby, born with congenital disabilities so severe that the nurse guessed the child she had only hours to live. It was late in the afternoon. The Chaplain said, ‘I’ll come back this evening after supper.” The nurse said, “She won’t make it that long.”
Due to bad weather and their own spiraling sense of helplessness, the parents told the hospital that they would not be present. The nurse handed Jon a plastic pill bottle containing water from Lake Michigan, and ever since he poured a few drops of that Great Lakes water onto that baby’s forehead in the shadows of an Intensive Care Unit at dusk, the waters of Lake Michigan have been almost a sacrament for him. I bet they are for many of you too.
It’s a sine qua non of every life in the universe; after oxygen, the most essential staple of our existence. In the beginning, the Spirit of God brooded above the waters of the shapeless void and turned it into a blue marble. At the end of his life, Jesus—God of God, Light of Light, Very God, if the Nicene Creed is to be believed—cried out, “I’m thirsty.”
You want an education to reality? How much reality can you take? You know the trouble with Freud? He never bothered to read the New Testament.
Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, trans. & ed. James Strachey (London: Norton, 1961), 38.
Jon Magnuson, “Great Lakes, Troubled Waters: Signs of Distress,” The Christian Century, September 22-29, 1999, pp. 902-905.