Unlike many other days, this day was oddly different. On our visits to the hospital oncology center, we would usually find it crowded and a bit stressful. This afternoon, only four people sat in the waiting room: my wife, suffering from the effects of cancer and the treatment she was undergoing, me and another woman with her teenage daughter. The girl was clearly in the advanced stages of some form of cancer, bald from multiple chemotherapy treatments and weakened from the effects of this crippling disease, her body requiring the support of a wheelchair.
A nurse came and escorted my wife for her appointment, and soon after another staff member came for the girl. I quickly retreated into the book I was reading, but felt the woman across from me looking around. Exhausted and hoping for some solace and escape in the fiction I held, I continued to feel the eyes of the woman look around the room and finally at me. I glanced up and no sooner did I catch a glimpse of her eyes, she blurted out that her only child was dying from cancer.
I expressed my sorrow over her situation. She continued to speak about the painful journey the two had faced together. I set my book aside and listened. Two people alone in the world—a mother and daughter. A quick, but very late diagnosis of cancer meant certain death for the child. What amazed me about the mother’s story was the suffering she expressed, her words of distress. She stated she was not religious, but someone had given her a Bible application for her smartphone. She fumbled through the buttons on her phone, but either the hospital computer firewalls did not allow a connection to the application, or her distress made it impossible for her fingers to effectively manipulate the correct sequence of steps on her phone. Either way access to this electronic version of the Bible was not available.
Finally she looked at me again and asked if I knew any of the stories in the Bible. I nodded my head. She sat there waiting for me to share with her. I shared a story. Tears were soon streaming down her face. I paused to ask her if she wanted me to continue. She blurted out how she refused to cry in front of her child, she needed to be strong. She said she usually had to cry alone, because she had no one to cry with her. I told her,” I’ll cry with you.” So in that unusually uncrowded waiting room, I joined that distressed mother and cried along with her.
Two thousand years ago Jesus Christ uttered seven last sayings from the cross. “The Word of Distress” was the fifth saying. The story as told in John’s Gospel states that Jesus uttered these words in fulfillment of prophetic passages of Scripture. His words “I am thirsty” in John 19:28 point back thousands of years earlier to Psalm 22:15 and Psalm 69:21. The passages in the Psalms speak of a physical thirst, but Christ’s thirst on the cross moves beyond the physical. Christ’s thirst gives a messianic perspective to His suffering and distress. Christ was dying, and He knew when the moment of death was upon Him, the work God had given Him would be complete.
Jesus’ thirst on the cross brings to mind His arrest when He questioned His disciple Peter, “Am I not to drink the cup my Father has given Me?” Jesus held close the cup of suffering and distress on the cross. His thirst is an acceptance of the suffering, distress and finally death. His thirst was a physical thirst, but more importantly, it was a thirst of obedience to His Father’s will.
John’s account of Jesus’ story is written in an extreme manner. It seeks for us to understand that Jesus was the divine Son of God. The pages of the Gospel of John are rife with theology at every turn. So also is his account of Christ’s death. He provides significant theological and divine importance to even the few words Jesus utters from the cross. When Jesus whispers, “I am thirsty,” we become privy to one of the most intimate situations in the history of humankind: a conversation between God the Father and His dying, divine Son. In some ways we should treat Christ’s time on the cross from a distance, with humility and respect, allowing a Father and Son their final moment.
Yet, our relationship with God doesn’t exclusively work that way. God is not just a transcendent deity, but rather a God who made a choice to become one of us, to dwell and live with us and experience life in its entirety. Inclusive to this life, we experience joy, fulfillment, and happiness. We also experience suffering, distress and thirst. To choose the former, we inevitably gain the latter. Christ’s thirst on the cross was both divine and all too human as well. As much as Christ’s thirst from the cross was about greater things, it challenges us in our humanity to suffering and distress. To reach out in His name to those folks in the margins of our world who are forgotten by most: people who thirst for both physical and spiritual water, water which will give them not only life, but eternal life. It challenges us to reach out to children who need guidance, to the elderly who are alone and yes, to grieving mothers in hospital waiting rooms. We must embrace the cup that the Father has given to each of us and embrace the distress of others as our own, as He did for you and me.
It is no secret that water and thirst are common, both physically and spiritually, throughout the Bible. Possibly no better metaphor exists for us to understand the truths of God’s word. And so it was on Christ’s cross, a distressing cry of thirst, both human and divine.
By Major Kevin E. Jackson