Good Friday 10th April 2020
Thirsting for God
COVID_19 has made us all much more aware of our mortality and the threats to our health from which modern life has not insulated us. But it’s worth remembering that in many parts of the world, this pandemic is just another aspect of a fragile existence, alongside other diseases, war, or even lack of basic food and sanitation. There are still 800 million people in the world today who don’t have clean water to drink, and with the growing impact of climate change, many have decreasing access to water at all.
In the Western world, we very rarely have the sustained physical experience of thirst. When we feel thirsty we just turn on a tap or buy a bottle of water. But in the premodern desert culture of biblical times, people knew what it was to be thirsty. They had to travel far to collect water, they had to conserve it, and when it ran out they felt it. They felt it in their bodies and they suffered for it. It gave them an acute sense of their mortality.
The sheer intensity of this experience also meant that they used physical thirst as a metaphor for a much deeper longing. “My soul thirsts for God,” says the Psalmist, “in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” Human beings have desires. They have physical, biological desires. They have emotional and psychological desires. But at the very heart of our being is a spiritual desire: the desire for the source of life, the desire for God.
In our consumer culture we mostly sate our desires through shopping. We live in an economy of desire that cultivates our longing for new things, new experiences, new technologies. But the temporary satisfying of all these lesser desires merely dulls our longing for God, they do not truly satisfy our thirst.
To pray in a culture like this is, as we have been exploring this week, to form daily habits that put us in touch with that deeper longer. Prayer allows us to attend to our thirst for God and drink from the well of living water – the image with which Jesus describes himself in his conversation with the Samaritan woman in the Fourth Chapter of John’s Gospel.
That is extraordinary enough. But on Good Friday we are confronted with something even more extraordinary, something that tells us some fundamental truths about the Christian God, the Christian Gospel and the practice of Christian prayer. In St John’s account of Good Friday, as Jesus hangs on the Cross, he too cries, “I thirst.”
We can interpret this, of course, as a sign of his humanity. Like us, he experiences physical thirst in his suffering. But the tradition has always understood this thirst to be a metaphor too. Like us, the human Jesus thirsts for God the Father and he too has satisfied that desire in times of solitude and prayer.
But then we must ask, what does the divine Jesus thirst for? What is the desire expressed by the almighty God as Jesus dies on the cross. It is, quite simply, that just as we long for God, God longs for us.
This is something that is easily said, but much harder to really take on board. As we comprehend it, it shapes our whole experience of prayer. Because it raises the question that, when we sit in silence before God, what do we believe we will encounter? Many struggle to move beyond the perception of an authoritarian god whom they try to please with their prayers but whom they fear will continue to look on them in judgment. Many perceive a God who is remote and indifferent, of whose attention our prayers are not worthy. Some move to the next step of realizing that they are praying to a God who does take an interest in them, who does listen sympathetically to their prayers.
But Good Friday tells us that the God to whom we pray represents so much more than even this. We pray to a God who longs for us. Ours is the God who hangs on every word of our prayers as if we were a baby speaking her first words to devoted and proud parents. This is the God who left the throne of glory for the throne of the cross to do whatever it takes to sate his thirst, his desire for us.
God does not need us. God did not create us to amuse himself or pass the time. God created us out of love, because God is love. And so when we come before God in prayer, when we gather together for worship, or when we sit quietly on our own for our private devotions, all we encounter is this yearning, loving attention, the love that, as Dante said, “moved the sun and the heavens.”
The vinegar that Jesus was offered in response to his thirst is interpreted as a fulfillment of Psalm 69, “they gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” It is a painful symbol, therefore, that more often than not what God receives from humanity, in exchange for his loving desire, is rejection. The vinegar we offer to God is the destruction of his creation, the violation of God’s image and likeness in the people we abuse and disrespect, the time that we give to sating our own superficial desires rather than coming to him in prayer.
But Jesus accepts that vinegar; it is the culmination of his passion. He has taken into himself the very worst that humanity will give him when all he desired was the reciprocation of God’s love and the desire for God’s Kingdom. He drinks the cup of suffering that he had prayed to avoid in Gethsemane, “Father, if it be your will, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.”
We should not be suffering from thirst during this pandemic. But we all have a renewed sense of our mortality and we are experiencing desire: desire to be outside more, desire to see our friends and family, desire to gather together as a church. as we reflect on those desires, those longings, let them remind us that we were created to thirst for God and Jesus says that we will be blessed if we hunger and thirst for the righteousness of his kingdom. And let it urge us to come to God this Good Friday in prayer and drink from the living water, and, on the third day, to drink of the new wine.