"I Thirst," a reflection on one of the last words of Jesus from the Cross

Jesus, aware that all had now come to its appointed end, said in fulfillment of Scripture, I thirst. (John 19:28)

Fulton Sheen wrote that “the human heart is always anxious to hear of the state of mind of anyone at that very common, and yet very mysterious, moment called death.” Fulton Sheen goes on to say that “There was never a preacher like the dying Christ, there was never a congregation like that which gathered about the pulpit of the Cross; and there was never a sermon like the Seven Last Words.”

But the words, “I thirst” – the shortest of Our Lord’s 7 cries from the cross – also referred to as “The Fifth Words” – call out to me as I recall the day when I said those words myself. I was 23 years old and had just undergone a 10 hour operation where doctors removed one-third of my liver to be transplanted into my dying daughter’s 7 month-old body. I remember waking up in the recovery room. I was in pain that I’d never known in my life and have not known since. My lips were dry. My tongue stuck to the roof of my parched mouth. My throat burned with pain. How I ached. It hurt to speak. It hurt to breathe. I remember the nurse who sat at my side, dressed in blue. My voice cracked as I spoke to her softly. “I am thirsty,” I told her. She placed a cool rag on my forehead, then lifted a small white cup from the stand beside her. In it, she placed a sponged swab that would lift some of the water from the cup. As if in slow motion, the nurse brought that sponged swab soaked with water from the cup to my lips. Ever so gently, she rubbed my lips with the cool water, and as I opened my mouth, she placed the sponge onto my tongue. I recall how refreshing it felt as I closed my lips and savored the cool drops of water that trickled down my burning throat.

I was a mother and would have done anything to save my child, to ease her suffering and pain. How difficult it must have been for Our Blessed Mother Mary to endure that moment when her Son said, “I thirst.” I can only imagine how she must have wanted to lift a sponged swab of cool water to the dry aching lips of her dying Son. She would have done anything to ease His suffering.

The words, “I thirst,” first spoken on Calvary by Jesus, echo tonight in our hearts and minds as we reflect on Our Lord’s passion on the cross. If only we were there at that moment. If only we could have had the opportunity to satisfy the thirst of Jesus. If only.

But have we not had that opportunity? For Jesus tells us … “I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink. Whenever you did this for one of the least important of these brothers of mine, you did it for me.” Mother Teresa answered that call with her life. The words “I thirst” had a special meaning for her. In cut-out paper letters, those words appeared at the side of the tabernacle in the chapel of her Missionaries of Charity where she spent time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament each day. Mother Teresa also ordered those words to appear next to the cross in all her communities around the world. And in her own words, she said, “The Lord is thirsty for our love, for our heart. He wants to give himself to us. And through us, he wishes to give his love to others.”

Many people wrote to Mother Teresa over the years, all wanting to come to Calcutta, to work beside her. They too wanted to encounter Christ in the slums, in the poorest of the poor. But, Mother Teresa’s response was the same to all her inquirers. She said, “Love begins by taking care of the closest ones – the ones at home.” How can you love those closest to you?

Often when my own husband is mowing the lawn on a hot day, I send one of my children out to meet him with a cold glass of iced tea. From the kitchen window, I watch as my husband stops the mower, wipes his sweaty forehead, and accepts the drink gratefully. And I watch the proud look on the face of my child. For if we truly believe that Christ lives in each of us, then it is at those moments that we satisfy the thirst of Jesus. And it is in those moments that we listen to the words of Mother Teresa in taking care of those closest to us.

I am blessed to have been raised by parents who taught me compassion for those less fortunate and to have known a Franciscan priest who worked with many homeless and poor men and women in his lifetime. The opportunities to feed the hungry or give drink to the thirsty were accessible to me. I have encountered the living Christ on breadlines and in soup kitchens. And I can tell you that He is most gracious and kind when I meet him there. At a soup kitchen in Philadelphia almost five years ago, I met a mother with three small children – the youngest, who was carrying an empty baby bottle, was in an umbrella stroller. “It’s so hot,” the mother said, “and my children are thirsty.” That day, we had set up a Lemonade Stand in the paved yard adjacent to the soup kitchen. An Igloo cooler held ice cubes while another held gallons of Turkey Hill Lemonade with plastic cups stacked beside the coolers. A sign taped to the top of one of the coolers said, “Lemonade FREE.” I pointed the mother in that direction and watched as she filled her baby’s bottle with cold lemonade. The baby, a little girl, with blonde hair and blue eyes, lifted the bottle to her red-cheeked and sun-warmed face. “Whenever you did it for one of the least important of these brothers of mine, you did it for me.” Those five words – you did it for me – were as important to Mother Teresa as the fifth words of Jesus from the Cross – “I thirst.”

In His previous words from the Cross, Jesus was speaking to others, but it appears now that He is speaking of Himself when He says, “I thirst.” Fulton Sheen writes that it is “indeed true that the loss of blood through the sufferings, the unnatural position of the body with the extreme tension on hands and feet, the overstretched muscles, the wounds exposed to air, the headache from the crowning of thorns, the swelling of the blood vessels, the increasing inflammation – all would have produced a physical thirst. And it was not surprising that He thirsted; what was surprising was that He said so.” He who made the seas and rivers … He who said to the Samaritan woman: “The man who drinks the water I give him will not know thirst any more” … He who performed miracles … now said the words, “I thirst,” spoken not solely because of a physical need, though great as it must have been. The real reason for the request was the fulfillment of the prophecies. The Psalmist David wrote foretelling of the thirst of Our Lord, “My mouth is dry as a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaw” and “They put poison in my food and gave me vinegar when I was thirsty.” Jesus assured us by His words from the Cross that He was the Son of the Almighty God as the bystanders of the Cross who knew well the Old Testament prophecies were given another proof that He was the Messiah.

Mother Teresa sums up the words “I thirst” in her own reflection of Jesus’ thoughts from the Cross. “I thirst for you. I thirst to love and to be loved by you – that is how precious you are to me. Come to me, and fill your heart and heal your wounds. If you feel unimportant in the eyes of the world, that matters not at all. For me, there is no one any more important in the entire world than you. I thirst for you. Come to me. Thirst for me. Give me your life – and I will prove to you how important you are to my heart.”

Tonight, as Our Lord thirsts for you, for your love, for your soul … are You thirsting for Him? Is your soul thirsting for Our Lord?

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