Hands cupping water.

Photo by Vitor Monthay on Unsplash

I pray for those whose thirst is unquenched

March 30, 2023

“After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (John 19:28-30)

My wife and I went to downtown Providence, Rhode Island on a steamy day with blistering temperatures in the nineties to hear a presidential candidate deliver a campaign speech. We stood sweating amidst the crowds listening to his outdoor message. He was one we liked, although he did not win. Afterward, we milled about the shops when my wife began to feel faint – overcome by heat exhaustion and the noisy press of the crowds. There was no shade nearby, so she sat against a storefront and bent her head between her legs. I didn’t know what to do. I could not leave her to go fetch help, but it seemed like something had to be done.

An elderly woman came to us and asked if my wife would like a drink of water. “Oh, that would be so helpful,” was our reply. The woman disappeared into the crowd. I was not sure we would see her again. She must have gone into a store or café to fetch a cup. Maybe she even had to pay something for it. It did not occur to me then that she too was hot, uncomfortable, and inconvenienced to go out of her way to be helpful. In a few minutes, she reappeared with a refreshing cup of cold water, which restored my wife to feeling better. I turned to thank the woman, but she was gone. An angel! I will never forget her, or her kindness. Forevermore I see her face when I hear the Bible verse “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”  (Matthew 10:42). 

It is one of my life’s ambitions to become like the woman who brought me and my wife a cup of cold water on a hot day in Providence, Rhode Island. I would cherish the opportunity to quench another’s thirst…either their physical need for a drink of water, their need to be drawn closer to the Divine, or their thirst for justice and righteousness.

When I remember this incident, I think about how many times the Bible speaks of thirst and the quenching of thirst. “I thirst,” spoke Jesus as a last word from the cross. “After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), ‘I am thirsty’.” (John 19:28). Notice the parenthetical statement – “in order to fulfill the scripture.” That sounds like it was added by the author or perhaps by a later editor, perhaps for some special agenda, but the parenthetical statement feels like it diminishes the very real, human need for quenching thirst. I thirst. I am thirsty. Jesus is portrayed in the gospels as having two natures: he is human and he is Divine. The fully human side of a man being executed, who knows without a doubt that death will arrive within moments, asks for a final drink to quench his need. He got something else instead, which only worsened his need. “I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,” Jesus had taught earlier in one of his most prophetic and engaging messages (Matthew 25:42). Like people who hurt, Jesus too could whisper “I thirst.”

As I meditate on Jesus’ last word of thirst, other Scriptures come to mind:

– “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” (Psalm 42:1-2). Another reference to thirst. Perhaps there is some inborn instinct that inspires women and men to thirst for God, for a relationship with God. I wonder sometimes if one of the failures of the 21st-century church is neglecting to provide a balm for those longings. What if people today long to be lifted up into the presence of God? What if contemporary woman and man may be so bold as to seek an encounter with the Divine? They attend church, and what do they find? The thirst is real, but the quenching seems unfulfilled. If there is any biblical message so directed to our churches today, it is to fulfill the needs of this verse.

– “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6). There are a few biblical translations that translated the verse “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice” (Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition, Expanded Bible, New Catholic Bible, New Century Version, New Living Translation, New Testament for Everyone), but most of the translations name it “righteousness.” Now, “righteousness” can mean “right relationships,” and “justice” can mean “how you treat people,” so these two are not so far apart. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for seeing people treated justly and for being in the right relationships with others of God’s creation. 

The thing about thirsting is, you don’t have to think about it. It comes naturally. When you are dry, you thirst. When my wife, exhausted on a sweltering day, leaned against a storefront, she thirsted. A dying Jesus on the cross thirsted. There are millions of people around the globe with insufficient water to quench their thirst, some in desert countries and some in Detroit and other cities without safe city water. There are many around the world and in my neighborhood who, like the deer longing for flowing streams, long for some meaningful connection to their Creator. And there are so many who thirst for righteousness and justice, who are crying “I am thirsty,” and we are grateful for their passion for right relationships and for how people are treated well. 

Jesus had taught “I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink.” It is one of my life’s ambitions to become like the woman who brought us a cup of cold water. I would cherish the opportunity to quench another’s thirst… either their physical need for a drink of water, their need to be drawn closer to the Divine, or their thirst for justice and righteousness. As I think about Jesus’ last words from the Cross, I am inspired to program my mind, so that whenever I take a sip of water to refresh my thirst, my prayer is: “I pray for those whose thirst is unquenched.” Let us pray together for those whose thirst is unquenched, and may we become some small part of the quenching of their thirst.

Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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