This reflection is the seventh in our Lenten series, “First-Person Faith.” Read more about the Collegeville Institute’s first-person approach to theological discourse in our introduction to the series.
I met him on Maundy Thursday afternoon, as he lay frail in his bed. His daughter’s hair shrouded his chest each time she leaned in to see if he was still breathing.
Slack-jawed and unable to swallow—as most of us will be when our bodies shut down—each subtle breath turned his mouth bone-dry. A sip of water could choke him, but his thirst burned.
The gospel writers knew at least one solution:
Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of a hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips.
—John 19:28b-29, NIV
The modern version is a plastic stick with a foam cube on the end. It’s not poetic, but it works. The dying man’s daughter dipped it in water and reverently swept the crevices of his parched mouth. Some dying people suck the sponge like an infant latches to a nipple—it’s the same instinct, of course. This man was wholly passive, and his daughter used the swab like a toothbrush, giving him the only refreshment he could handle. She was daunted, but not undone, by his need.
We carry a cultural and religious burden of believing our needy humanness is a problem. We forget that even Jesus is thirsty—in need—and focus instead on his divinity, which we claim renders him sinless and needless. We blame the brokenness of humanity and the curse of death on Eve and Adam.
I choose to read a different creation story. Look around—what teaches us more about the Creator than Creation itself? We see that death is inherent to life. Is there a living creature that does not die? Is there a rock that is not washed to sand? Is there an ocean that does not sacrifice water to evaporation or ice or streams?
Jesus is thirsty. Because he needs, he suffers. Whether or not he could have, Jesus doesn’t avoid thirst, hunger, exhaustion, loneliness, pain. He doesn’t avoid the cross or the grave.
Time and weight compact sand again to rock.
Rain falls back to the ocean.
All of death becomes life once again. It is a brilliant design!
Our need is not a curse. Some moments it is a burden. And some moments it is a blessing.
Without need, we would miss the rush of pleasure in a cool glass of water, or a hot cup of coffee. Without need, we would miss our mouths watering when bread rises in the oven, and the sweet peace of drifting into dreams after a grueling day. Without need, we would miss the ache for intimacy, the thrill of curiosity, the satisfaction of leaving our mark.
Holy Week is full of need and suffering. We may want to tune out until Easter Sunday, to turn away from the sorrow and horror of the crucifixion. But before Jesus rises we dwell with him in grief, we witness his pain, we strive to stay awake, praying in the garden.
On Maundy Thursday night a thirsty man met the hour of his death. His daughter’s compassion was so deep that she could bear to look into the face of his need, and this blessed them both. He was cradled in her arms when he took his last breath.
Good Friday is our invitation to witness Jesus’ suffering and death—needfulness in the extreme. We learn that if we can look upon Jesus’ thirst and pain, we can also witness the needfulness of the people around us, and not look away. This doesn’t mean we can fix it, but that we can (at the very least) see it, name it, and speak to it. We honor the holiness of need by dwelling in its depths with one another.
We can witness our own needfulness with the same courage rather than avoiding what is uncomfortable or burying painful feelings. That doesn’t mean we’ll relish it—even Jesus asked that the cup of crucifixion pass him by. But like Jesus, we have God within us and all around us as we hold our cup in both hands or latch our lips onto the wet sponge. We are blessed with need, and we are created with compassion deep enough to look into the face of it.