What are you thirsty for? (part 2)

Commercial after commercial aims to provoke our hunger and thirst. We are bombarded with images of impossibly plump and juicy hamburgers (the ones you buy never look like that), or cool, frosty cans / bottles / glasses of some refreshing beverage. And if there are people in such commercials, they’re probably young, attractive, and really, really enjoying themselves.

Makes you wonder: are you supposed to thirst for the beverage, or the lifestyle that goes with it? Hey, look: people who drink this beer or soda are always partying with beautiful people! Want some of that? Well, you know what to do.

Nobody in their right mind would admit to actually believing such a silly message. But it’s hard to escape the way such ideas begin to shape our imaginations when they become part of the cultural air we breathe.

***

John tells us that one of the things Jesus says from the cross is “I am thirsty” (John 19:28). As always, John sees this as a fulfillment of Scripture. It’s not a direct quote of an ancient prophecy, but the embodiment of a text like this one: “To quench my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” (Ps 69:21, CEB).

But this is not the first time the theme of thirst has cropped up in the gospel of John. All the way back in chapter 4, as Jesus and his disciples traveled through Samaria, he encountered a woman who came out every day to draw water from the communal well. This was a matter of survival for her, as it was for her neighbors.

When Jesus told her that he could give her living water (vs. 10), she understood the offer in terms of what was most important to her situation: Are you saying that I might not have to come get water from the well anymore?  That, of course, is not what Jesus meant. But it’s understandable that she would respond according to her needs.

Many readers have noted the irony: on the cross, the one who gives living water thirsts; the one whose first public miracle was to turn mere water into gallons of fine wine is given a sponge full of the cheap stuff. But such is the upside-down nature of the kingdom for which this king is unknowingly mocked and crucified. In order to fulfill our deepest hunger and thirst, Jesus must suffer thirst on our behalf.

And for what? For what do we hunger and thirst?

The logic of much consumer advertising is to shape our desires and play to our needs, in order to sell us products and services. Food and drink, of course, are legitimate needs — but nobody makes commercials to sell fresh broccoli or Brussels sprouts. We are manipulated to desire junk food, or things that are at best only artificially nutritious, packed with synthesized versions of real nutrients. And as any nutritionist will tell you, the problem with junk food isn’t just that it’s bad for us. The problem is that the more we eat it, the less we want of the things we really need.

There is a spiritual parallel. In the Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed, because their hunger will be satisfied (Matt 5:6). He is teaching his disciples what true blessing means, in the context of the kingdom of heaven. Thirsting for righteousness doesn’t mean having a deep desire to be an excellent rule-follower; it means yearning to see God’s justice done, longing to see God take all the things that are wrong and make them right. And the promise is that this righteous God, the God whose kingdom we inhabit through belief in Jesus, will in fact do it: our truest longings will be fulfilled when creation is finally restored and justice prevails over all.

Jesus didn’t suffer thirst merely to buy us a one-way ticket to heaven after we die. He suffered in our place that we might be empowered to live the reality of the kingdom of heaven here and now.

And that may mean a reordering of the things for which we ourselves hunger and thirst.

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