by Jenna Olson Popp
Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” – John 4:13-14 (NRSV)
This story is a familiar one. Jesus approaches the woman at the well and blows her mind with some “living water” talk. She is amazed by his words, asking for this water from Jesus so that she never has to come to the well again.
She is drawn to him and his words. She’s never had anything like this living water before. Having been emptied and beaten down by life as an outsider, this is great news for her. This is hope for a new life, a new way of being in the world, one where she is not dependent on water from the well or from earthly sources of life. It’s a beautiful story about quenching a deep thirst that has never been met.
Later in John, there’s another verse about thirst. It comes from Jesus while on the cross. He simply says, “I am thirsty.” (John 19:28, NRSV)
Two verses later, he bows his head and dies.
The juxtaposition between these verses stunned me when I came across it.
Early in his ministry, Jesus explained to a Samaritan woman the life-giving spirit of this water, inviting her into union with God. Explaining that she could be filled with this Spirit, this water. At this point, I would assume that Jesus had never experienced this kind of thirst before, having been directly fed from the Spirit herself.
And then 15 chapters later in Jesus’ last breath, “Jesus becomes thirsty.” The one who once promised an endless spring of water to a Samaritan woman is himself thirsty.
Now, this stirred a lot of questions for me at first. Thirsty? Why would Jesus be thirsty? Obviously, he’s dying and is probably physically thirsty, but I doubt that the lover-of-metaphors-John would be talking about physical thirst.
So I can only come to understand Jesus’ sudden thirst in one way: Jesus had so fully emptied himself on the cross that he couldn’t even access God’s living spirit. He participated in the wholeness of the human experience in that moment: being thirsty, both physically and spiritually, and total isolation from God.
This hit me hard. It’s often hard for me to think about Jesus as fully human, because he had it easy; he was in complete union with God as an integral part of the Trinity. But on the cross, I now see that he was distant from God; he was no longer being fed directly by God. He had been barred by the world’s sin and brokenness, and with nothing left in him, he felt the breadth of human suffering, pain, and loneliness.
Now, when I read the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, I see Jesus on the cross. I hear his thirst. I know he gets it. And I know what he’s offering is possible and real.
And when I hear Jesus’ words on the cross, I know his humanness. I know the power of the cross that separated him from God, that withdrew the divine life from him, in order that he may die a human death.
It truly is the beauty of Christ to know that my God has been thirsty, too.