The last words a person says before dying are cherished by those who care for him or her. They are always remembered and reflect upon, since they reveal what that individual considered to be truly important. During someone’s final moments, the little time and energy left are dedicated to addressing what is most precious in life. They speak words of love and forgiveness. They reveal what is in that person’s heart.
As we continue to make our way through Lent, we slowly approach Holy Week and the crucifixion of our Lord. Some of the last words that Jesus spoke while suffering on the Cross were “I thirst” (John 19:28). We continue to hear His words filled with pain today. These words speak not only of His physical thirst for water but also of His thirst for love, for souls, a spiritual thirst for each of us. These words have inspired many saints through the years. It is helpful to reflect on Jesus’ cry of thirst during Lent to better prepare us for His passion and death.
Jesus’ Words on the Cross
Water is one of the most basic necessities of life, even more than food. Towards the end of Jesus’ suffering on the Cross, He experienced extreme thirst. He had gone without food, sleep, or drink since the Last Supper. He had lost an enormous amount of blood, was in excruciating pain, and had difficulty breathing. He suffered mental anguish and agony. Finally, just before He breathed His last, He spoke of His thirst. The Gospel of John states:
After this, aware that everything was now finished, in order that the scripture might be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I thirst” (John 19:28).
On one level, His thirst was a physical need for water, part of the suffering caused by crucifixion. By expressing His thirst Jesus showed His humility, since He expressed one of the most basic of human needs. He asked simply for a glass of water, just as anyone else would do. Pope St. John Paul II spoke of Jesus’ cry of thirst on the Cross and how it showed Him sharing our sufferings. He stated, “Jesus expressed his solidarity with all those, living or dying, healthy or sick, great or small, who are in need and ask at least for a cup of water (cf. Matthew 10:42). For us it is good to think that any help given to one who is dying, is given to Jesus crucified!”
The thirst of Jesus was not simply for water. It was a spiritual thirst for love, an element which is essential for life. His thirst was for His Father but for us also. This was not the first time He asked for water. When Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman who had come to draw water at Jacob’s well, He asked her, “Give me a drink” (John 4:10). While speaking with her, Jesus promised her a different type of water. He promised her living water, God’s life-giving Spirit, which will quench her thirst for all eternity.
The water Jesus promised her and promises us is the gift of God’s love to those whose hearts are open to receive it. St. Augustine spoke of this incident with the Samaritan woman. He stressed that Jesus approaches each of us, asking for something to drink. He thirsts so that we might also thirst for Him. He thirsts to offer us His love and to receive our love in return. Jesus’ words on the Cross express His desire and ardent love for each of us.
Saints Inspired by Jesus’ Thirst
These words of Jesus from the Cross have inspired many saints. They hear Jesus’ faint voice from the Cross and are moved to respond to His request. Their focus is not on the human thirst for God, as was traditional. For example, Psalm 42:2 states, “As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God.” Instead, they focus on God’s thirst for us and they try to satisfy it by their words and actions.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux first experienced Jesus’ thirst when she was only fourteen years old. She described it vividly in her autobiography, The Story of a Soul. She stated:
One Sunday, looking at a picture of Our Lord on the Cross, I was struck by the blood flowing from one of the divine hands. . . . The cry of Jesus on the Cross sounded continually in my heart: “I thirst!” These words ignited within me an unknown and very living fire. I wanted to give my beloved to drink and I felt myself consumed with a thirst for souls.
At the time of this episode, the newspapers were filled with stories of Henri Pranzini, a man accused of being a triple murderer. He had been condemned to death by the courts and had refused to see a priest. St. Thérèse prayed to God for his conversion and asked him to have mercy on him, even having a Mass offered for him. She was overjoyed when she read in the newspaper that he had kissed a crucifix three times just moments before his death. Her prayers had been answered. St. Thérèse understood that Jesus’ words from the Cross reflected His desire to show His merciful love. She satisfied Him by dedicating her life completely to prayer and love of neighbor, especially those who were alienated and most in need of God’s mercy.
St. Teresa of Calcutta’s whole life and mission were centered on satisfying this desire of Jesus’. During a train ride to Darjeeling for a retreat on September 10, 1946, she had an overwhelming experience that changed her life completely. Her mystical experience made her more aware of Jesus’ inner thirst for our love. She explained to her sisters:
“I thirst,” Jesus said on the cross when Jesus was deprived of
every consolation, dying in absolute Poverty, left alone, despised and
broken in body and soul. He spoke of His thirst – not for water – but for
love, for sacrifice … Jesus is God: therefore, His love, His thirst is infinite.
Our aim is to quench this infinite thirst of a God made man.
This experience opened her eyes to see Jesus pain in the eyes of people suffering and abandoned around her. She realized that Jesus thirsts for each of us. The only way to quench His aching desire for love was to love and care for those in need. Mother Teresa’s mission to help the poorest of the poor was inspired by Jesus’ extreme thirst on the Cross and her deep desire to satisfy it.
Listening to Jesus’ Cry of Thirst
The words of Jesus on the Cross, “I thirst,” indicate far more than His physical need for water. His words reveal His thirst for love, for souls, for each of us. God longs to love all His children just as a dying man longs and thirsts for water. Let us stand alongside the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Mary Magdalene, and St. John and look upon Jesus on the Cross. Let us hear His faint, parched voice expressing His thirst and understand that He is expressing His deep love for each of us. Like St. Thérèse of Lisieux and St. Teresa of Calcutta, let us try to satisfy His unquenched thirst by dedicating more time to Him in prayer and by showing our compassionate love to those who are suffering and alone.