Thirsting for Dangerous Memory, a Good Friday Sermon

I was invited to be one of the preachers for the Last Seven Words Service at Church on the Hill AME Zion Church, NYC. I took the fifth phrase: “I am thirsty.” 

89264f58028a22a8b22c6e11ef8418dd_w600.jpg
Crucifixion by an unknown Ethiopian Artist

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. (John 19:28-29)

I can remember a time when it was popular for pastors to preach a sermon series on the “I am” statements found in John’s Gospel. To name a few of the “I am” statements in John:
I am the bread of life
I am the light of the world
I am the good shepherd
I am the resurrection and the life
I am the way, the truth, and the life

These statements point to the divinity to Christ, since in the book of Exodus when Moses asked for God’s name, the response from the burning bush was “I am that I am.” And so every time Jesus says. “I am,” we are to recall the God of Exodus. The God who liberated a people out of slavery. A God who guides through the wilderness.

And yet, the same one who said “I am the bread of life” also said “I am thirsty.” Though “I am thirsty” as an “I am” statement has been overlooked. Perhaps because of how concrete it is.

Jesus is dying, bleeding, gasping for breath, and has the most essential human need: thirst.

This is such a potent moment in John’s Gospel. This is the first-time Jesus eats or drinks anything in John. While in the other Gospels, Jesus eats and drinks with tax collectors, the unclean, and sex workers, John’s Gospel saves this moment while Christ is on the cross. In a way, John’s Gospel is making these words have so much more depth.

 

It takes nearly the entire book of John for Jesus to show his humanity. But better late than never.

And in this moment of suffering and thirst, I think it’s important to incorporate what is called Dangerous Memory.

This idea was created around the time of the Holocaust by Jewish cultural critic and theologian Walter Benjamin, who wrote “To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize “how it really was.” It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger.” In other words, history is the story we tell ourselves, but then we must be intentional to ask “Who’s story is being told?” Walter Benjamin focused on the underclasses of society and told it from their perspective.

On this Good Friday, how can we not, but stand back and ask who else in our world thirsts? And I do not mean this in an abstract way, but actually who is parched, looking for water.

It has been 1085 days since there’s been clean water in Flint, MI.
1085 days of children not being able to drink out of school water fountains.
1085 days of pregnant women using bottled water to clean themselves.
1085 days in a city of almost 100,000 people trying to survive.
And still. And still. And still. The people of Flint thirst just as Christ did on the cross.

Christ thirsts, Justice thirsts.

US-POLITICS-OBAMA
Placards posted above water fountains warn against against drinking the water at Flint Northwestern High School in Flint, Michigan, in May, 2016. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Last year, I went on a peace delegation to Iraqi Kurdistan. We met with villages where oil companies had come in and started extracting oil. The extraction had destroyed their land and water source. At each of these villages, they showed us where they had wells and how they’re now full of extraction chemicals unworthy to consume the water. Some of these villages had kind neighbors let them use their water source, but many of them have to go into the cities and buy bottled water. My group visited a merely 3 villages out of 800 who are the affected. The villagers of Iraqi Kurdistan thirst just as Christ did on the cross.

Christ thirsts, Justice thirsts.

In the desert that connects Arizona and Mexico many migrants die in hopes of a better life. They die of starvation and thirst. In the 90’s, an organization was created called No More Deaths, which sets out gallons of water for these travelers. Yet, they cannot get to every desert hopeful. The migrants from Latin and South America thirst just as Christ did on the cross.

Christ thirsts, Justice thirsts.

After listening to moments of current thirsts, here’s what I propose: “I am thirsty” should be included in canon of “I am” statements. We must not disconnect Christ’s reality on the cross to those who thirst in our world. But this also means that we cannot sit idly by while others thirst.

I too find it peculiar that it in our reading it says “they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth..” It doesn’t say that it was the soldiers or the women who quenched Jesus’ thirst. Its ambiguity almost seems to say that it could be anyone close enough to Christ who could have aided Jesus in his despair. And maybe just maybe we are called to be the “they.” Was it not Jesus who said in Matthew’s Gospel:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled. (Matthew 5:6)

So let us continue to thirst after justice. For justice in all those places who have been forgotten and oppressed: Flint, Iraq, Mexico, and Arizona. Christ thirsts, Justice thirsts. Amen.