Updated: Mar 27, 2020
This week’s Bible word is the Greek verb dipsaó, which means “thirst”. Variants of this verb appear 3 times in the Gospel (Jn 4:5-42) of the Third Sunday of Lent, year A, when Jesus offers “living water” to the Samaritan woman at the well, so that all who drink from Him may never thirst.
In the secular Greek literature of the ancient world, we see 2 senses of the word dipsaó, and the related noun dipsos, that persist into the Biblical use of the word: firstly, physical thirst, in other words a lack of water; and second, thirst as a metaphor, a strong desire for something.
An example of the first sense, of physical thirst, is the story of Tantalus, who is seen by Odysseus during the latter’s visit to Hades in the Odyssey book 11. Tantalus has been condemned by Zeus to stand in a pool of water up to his chin, but is never permitted to quench his insatiable thirst. One of the serpents mentioned by Milton in Paradise Lost book X is a snake called Dipsas, which had been named by Sophocles (among others) for its bite, which was supposed to lead to agonising thirst in any person bitten by it.
Examples of metaphorical thirst include one of Pindar’s odes, which declares that various deeds thirst for various things; and Plato’s Republic, which describes a democratic city having a thirst for freedom.
In the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures which was produced between the 3rd and 2nd centuries before Christ, the verb dipsaó and the noun dipsos appear just over 50 times between them, mostly translating the Hebrew word tsame. Living in arid lands without modern water systems, the people of the Bible were acutely aware of the perils of being without water. For them, thirst was not simply discomfort, but potentially life‑threatening.
Physical thirst could occur through a variety of causes: for example, as a result of oppression by enemies, as when in 2 Chronicles 32:11, Sennacherib, king of Assyria, sends messengers to Jerusalem, to encourage them to give up their resistance under siege, rather than “die by famine and by thirst [dipsan]”.
The most notable episode of life-threatening thirst is the story of the people of Israel in the desert. In Exodus chapter 17, having left Egypt, led by Moses, “the people thirsted [edipsese] there for water; and they grumbled against Moses and said, ‘Why, now, have you brought us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst [dípsei]?’” (Exod 17:3). The Lord’s miraculous relief of their thirst, bringing water from the rock struck by Moses, is recalled several times in other parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, including Deuteronomy 8:15 and 32:10 (where the land as well as the people is parched [dipsa]); and also Nehemiah 9:15 and 20, where the priests praise God for His past deeds; and Isaiah 48:21, which reminds Israel that “they did not thirst [dipsésosi] when He led them through the desert”, to exhort them to return to faithfulness now.
Physical thirst can also be symbolic of general distress: in Isaiah 41:17, the poor and needy have tongues “parched with thirst [dipses]”; one of the images of Zion’s degradation is that “the tongue of the infant cleaves to the roof of its mouth because of thirst [dípsei]” (Lam 4:4); the Psalmist in Psalm 69:22 receives only vinegar for his thirst from his enemies, in an image recalled by Jesus at His crucifixion, as we’ll see later.
Although all relief of thirst ultimately comes from God, He looks favourably on those who charitably help to relieve others’ thirst: it is one of the ways in which Boaz is generous to Ruth in Ruth 2:9; David receives help while in Gilead, on retreat from Absalom, when he and his men are thirsty (2 Samuel 17:27-29); and charity to enemies, including giving water to the thirsty [dipsá] is commended in Proverbs 25:21-22, in a passage subsequently quoted by the Apostle Paul in Romans 12. On the other hand, failure to relieve the thirsty is condemned by Eliphaz in Job 22:7, and Isaiah 32:6 describes withholding drink from the thirsty [dipsósas] as one of the unjust acts of the fools and wicked.
Note that the effectiveness of all of these images depends on there being a physical reality of thirst and of drought, which the original audience of these texts must have experienced. So thirst was not simply an image, but an experienced reality, for the people of Israel.
Nevertheless, thirst is sometimes purely metaphorical in the Hebrew Scriptures: relief of the thirst of people or of land is an image of something desirable, as when Job remembers the former days of his influence on others: “As the thirsting earth receiving the rain, so were they for my speech.” (Job 29:23). The same is true of good news from a far country (Proverbs 25:25) or the benefits of a righteous ruler (Isaiah 32:2). Thirst can also express spiritual longing, for God, especially by the Psalmist, who says that his soul “thirsted” [edipsesen] for God like “a deer longing for springs of water” (Ps 42:2-3), and like “a dry weary land without water” (Ps 63:2).
Whether the thirst is physical or metaphorical, only God can relieve it, either by natural processes (rain, rivers, springs) or other times miraculously, as we saw earlier, in Exodus chapter 17. He satisfies the thirst of people (for example, reviving Samson in Judges 15:18) and of animals (such as wild donkeys in Psalm 104:11). The land, too, can be dry, and its relief through water, is a regular image of God’s salvation – for example in Isaiah 35, where “the desert and the parched [dipsósa] land will be glad; water will gush forth in the wilderness and a ravine in a thirsting [dipsóse] land; the burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty [dipsósan] ground turn into bubbling springs.” (Isa 35:1, 5, 6). On the other hand, God can withhold these resources, so that sin can be punished by thirst, as in Psalm 107:33, where “springs [are turned] into parched [dipsan] ground”, and Hosea 2:2 where the Lord will make the unfaithful Israel “like a wilderness” and “slay her with thirst”. In Isaiah 65:13, there is a contrast in fate between those who “forsake the Lord” (in verse 11) and those who remain faithful: “Behold, my servants will drink, but you will be thirsty [dipséte].”
Thirst is, therefore, a key sign of our dependence on God, and we must be careful to satisfy our thirst only by what is given by God. Isaiah 55:1 invites “everyone who thirsts [dipsóntes]” to “come to the waters”, and asks: “Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy?” (Isa 55:2).
The New Testament has far fewer occurrences of dipsaó, only 16 in all, and only 1 of the noun dipsos.
Just as in the Hebrew Scriptures, physical thirst is a constant threat: the Apostle Paul includes thirst among the adversities he has suffered, in 1 Corinthians 4:11 and 2 Corinthians 11:27. Jesus’s penultimate saying on the cross in John 19:28, is “I am thirsty”, which is not only a fulfilment of the Scripture (probably Ps 69:22, since His request is answered by being given vinegar to drink), but it is also a mark of Christ’s humanity.
And continuity with the Hebrew Scriptures is also evident by our call to do God’s work to satisfy the thirsty, even if they are enemies, as Paul exhorts in Romans 12:20, which, I mentioned earlier, quotes Proverbs 25:21. Matthew chapter 25’s scene of judgement for the virtuous and the wicked turns on how people have responded to the needs of others – because when we relieve these, the “least of [His] brothers”, we are doing it to Christ Himself (Mt 25: 35, 37, 42, 44): He is the one who is thirsty [edipsēsa].
Thirst is also spiritual, especially in the Beatitudes, where those who “hunger and thirst [dipsōntes] for righteousness… will be satisfied” (Mt 5:6). The satisfaction of this thirst is depicted in Revelation 7:16, where the 144,000 will neither go hungry, nor thirst [dipsēsousin]”, in an image almost identical to the prophetic promise of Isaiah 49:10. It is the Lamb who provides this relief from thirst via “springs of living water”.
The dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:5-42 turns on the woman’s confusion between physical and spiritual thirst. Jesus offers the woman “living water”, so that those who follow Him may never thirst [dipsēsei] again. But the woman at first interprets this offer simply as a superior source of water that will prevent her needing to return to the well each day. She struggles to grasp the radically different nature of what Jesus is offering her, and the fact that the power of this “living water” is based on the identity of the One who is making the offer.
Jesus repeats this offer of relieving spiritual thirst, linked to Himself, elsewhere in John’s gospel, when as “the bread of life”, He promises that “those who believe in [Him] will never be hungry or thirsty again” (Jn 6:35), and also in John 7:37, “on the last day of the festival” He calls for “anyone who is thirsty” to “come to Him and drink”. In making this statement, at the “festival” or Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus is alluding to the contemporary Jewish ceremony within that feast, which was associated with water, celebrated as God’s gift – and identifying Himself as the perfect giver of the gift of “living water”. These promises, of Christ as the perfect satisfaction of spiritual thirst, come to a climax in the Book of Revelation, where the “water of life” is offered “free of charge” to “the one who thirsts” (Rev 21:6 and Rev 22:17). These passages speak of the new order of the kingdom of God, where there is no more thirst or hunger; and the language, just like Jesus’s in John’s gospel, is powerfully reminiscent of the Hebrew Scriptures, and of Isaiah 55:1 in particular.
So, what does all of this mean for us?
1. First, to what extent do we really thirst for God? Is it a matter of life and death, or is it just a mild inclination? The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2560) quotes St Augustine, telling us that “God thirsts, that we may thirst for Him”. Do we match God’s urgency? Is God a necessity for us, or just something we turn to when it is convenient, or diverting?
2. Second, do we personally give water to the thirsty, or do we hoard water (and other resources) for ourselves? And if we give water, and other works of mercy, are we clear that it is not only Christ Who is receiving (as He promised in Matthew chapter 25), but it is also Christ in us Who, through His grace, is doing the giving – so that we are not tempted to pride in our own charity?
3. Finally, how do we quench our spiritual thirst? With “what fails to satisfy”, or with God alone? We seek happiness in so many wrong places, which cannot give us satisfaction. So let’s try not to waste our time with what fails to satisfy. Isaiah 55 reminds us that only God can offer true happiness, and that offer, to "come to the water", is free of charge.