It is interesting that of all the physical sensations Jesus must have been feeling as he hung there on the cross, one would not necessarily have put ‘thirst’ at the top of the list? But when things are reaching their conclusion … this is what he cries. According to the Apostle John (and he should know because of all Jesus’ disciples he was the only one who remained there), Jesus said ‘I am thirsty!’ (John 19:28).
Up to this point, pain had certainly been there for Jesus … and lots of people also were there. In fact the whole of humanity was represented there – the two thieves were there, his mother and beloved disciple were there, the crowds were there … but now, in and of himself, Jesus feels truly alone. This is an intensely personal moment for Jesus. A moment when Jesus turns his attention on himself. ‘I am thirsty’ he says.
Apparently, when the human body is under massive strain, the reaction is most acutely felt in the mouth, we are led to believe. The most sensitive part of the mouth, the tongue, goes dry. This reflects the ‘thirst’ of Psalm 22:15 where the Psalmist says, ‘My strength is dried up like a potsherd, my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth, you lay me in the dust of death.’
The soldiers at the cross, hear the cry and give Jesus some vinegary wine in a sponge held on the end of a stick. The drink offered is not the narcotic mixture prepared to dull the senses and lessen the pain that he was offered to Jesus before his crucifixion, and refused. This is the ‘cheap plonk’ that the soldiers would have been drinking themselves as they waited for Jesus and the two thieves to die.
But is there more to this than is immediately apparent? This cry of thirst is not just a desperate word from a dying man under a Middle Eastern sun. This is Jesus speaking at this precise moment in fulfilment of scripture. ‘I thirst’ recalls Psalm 69:21 where we read, ‘They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst’. This saying is part of a lengthy description of the utter desolation, isolation, and scorn experienced by the ‘Righteous Sufferer’ in the Psalm, and the drink forms part of the torment. In this cry of desolation recorded here in John 19:28, Jesus is identifying himself with the ‘Righteous Sufferer’ foretold in Psalm 69!
For the soldier who offered Jesus this sponge filled with vinegar wine, however, this gesture was not intended to add to Jesus’ torment!? For this soldier, the giving of his own wine appears to be a spontaneous act of kindness in response to this heartfelt cry! A strange thing for a member of the Roman execution squad to do? This man had been involved in the horrific, violent, abusive treatment Jesus had received. Ordered by the authorities, he had not only been responsible for the initial beating and abuse Jesus has received but he would then have hammered iron nails through his hands and feet on to a wooden cross!?
But his heart seems to have been touched by Jesus’ suffering! He would have seen this punishment countless times before? But what else did he see? What else did he hear? What was it that touched his heart and changed his life forever? Perhaps it would be better to say, ‘Who was it that touched his heart and changed his life forever?
Was this soldier in fact not just a common soldier, but the centurion in charge of the whole proceedings? The very same man who, according to Mark, stood in front of Jesus as he hung on the cross … and as he witnessed Jesus pouring out his life in death for sinful people like us, responded, ‘Surely, this man was the Son of God!’ (Mark 15:39).