Dying is thirsty business. Jesus whispers he is thirsty. Not everyone heard him say this. But some did. John tells us he uttered these words for two reasons. His death was imminent and his thirst was predicted. “After this, when Jesus realized that everything was now completed, he said (in order to fulfill the Scripture), ‘I’m thirsty'” [John 19:28 ESV]. He had just cried out in anguish, lamenting why God, his God, had abandoned him. Some mistook this agony for a cry to Elijah to come and rescue him. Others continued mocking him muttering aloud their own desire for Elijah to come and save his life. They no more believed Elijah would come than they believed the innocence of the one hanging, nailed to the cross.
Jesus was a man. He has endured torture at the hands of Roman soldiers experienced at delivering the most pain without killing their victim. He has had nothing to eat, though he probably could not have eaten. He has had nothing to drink, having refused the gall offered before he was impaled through his arms and feet to the cross. He has been scourged, his skin cut to ribbons by a whip designed to flay. He has had to carry a heavy beam and been unable to. Another was forced to carry it for him. He has been exposed to the elements, hanging for several hours while an unusual darkness which, at that time of year, brought cold. He is feverish, dehydrated, traumatized. Still, he continues to pull himself up with arm muscles burning from exertion and on feet impaled by a single spike. His pain and agony, his physical condition was real, a tangible horrifying experience which would soon end in his death.
Two accounts are given of Jesus receiving this last drink. In the documents written by Matthew and Mark he cries out with a loud voice. Did any who were not crucified remain silent through the experience? All cried. We have some historical evidence suggesting some, a very few, withstood the pain stoically. Jesus was not one of these. He cried out. He felt real pain and cried out with real cries. When he did this Matthew says “one of the men ran off at once, took a sponge, and soaked it in some sour wine. Then he put it on a stick and offered Jesus a drink” [Matthew 27:48 ESV]. Who the man was we do not know. It probably was not one of the soldiers there. It was probably one of his disciples, who filled with empathy tried to alleviate at least some of Jesus suffering. John tells us they put the sponge filled with sour wine on a “branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth” [John 19:29 ESV]. This sour wine was not the gall offered earlier.
Hyssop is a small plant used in the ritual cleansing of the temple by the priest. Its stalk is at most 18 inches and flimsy. Mostly likely, the sponge soaked with sour wine was attached to a reed, a long stick or even a javelin (a husso) with hyssop. Every Jew living in or visiting the temple in Jerusalem knew what hyssop was and its use in the temple. John suggests Jesus’ request for a drink and the use of hyssop to deliver the sour wine has implications beyond a simple act of mercy by an eyewitness.
Giving a drink to a dying man is an act of mercy. Jesus is moments away from death. A real man having real needs facing real death. His resurrection is as real as he.