After this, knowing that everything was already completed, in order to fulfill the scripture, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was nearby, so the soldiers soaked a sponge in it, placed it on a hyssop branch, and held it up to his lips. When he had received the sour wine, Jesus said, “It is completed.” Bowing his head, he gave up his life.John 19:28-30
There is a tradition of preaching about the details of the crucifixion on Good Friday. I’ve heard it done poorly, when a preacher seemed to be trying to scare or guilt their audience into some sort of conversion experience. I have heard it artfully done, particularly by The Rev. David Scheider, who directed the counseling program at my seminary and, as a veteran of military service, knew something about the horror of man’s inhumanity to man (pronoun use intentional.) In both cases, the truth remains that crucifixion is a particularly terrible means of execution.
Jesus’s words of distress are actually an invocation of Psalm 35 (or, perhaps, Psalm 22, depending on who’s doing the interpreting.) Even in his anguish, Jesus turns his struggle into an opportunity to empathize with anyone who has cried out in a similar way. This scene resonates back to an earlier episode in the gospel when Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at the village well in the middle of the day. In that moment, she thirsts not only for the cool water but for the quenching spirit of Christ’s presence.
At this moment, Jesus could use a little sip himself. As the strength drains from his limbs, his body presses down on his abdomen. The agonizing work of lifting himself for one small breath is compounded by the rough wood of the cross moving against his scourged back. There is nothing he can do that does not hurt. There is nothing his disciples can do to ease his pain.
In a futile gesture, one of the soldiers offers a drink of sour wine. That seems like a very human response. I can almost here the soldier calling up to Jesus, “Let us know if there is anything we can do.” Every time I say something like that, I mean it. We want to help. We want to fix it, if we can. But what do we do with a situation that is beyond fixing?
You can hear the distress in Ted Hawkin’s voice as he offers his beloved “something sour or something sweet.” He’s clearly trying to put on a good face in the midst of a situation that is out of reach. He’s not a doctor, and he’s not a priest. But he would do anything in the world to simply take away the pain. If only he could.
But that is not his work, and it is not our work to take away Jesus’s pain. In the most dramatic and gruesome way imaginable, Christ bears witness to the fact that this is not what we were created for. Death is a part of the reality of our lives, but it stands in stark contrast to the nature of the God who created us, the God of life. Death is, it seems, inevitable, yet it remains incomprehensible. All we can do in the moment is stand and watch.