28 Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, "I am thirsty." 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus' lips. 30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, "It is finished." With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
George Washington has become one of the most famous men in the history of America for good reason. He led the Army of the Potomac through incredibly difficult circumstances and often overwhelming odds with quite underwhelming supplies. Yet, he always maintained the respect of his men and led them eventually to victory over the far more advanced and better supplied British army. One of the things that particularly won the respect of his men was that Washington didn’t isolate himself from the difficult circumstances of his men. He was right there with them through the bitter cold, the lack of food, and he always led in battle from the front. Most Americans know all of these things and that’s one of the reasons he is so respected to this day. One of the stories about Washington that has slipped by the American conscious, however, happened near the end of the war. His army had not been paid for months because the states, with victory in sight, didn’t want to pay more money out to the new Federal Government. The officers of his army had prepared the men to march on Pennsylvania, the then capitol, and take control of the city until they received their due payment. On hearing of this, Washington called all of his officers together and walked to the front of the room. He prepared to read a statement to them urging them to not do anything that might endanger the new government. As he pulled the paper out, he looked at it for a moment and then grabbed a brand new pair of reading glasses and put them on. He asked their indulgence as he said he had not only grown gray in serving with them, but half blind as well. Nearly every man in the room broke down in tears at that humble admission. The man they had revered and idolized as nearly super human was now standing before them humbled. It connected with something inside of them. It made them realize what was important. They didn’t march on the capitol that day, in fact they never did, all because of a pair of reading glasses.
What do you do when the one on whom you have always looked to for strength suddenly finds themselves in need? What does that tell you about them? What does it tell you about yourself? Jesus had always seemed to be in control and command of the situation. He went about his life calmly doing everything he could possibly do for the benefit of others. He seemed to have little need for anything for himself. He always provided for everyone else. Now, though, as he hangs on the cross, John wants us to see a tender and heart-wrenching moment of humility and human frailty. It’s so easy to quickly skip over a detail like that, but let’s take a few moments to take in everything John wants us to see in this scene.
Throughout the Gospel of John, John has told us over and over again about the theme of water. In the opening prologue, he doesn’t specifically mention water, but he is clearly writing a new Genesis, he is describing a new creation event complete with his "In the beginning" and the talk of light and darkness. One of the major events in the Genesis 1 creation account is that the world, covered by the chaos of waters, was brought to order by the Creator God who separated the light and the darkness and brought order to the world out of the waters.
In chapter one, it was at Jesus’ baptism with John the Immerser, that the Spirit settled on Jesus, declaring him to be the Son of God, with whom the Father was well pleased. It wasn’t that Jesus became something that day that he wasn’t already, but more that he was anointed and set apart by God in the eyes of men for the work for which he came.
In chapter two, we see the theme of water pop up again as the wedding party disastrously runs out of wine. Mary doesn’t understand anything about his time and when it will come but she does know that if they do what he says, things will happen. Jesus transforms the water contained by the symbols of the old life, the old law into the rich new wine of God’s presence and His age to come.
In chapter three, Jesus informs Nicodemus that the only way to be born again is through the Spirit and the life giving water that is connected with the Spirit. And then in chapter four, Jesus begins to share with the Samaritan woman the truth about the living water that he has. If she and Nicodemus will only put down their obsessions with the present world and see that they have a thirst that they can never quench on their own. The whole world is dying from a lack of the living water that only Jesus can give them. They can only find that wellspring in his life. He is the one who gives life and water to the world, bringing light to the chaos and disorder of the darkness.
In chapter 6, John shows Jesus to be the master of water, walking calmly on the surface of the storm-ridden waves. Only God could control the water and that is exactly what Jesus was doing and precisely who he is. He goes on in that chapter to tell the skeptical crowds that those who believed in his life would never be thirsty or hungry again. He was the one that would bring them his bread and his drink. They must rely on him and him alone.
This water theme culminated in chapter 7 at the Festival of Tabernacles, a celebration of God’s provision through water and other life-giving sustenance. At the very moment of the water pouring as Israel was crying out for God to act and bring His mighty salvation to them through the return of His presence, Jesus stood up and shouted to the crowd, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them." This living water, the salvation and presence of God, was available to anyone who wanted it. They could come and drink forever, never being thirsty again. And beyond just not being thirsty, they would have wells of this living water springing up from within them, flowing over into the lives of those around them.
At every turn, the theme of water is important in John’s Gospel, and Jesus was clearly depicted as the bringer of the living water that would keep everyone from being thirsty ever again. Now, read verse 28 again and let the full impact of what John is telling us sink in. Jesus is thirsty? How could this be? Of course, it makes sense on a literally physical sense. Jesus was physically thirsty, but we should know by now that John wants us to see more than just that. Did the source of water run out? Could he save others from thirsting but couldn’t save himself? Or was it that by becoming thirsty himself, he would quench the thirst of all who would come to him. He would quench our thirst by becoming thirsty. He would defeat death by dying. He would crush sin by becoming sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21).
This is how Scripture would be fulfilled. John doesn’t mean that Jesus simply said this in order to fulfill Psalm 69:21. God is in control. That is his point. This thirst wasn’t unforeseen. It was how God intended to work all along. He would gain victory by humbling himself in weakness. He had offered to quench the thirst of the world and had brought the best of wine through water (Jn. 2:10), but now the world was offering him the cheapest of wines. This is how he would turn the water of the world into true living water, the best wine of God’s age to come. He came to the place of thirst for us so that we never have to go thirsty again.
Once he had taken a drink, Jesus uttered the striking word, "teleo". This word does mean "it is finished" or "completed," but it was also the word that was stamped or written at the bottom of bills in the ancient world. When there was an outstanding debt that was finally paid off, "teleo" would be stamped at the bottom. It meant "paid in full." The price of sin, the thing that separates us all from the wells of living water had been paid in full. The price has been paid, the work completed.
With that, John says, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. John wants us to see one more time, that Jesus is in control. History is not happening to Jesus, Jesus is happening to history. He didn’t die as a result of events gone terribly wrong. This is how the Father would be glorified. Jesus didn’t die tragically at the hands of the world. He died willing for the sins of the world. The long drought of humankind was finally over.
John goes to great lengths to stress that fact that despite chaos swirling about him, Jesus was always completely in control right up to his very last death. Could that be said of you? We cannot control our circumstances but through the living water that flows within us as a result of Jesus’ defeat of death, we can control our responses to whatever circumstances we face.