After Kenwyne Jones headed Steve Bruce's team into a deserved lead the home side seemed to have thwarted Manchester City's best efforts to fashion an equaliser.
But a succession of world-class saves by Craig Gordon was not enough to give the Wearsiders three points as Easington-born Adam Johnson's superb late strike, his first in Man City colours since his January switch from Middlesbrough, rescued Roberto Mancini's team.
Sunderland now sit seven points from the drop zone and owner Ellis Short, who was again in attendance at the Stadium of Light, will be relieved to see his club edging towards a position of Premier League safety.
Following last Tuesday's morale-boosting victory over Bolton Wanderers, the Wearsiders oozed confidence against City and should have added to their tally in the opening 45 minutes with Darren Bent in particular guilty of snatching at chances that could have handed the Black Cats a commanding lead.
The heavy surface ensured both sides struggled for fluency but the home team's more direct approach proved effective in the early stages.
Sunderland's willingness to press City was also key to shackling the likes of Craig Bellamy and Shaun Wright-Phillips who were given no space by Alan Hutton and Anton Ferdinand. At Eastlands last December, Bellamy faced the cumbersome Nyron Nosworthy and on that afternoon his trademark marauding runs tore Sunderland apart.
Yesterday the pace of Hutton prevented the feisty former Newcastle man from having this his own way.
Jones almost opened the deadlock inside five minutes when he surged down the left flank and barged past Vincent Kompany but his low shot was gathered with ease by Shay Given.
But the Trinidad and Tobago international leapt highest to nod home a superbly taken header from Steed Malbranque's tempting left wing cross.
Ten minutes later the same move almost unlocked the City defence but on this occasion Jones' header was directed straight at Given.
Malbranque, who has proved to be a revelation on the left flank, saw a snap shot charged down by Micah Richards while Fraizer Campbell scuffed an effort after linking well with the impressive Hutton.
Sunderland were dominant in every department and Mancini's side looked rattled.
Kompany's sliced a pass into touch midway through the first half typified the visitor's sloppy approach.
A frustrated Mancini hauled off Wayne Bridge for Roque Santa Cruz as City reverted to a 4-4-2 formation and attempted to create some space.
Despite the quality of players at his disposal, the visitors' high-class midfield were outfought by a revitalised Sunderland.
David Meyler had been handed an immediate return to the starting line-up after serving a three-match suspension. The Irishman partnered Kieran Richardson in central midfield as Lorik Cana began his two-game ban.
Lee Cattermole's failure to recover from hamstring trouble stretched Bruce's resources but Jordan Henderson's return to the squad offered the manager a timely boost.
The terms of Benjani's loan prevented the Zimbabwean from facing his parent club. His absence exposed the dearth of attacking options in Sunderland's squad forcing Bruce to name a substitutes' bench lacking any strikers.
Scrappy defending by John Mensah handed Gareth Barry a chance to level just before the break but the England midfielder's close range shot squirmed wide of the upright as Sunderland protected their lead.
It was a rare blip by the Ghana international who was again in imperious mood at the heart of the Black Cats' defence.
Niggling hamstring problems have placed a question mark against Mensah earning a permanent deal but any more performances like this and Bruce will be tempted to retain the experienced centre-half next season.
Henderson was brought on at half time for the injured Jones forcing Bruce to re-shuffle his formation. Bent operated as a lone striker with Richardson playing in his favoured attacking midfield position.
Mancini must have delivered some harsh words during the interval because his team were a wholly different prospect in the second half.
Gordon made three excellent blocks in the space of a minute to deny Bellamy, Wright-Phillips and Pablo Zabaleta.
The Scotland international was again called on when Bellamy's cross seemed to have been turned in by Carlos Tevez but Gordon snaked out an arm to keep the Blues at bay. But Sunderland's pace in attack ensured that City had to be wary when the home side mounted a counter-attack. Bent raced down the right and played in the onrushing Richardson but his strike from the edge of the area was blocked by Kompany.
Bolo Zenden and Phil Bardsley were brought on add fresh legs while the depth of City's resources was underlined when Patrick Vieira and former Boro winger Johnson were thrown on to break down the home side.
Johnson's entry to the fray proved decisive.
Gordon seemed to have secured Sunderland's first back-to back victories since Bruce was appointed when his low block prevented Bellamy from adding to the five career goals he has a scored against the Wearsiders.
But a moment of pure quality by Johnson broke Sunderland's hearts.
His inch-perfect left foot curling shot from the edge of the penalty box sailed over Henderson's head to grab a point for Mancini.
It was a cruel end for Bruce's side but they have rediscovered the type of battling qualities that should prevent them from being sucked back into the relegation zone.