14 min. to read.
In a conversation with a woman who was as much of an outsider as you can be, Jesus made a radical promise. He offered something called “living water.” He said that by asking him, she could receive a perpetual inner well of this living water bubbling up to an eternal kind of life.
What is this well? What kind of promise was Jesus making?
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Follow your thirst?
Commercials have a single purpose. Their job is to move us. They push our buttons, hook into our psyche, hoping to connect some deep need we have with the product on the screen. Why? So that we will spend our money. Commercials are expertly crafted to play on our deepest drives. One common theme? Thirst.
I remember iced tea commercials with beautiful people diving into a pool. Then when I was a kid, there were the Kool-Aid man commercials. Do you remember those? A group of kids would be playing hard, wearing themselves out. They needed something! Just then, a giant glass pitcher of the bright red elixir would smash through the wall to save everyone. I never was quite sure how the glass pitcher made it through that brick wall.
There was a series of ads for Sprite. The tagline: “Image Is Nothing. Thirst is Everything. Obey Your Thirst.” That sounds like something a Zen master would say. Image is nothing. But thirst being everything? That’s really bad advice — especially from a soda company.
We thirst. There’s no way around it. Our bodies are made up of water. Too little water and we dehydrate. That’s bad news. We can live without food for a month or more, but water? We can’t go more than a few days. It makes sense that commercials try to use this powerful drive to motivate us. Unfortunately, what they offer can’t fulfill the promise they make.
An offer of Living Water.
Jesus comes to this well in Sychar. He meets a woman and asks for a drink. (Find the whole conversation in John 4) The conversation they have has a lot to teach us about how Jesus relates to outsiders. It’s a helpful model for us about Jesus’ relationship with women. (You can catch those topics and the Biblical study behind them in previous messages leading up to this one.) Jesus asks for a drink. This becomes the jumping off point for him to begin introducing himself to this woman.
“Sir,” said the woman, “You don’t even have a bucket, and the well is deep. So where do You get this ‘living water’? You aren’t greater than our father Jacob, are You? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and livestock.” Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks from this water will get thirsty again. But whoever drinks from the water that I will give him will never get thirsty again—ever! In fact, the water I will give him will become a well of water springing up within him for eternal life.” “Sir,” the woman said to Him, “give me this water so I won’t get thirsty and come here to draw water.” John 4:11- 15
Jesus offers this woman “Living Water.” But what does that does that mean? The phrase “Living Water” is an ambiguous one. The words themselves – hydor zoe – can equally mean “living water,” “water of life,” or just water that’s not stagnant. Water collected in a puddle isn’t living water. It’s stale. But water from a bubbling from a spring — that’s living water.
In college, I worked at a small summer camp in rural Ohio called Camp Mohaven. Down the hill from camp, along the side of an old highway, there was a spring. Years back, to protect the spring, someone had sunk a pipe into the hillside and set the pipe in concrete. Water constantly flowed out of it. That water was icy cold, clear as crystal, and so delicious. There was a pretty good chance that any time you drove by there would be 1 or 2 cars parked in the ditch, with good ole’ boys filling up canisters and gallon jugs with the sparkling treasure.
That was “living water.” It was fresh. It was clean. It bubbled up, a perpetual source of refreshment and life. That’s the metaphor Jesus is using, but he’s talking about spiritual reality.
Jesus says this “living water” has two benefits: First, the person who drinks it will never get thirsty again. Second, they will have within themselves a bubbling spring of water “welling up for eternal life.” But Jesus doesn’t explain further. He doesn’t say what the water is. He just suggests that it can be had by asking.
But what is it?
Fortunately for us, a little while later in John’s gospel, Jesus explains more clearly. In John 7, Jesus was in Jerusalem during Sukkot, the Jewish Feast of Booths, or Tabernacles.
By the time of Jesus, this holiday had become a sort of thanksgiving, celebrating the harvest, but it’s origin was a reminder of the 40 years when Israel wandered in the desert.
For decades, they all lived in tents. When Israel wandering in the desert, water was a constant need. Having water in the desert was a life-and-death issue.
So, Jesus was in Jerusalem for Sukkot. He was in the temple, surrounded by people celebrating the harvest. That’s a celebration of God providing enough. They have enough to eat. They have enough to share. They were also remembering their heritage, wandering in the desert, living in tents, always looking for water. In the temple, in this context, Jesus stood up and spoke.
On the last and most important day of the festival, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone is thirsty, he should come to Me and drink! The one who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, will have streams of living water flow from deep within him.” John 7:37-38
During the wandering in the dessert, every day was a search for water. Water was life. Israel wasn’t in the wilderness anymore, but the deep thirst for real life continued. Jesus told them: “Come to me. Believe in me. I can quench that thirst you have in your heart.”
You and I, we live in a constant state of thirst. We ache and long to be satisfied. We thirst for meaning. We thirst for hope. We thirst for a sense of value. We thirst for a sense of significance. These drives are deep within us, and they never seem to stop.
Thirst, Soul Thirst, and the choices we make.
Thirst, our literal thirst, has a vital and necessary role. Your body is more than 60 percent water. Your blood is over 90 percent water. Your brain – the central processor that keeps everything running — is 75 percent water. If the total water in your body drops by just 3-4 percent, you’ll experience difficulty focusing and fatigue. If it drops by 5-7 percent, you’ll experience dizziness and headache. If the total water in your body drops by 8 percent, you’ll experience confusion, rapid, shallow breathing, low blood pressure, even seizures. If this lasts very long, you die.
Lucky for you, your body has an early warning system wired into you to prevent this! This early warning system is meant to keep your body functioning, your heart pumping, your brain focused. That early warning system is thirst. Your body tells you when you need water.
Many times, when we get thirsty, we don’t listen to what our bodies request. We get thirsty, and we give our body something different. We chug a 40 oz. Diet coke. Or a refreshing beer. Or that hideous pitcher of red Kool-Aid. But none of that is what our body needs.
In exactly the same way, we have an internal thirst, a soul thirst. This soul thirst has a vital and necessary role. It tells us when we are getting more and more disconnected from the Source of Life. The more disconnected we are from our Source of Life, the more we feel our thirst for meaning, for acceptance, for belonging, for love. That is a manifestation of our need for God.
Just like with our physical thirst, we try to quench our soul thirst with so many other things. Maybe a new relationship. Maybe a career change. Maybe more power or more money. Maybe doing more religious activities. Maybe travel. We’re always looking for something to satisfy us.
When Jesus talked about “streams of living water” in the temple, he seems to have been drawing upon an image in the Old Testament. This stream or fountain of living water shows up in just a couple different Old Testament passages. A stark example is the prophecy in Jeremiah 2.
If you go back and read Jeremiah 2, brace yourself. It’s a rough passage. The prophet is just going off. The people are a wreck. The leaders are corrupt. Everyone with any power is using it for their own gain. Everyone without power is being oppressed. There are enemies on every side. Jeremiah goes on and on about how terrible things are, and all the horrible things people are doing to each other. In verse 13 he gives a simple summary of how it is that things have gotten so bad.
For My people have committed a double evil: They have abandoned Me, the fountain of living water, and dug cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that cannot hold water. Jeremiah 2:13
How did things get so bad? Two things. First, The people have turned away from God as their source of life. God is the fountain of living water, and they’ve turned away. Second, They’ve started trying to satisfy their thirst in other ways. The prophet paints a picture.
The people have dug cisterns for themselves. Ancient cisterns were just large dug-out basins meant to collect water. If there was a spring nearby, they collected run-off. Most of the time, they collected rain. In a desert land, the cistern was the only way you had to store water. They didn’t have water towers. They had pits dug in the dirt, lined with stone, or sometimes carved into stone.
There were two problems with cisterns. The water wasn’t always fresh. Sometimes the water in the cistern was warm, full of floaties, dead bugs, algae. Also, because a cistern is just a dug out basin, it could have cracks and the precious water could seep away. Jeremiah uses this metaphor for what the people were doing. They were trying to fulfill their soul thirst by going to cracked, broken cisterns of stale, contaminated water.
Idols, Source of value and security.
Jeremiah 2 tells us what these cracked, contaminated cisterns were. Idols. False gods. The people were looking to satisfy their need for acceptance, for belonging, for value, for spiritual peace from idols.
We look back at these primitives and imagine them bowing down to statues of made-up deities, praying for their crops, or for the weather, or for help in war. We think how foolish they were. But when we do that, we fail to see that we do the same.
An idol is anything in your life from which you draw your sense of identity, purpose, and value. It’s anything in your life that you let govern your priorities. We don’t see statues to ancient deities around us much, but we are surrounded by statues and temples of idols just the same.
Power, money, position. Being right. Being strong. Our career. Our bank account. Our retirement. Our political viewpoint. Our theological knowledge. We can take any good thing and turn it into an idol, trying to make it into a source of life, a source of identity, value, and security. And when we do this, we are digging a cistern, hoping to find life-giving water.
In this passage from Jeremiah, God lays out that we have two options. We can try to get our life from any old broken cistern that we can dig on our own. Or we can get our life from God. Those are the two options. That’s exactly what Jesus was talking about.
In the Temple that day, when everyone was thinking about having enough, and wandering in the desert looking for water, Jesus said, “If anyone is thirsty, come to me and drink.” The woman at the well needed literal water to stay alive, but who had a profound thirst for belonging, for acceptance, for truth. Jesus told her, “I can give you a spring of water welling up inside of you that will satisfy that thirst.”
The mystery of the Living Water.
Back in John 7, at the end of Jesus’ invitation for people to come to him and get this living water, the writer of John’s gospel gives us an editorial aside.
He said this about the Spirit. Those who believed in Jesus were going to receive the Spirit, for the Spirit had not yet been received because Jesus had not yet been glorified. John 7:39
What is this living water that Jesus gives? The Holy Spirit.
When we choose to trust Jesus, we come realize our inclusion in Christ. Jesus and the Father are one. (John 10:30) Having trusted Jesus, we are now In Christ. (Ephesians 1 & 2) That means that in Jesus, we are united with the Father. How exactly is this so? Through the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is God who takes us residence within us, and works God’s will within us. The Holy Spirit teaches us. The Holy Spirit leads us into truth. The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin. The Holy Spirit comforts us. The Holy Spirit reminds us of what Jesus said. The Holy Spirit is our current, present, internal relational connection to God. That is what Jesus was offering.
The people in the temple were celebrating having enough, but what they needed was the never-ending supply that comes from an active, engaged connection with God. The woman at the well wanted water, but what she needed was the bubbling flow of new life that comes from the presence of God within. This is what you and I need too.
Push in to the Fountain.
This fountain is always available. It never runs out. It’s not dependent on your circumstances. It’s not dependent on how you feel. It’s not dependent on your bank account or employment status. It flows in the middle of crisis. It flows when we are spiritually focused and intentional about our relationship with God, and by God’s grace, it flows when you are off-track and feeling disconnected.
The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to you, including you in the love the Father has for Jesus, and the love Jesus has for the Father. The Holy Spirit is the means for your current, present, internal relationship with God. As a follower of Jesus, this is something you have access to all the time. Think about what that means.
God is the source of life. When you’re united with God through Christ, you are united with the source of life.
God is infinite. God’s not going to run out. When you’re united with God through Christ, you are united with life that is never-ending, life that is never going to run out, life that overflows from God, through us, and out into the world.
I guess in this way Sprite was right. Your thirst is trying to tell you something. If your physical thirst is coming up, it’s a sign that you need water. If your soul thirst is coming up—if you’re aching for meaning, for value, for forgiveness, for a sense of purpose, it’s a sign that you need a deeper connection with God.
Your soul thirst is a reminder to turn away from the broken, cracked cisterns of your own making, and turn back to the source of life. It’s not found in any religious ritual. It’s not found in a temple somewhere. It’s not found in your theology or your right behavior.
The source of life is Jesus himself, available to you right now, through the Holy Spirit within you.