Meditating on Great Themes in John: 8. The Water Dispenser
John 4:10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
Remember our goals here, to pick up on the big themes, the big ideas, the big concepts, the big pictures that John brings to us. Thus when we look back over the previous chapters we see such concepts as life and transformation coming through again and again. Jesus brings ‘life’ and that life transforms situations, people and circumstances. Simon being changed to Peter, water being changed into wine, talk of resurrecting a dead body, new birth, talk of starting life all over again – life and transformation.
And so we come to Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman, in the midst of which we are going to find ourselves wrestling with the idea of living water. That is the big idea that is here. But what we start to note is that these ‘big idea’ come disguised in the midst of circumstances or in the midst of talking. Simon became Peter in the midst of talking. Water into wine came about because of circumstances, a crisis at a wedding. Talk of resurrection came about out of the circumstances of a temple upheaval followed by the talk about it. Talk of new birth came in the middle of a discussion.
We point this out because so often in Bible Study we focus on the details and miss the big things. Thus when we come to this incident there are things we could consider in the details but the big picture comes in a few words in the middle of it all.
The story starts in Judea but because of controversy Jesus decides to return to Galilee (see 4:1-3) To do that he has to pass through Samaria (v.4) He pauses outside a town, a place of some historical interest (v.5,6) and because he is tired he pauses up at a well and sends the disciples into town for provisions (v.6,8) These are the background details to this incident.
The incident itself involves a Samaritan woman who comes to draw water and Jesus asks her to give him water (v.7). This surprises her because Jews and Samaritans historically disliked each other and had as little to do with each other as possible (v.9) It is in this context that Jesus drops his bomb: “Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” (v.10).
Now I think most of us, when we come to this story, revel in the details of it and the way Jesus goes on to open up this women by asking about her husband, and in so doing we skirt around the difficulty of understanding around the concept of “living water”. Just what does that mean? How can water live?
Consider the basic concept of life – movement. If something is alive, there is movement If a person is alive blood is pumping around the body and brain waves are detectable in the brain. There is movement. Living water is moving water as against still water, the water of a stream as against that of a pond. For drinking purposes the Jews preferred running water, living water.
But there is something else about this living water that we might not have noticed if Jesus hadn’t said it. Water slakes thirst but an hour later you are probably thirsty again, especially in a hot climate: “Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst.” (v.13,14) Whatever it is that Jesus is referring to, it will bring a satisfaction that nothing else can bring. He explains how it will be so: “Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (v.14b) i.e. when you receive this water it will start to become a continuous flow of life, a life source that will never end.
The criteria, quite obviously, to receive this living water is to be thirsty, but as this is not material water, if we can call it that, it must be spiritual water, and therefore we are talking about a spiritual thirst. Rarely do we see people who are truly hungry or thirsty for spiritual things but when we do they are obvious. I know a man, the only man in the church I belong to, who is showing real signs of spiritual hunger; he really yearns for whatever God has got and it is wonderful to behold. It is a sign that he is going to encounter the Lord in a new way and move on into a new dimension of experience with the Lord. (How many of us opt for sitting back, self-satisfied, content and complacent with what we’ve got and so, subsequently, have little? Pray that the Lord will stir a spiritual hunger and thirst in you).
This idea and promise is found in various places in the Bible. Near the end, “To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.” (Rev 21:6) Isaiah had said, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” (Isa 12:3) Salvation will quench a thirst. The psalmist had also expressed it, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” (Psa 42:1,2) Isaiah brought further revelation from the Lord, “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.” (Isa 44;3) This living water that satisfies will be the Holy Spirit. Zechariah had also prophesied, “On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.” (Zech 13:1) This living water will also cleanse and purify. Jeremiah chastised the people, “because they have forsaken the LORD, the spring of living water.” (Jer 17:13) Yes, it was familiar concept and the Lord Himself is the source of this water.
Now this concept takes us on a stage from what has gone before, because before it was simply Jesus speaking about transformation possibilities but now the possibility comes in response to our hunger and our seeking and is something we receive, and therein there is a responsibility conveyed. Instead of just speaking about this generally, it is like Jesus is offering this, holding it out for whoever will come.
The encouraging thing in this context is that it is being offered to a woman whose life is a wreck (see 4:16-18) and the implication is that this living water is available for anyone – but you have to acknowledge your state, you have to acknowledge your need; that is what hungering and thirsting is all about. Isaiah mixed a couple of word pictures to convey something about this: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isa 55:1) Thirst is the primary requirement but don’t think you can earn this gift; it comes free to those who realise they have nothing. Wow!