THE WATER OF LIFE
Reading: John ch. 7
In our chapter for today from the gospel record by John, (chap. 7) we read that Jesus cried, as he stood in the temple, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink”; and we feel that these words afford us a basis for exhortation and encouragement.
Those of us who have always lived in these comparatively cool and well-watered lands of western Europe do not normally appreciate the full force of this figure of thirst which occurs many times in the Scriptures. We have always been used to an unlimited and unfailing supply of good fresh water, and (with the possible exception of an odd day in the summer when we may be fora brief hour or two away from any village or town) we have seldom known the distress which can result from being deprived of it. But conditions in the land of Palestine in Bible times, and in fact until recent years, were very different, especially during those six months from April to October when no rain falls. This long dry spell can be very pleasant with its brilliant blue skies and its unclouded sunshine day after day, but it is not long before every green thing disappears; “the grass withereth”; the whole land becomes dry and parched and white with dust; the rock-hewn cisterns become emptied and the springs and fountains dwindle and cease. When the early rains in late October, and the latter rains in March, have fallen in their season, these sunny conditions can be most happy and beneficial; but where the normal rainfall has been withheld, thirst becomes not only a very real but a very terrible problem, leading in severe cases to famine, torture and death itself. In Jeremiah 14, 2—6 we have a very graphic description given by the Spirit of God to help us visualise the natural conditions upon which the figure is based: “Judah mourneth, and the gates thereof languish; they are black unto the ground, and the cry of Jerusalem is gone up. And their nobles have sent their little ones to the waters; they came to the pits, and found no water; they returned with their vessels empty; they were ashamed and confounded, and covered their heads. Because the ground is chapt, for there was no rain in the earth, the plowmen were ashamed, they covered their heads. Yea, the hind also calved in the field, and forsook it, because there was no grass. And the wild asses did stand in the high places, they snuffed up the wind like dragons; their eyes did fail, because there was no grass.” Thirst, under such conditions, became the greatest driving force for both man and beast, and undoubtedly accounted very largely for those fierce strivings for wells and watering places which we come across in the Old Testament records.
With these thoughts in mind then, we can appreciate why the Spirit has chosen water as a figure for that which can give life in the ultimate sense—that eternal life which God has promised to those who love and obey Him. In Isaiah 55 we find the figure employed by the prophet for the life-giving truth of God’s Word; vs. 1—3: “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread; and your labour for that which satisfieth not? Hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness. Incline your ear, and come unto me; hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David.” Because the words of Scripture are simple and easy to understand, when we are young we tend to pass them over with little thought, to give less heed than we should, and it is not until we grow older in the Truth that we learn to appreciate the depth of the wisdom and the wealth of instruction which is concealed within these apparently simple passages. As we read in Proverbs: “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing; but the honour of kings to search out a matter”. And so, like the simple drops of rain which are the essential basis for all those myriad forms of life which are brought forth by the power of God at this beautiful season of the year, so equally are these simple words of Scripture essential to our daily growth. We have this brought out in verse 9 of this 55th chapter of Isaiah: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and retumeth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater; so shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth; it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.”
Turning now to the gospel according to John, chapter 4, you will recall that as Jesus passed through Samaria, he took the opportunity of a brief conversation at the well to use this figure of water to teach that woman of Saniaria the way of life. V.10: “Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.” In the idiom of their language, a spring of water was sometimes called a “gift of God”. This woman knew and understood just the ordinary natural application of the words, but she was not able to apply the matter to the spiritual plane and realise that in this Jew whom she beheld at the well was God’s gift to mankind, the One through whom God was opening the way to eternal life. She did not realise that she was a dying, thirst-stricken creature standing at the well of life; and that is the great danger of spiritual thirst—that man is not conscious of his need, and perishes and disappears in the dust like the green grass that becomes withered and is trampled down in the heat of summer. It is only as a man or woman grows in spiritual understanding that they appreciate their need. We notice that in the case of David: “0 God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee. My soul thirsteth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is.” But the majority of men and women are unconscious of their need. Christ knew, and in his compassion spoke to the woman to turn her mind to a realisation of her true estate; but at first she could not lift her mind above the natural order. V.11: “The woman saith unto him, Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; from whence then hast thou that living water? Art thou greater than our father Jacob?... Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again; But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” Christ’s words were full of meaning for those who understand God’s way of life, but the woman could only apply to them the limited understanding of her people. In her ignorance and perhaps super situation as to the possible powers of this stranger she replied: “Sir, give me this water, that I thirst not, neither come hither to draw.” As Brother Roberts says in Nazareth Revisited, this incident brings out the superhuman dialectical skill of Christ, so often manifested in collision with his foes. He did not go into any deep argument to explain the meaning underlying his words. He adroitly threw the subject into a channel suited to her capacity. He said, “Go and call thy husband.” On the surface, it was a reasonable condition to make that the husband should be present to share the gift; but Christ knew the true position of affairs and his remark was designed to bring to the woman’s mind her own sin-stricken nature, and to make her realise that there was something more she lacked than natural water, if she was to live, in the ultimate sense. So we notice the woman began to realise something of Christ’s meaning, and to understand that here was a man who could help her to know some of the things which she had apparently pondered but been unable alone to comprehend. V.19: “The woman saith unto him, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour conieth, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. Ye worship ye know not what; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour conieth, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth; for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit; and they that worship him must worship him in spirit an in truth”. Here was a great truth. Christ had brushed aside the woman’s reference to the age-old antagonism between the Samaritans and the Jews; in his mercy he had not shunned to reveal God’s purpose to this sinner; he had swept aside the formalism of mere mechanical forms and ceremonies carried out without the understanding of the divine purpose which had brought them into being, and pointed to the simple truth that as God is everywhere present by His Spirit, those who seek to serve Him must live holily, as in His presence; that, as He has revealed the great truths of His plan and purpose with mankind, He requires that those who approach Him shall do so with a sincere endeavour to serve Him in the enlightenment of the Truth which He has revealed. The case of this woman, in the condition in which she came to Christ, is an illustration of the natural state of the human mind, barren of spiritual understanding, and, as an inevitable result, dead in trespasses and sins. There was no thirst for the water of life, because she did not even know that she lacked it. What an exhortation this is for us, on the need to keep our hearts and our minds continually filled with the things of the Spirit of God so that we maybe alert to our true condition and serve Him in spirit and in truth.
Christ told this woman, in effect, that to please God there must be a recognition of His presence and His power, coupled with a sincere desire first to know, and then to carry out His laws in our daily lives, so that all barriers to our approach to Him shall be removed. There must be that continual attendance at the well of the water of life—voluntarily and consciously maintained—in order that it may become “a well of water springing up into everlasting life.”
It was about six months after the incident which we have just been considering that we come to the record of Christ’s further teaching on this point in John 7.1: “After these things Jesus walked in Galilee; for he would not walk in Jewry, because the Jews sought to kill him. Now the Jews feast of tabernacles was at hand.” We notice that the apostle John is careful to tell us the season of the year when Christ spoke the words recorded in this chapter, and this helps us to understand the full meaning of his words. In our reading in the book of Numbers during the next few days, we shall, if the Lord will, be recalling once more the instructions to Israel concerning the conduct of these feasts. There were three to be observed during the year; first, the Passover, held in the Spring, about our Easter-time; secondly, the Feast of Firstfruits, or Pentecost, seven weeks later; and thirdly, the feast of Tabernacles—at the conclusion of the harvests. With our knowledge of the Truth we can see that it was divine wisdom that Israel was compelled to make these three breaks in their normal pursuits that they might turn their minds back to their Creator, the giver of all the good things which they so richly enjoyed. But Israel, though they would have been the first to repudiate the suggestion, were very like the Samaritan woman in their dullness of understanding of the deep things of the Spirit of God. It had been the glory of God to conceal, under these three feasts, types of the three great stages of human redemption, but Israel had not done themselves the honour of searching them out. They knew that there was a Prophet to come like unto Moses, but they failed to anticipate His work as the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world, in spite of all that was revealed in the prophets; and therefore in the Passover they could still only look back to the deliverance—the deliverance from the bondage of sin and death—of which the Passover was a type. Israel looked for national deliverance from their enemies, but they looked for it upon a purely natural plane—they could not grasp the greatness of God’s purpose to raise them up, if they were willing, to enjoy His own divine nature, to free them for ever from the far greater bondage of sin.
It was the same in regard to the second feast—the Feast of First fruits. Israel could perceive the elementary basis—the rejoicing and acknowledgment of God’s goodness in the provision of the fruits of the earth; but not having dwelt upon His purpose with Israel sufficiently, they could not raise themselves up to the spiritual plane to perceive in this Feast a foreshadowing of that time when God will gather in the first fruits of His sons and daughters as the beginning of the permanent population of the earth—”The first fruits unto God and to the Lamb” as we read in the Apocalypse.
Then with the third Feast—the Feast of Tabernacles which they were celebrating when Christ spoke to them in the temple—Israel rejoiced in it as they were commanded to do; they dwelt in their booths, and recognised its initial significance as a time of rejoicing at the fmal gathering-in of all the bountiful things with which God had blessed them; but they could not rise up to the spiritual significance, of which these rejoicings were only the type—that great final ingathering of the final harvest of God’s Elect with which God’s purpose in Israel will find its glorious culmination. Josephus could describe it as “the holiest and the greatest of the feasts”, but that was as far as he saw. The Feast, as kept by Israel at that time, had been hedged about with various innovations of the elders and we are told that, amongst other things, it had become customary for water to be brought in a golden vessel from the pool of Siloam and to be poured out as a libation at the morning sacrifice, whilst the assembled multitude sang those words from Isaiah 12: “With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.” But the deeper promise underlying those words was not comprehended.
As Jesus watched this scene, we can imagine the sadness with which he would contemplate this people who, with all the privileges of the exclusive revelation of God’s glorious purpose, yet failed, through their inattention to the writings of Moses and the prophets, to rise up to an appreciation of the deeper things of the Spirit. So we read in chapter 7.37: “In the last thy, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the Scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.” Here, though they did not realise it, was one greater than the temple, the very means ordained of God whereby the life and joy and prosperity typified in this feast of Tabernacles was to be secured for mankind. Jesus had pointed out before that had they heeded the writings of Moses, as they claimed to do, they would have anticipated his coming. In chapter 6.30 we notice how they argued with Christ: “They said therefore unto him, What sign showest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee? What dost thou work? Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat. Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world. Then said they unto him, Lord, evennore give us this bread. And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life; he that cometh to me shall never hunger, and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.” Again they could not understand and appreciate his meaning.
Now what is the exhortation which we derive from these things? Is it not first of all this: that Israel failed to appreciate God’s great gift to man because they could not put forward the necessary effort to bring the matter to completion by understanding and appreciating all that God had revealed concerning His purpose. They were so busy about their own affairs that they had not time for these all-important matters. Surely the first point then is the need to draw deeply from the well of life, realising that knowledge of God’s ways must always precede right practice. We notice Jesus says in chapter 7.17: “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine”—or, as it can be rendered: “If any man willeth to do his will.” The water of life is free to all who will come and drink, but the effort must be made by us.
Then again, Jesus said, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink.” We may thirst for many things. In the world men thirst for power, or riches, or honour, or many other things; but Jesus was referring to the things of the Spirit, as he said in another place, “Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shaU be filled.” The fact that the Spirit of God is everywhere present does not mean that the thirst for the things of the Spirit is universal—far from it in our present state. It has to be a matter of assiduous and careful cultivation. We all remember how the ecclesia at Laodicea deceived themselves as to their true position before God. You will recall Christ’s words to them: “These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God. I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot. I would thou wed cold or hot; so then because thou art lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. Because thou sayest, lam rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” We can just as easily deceive ourselves by saying, “I have been brought up in the Truth, lam all right”; or, “I have been many years in the Truth, lam strong enough.” But what saith God: “To this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word.” If we would secure an abundant entrance into God’s everlasting Kingdom, the wisest counsel surely is to drink deeply of the things of the Spirit, to keep close to the meetings, to keep our hearts and minds centred upon God’s Word.
Finally, surely our highest wisdom is to follow the example of Christ, who drew from his knowledge that incentive which carried him on to the end; as we read: “For thejoy set before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame, and is now set down at the right hand of God.” And what is ourjoy? Is it not to partake of the same glorious nature at his coming? In the passage we have read from John 7.38 there is a secondary application of these words yet to be fulfilled. There was a preliminary fulfilment on the thy of Pentecost, but the secondary fulfilment lies ahead: “He that believeth on me, as the Scripture bath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. But this spake he of the spirit, which they that believe on him should receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because that Jesus was not yet glorified.” Brother Thomas commenting on these words says:
“The pure, transparent stream of water of life issuing from the throne of the Deity is His Almighty power or Spirit, by which He creates, regenerates, makes glorious and subdues all things to Himself. A stream of this water of life was poured out upon the apostles on the day of Pentecost. That, however, though great and maxvellous in its effects, was only the earnest of what is yet to follow. It anointed them with knowledge, wisdom and power, but it left them as it found them, subject to disease, sorrow, pain and death. But when the time of the great Pentecostian outflow of the Holy Spirit shall arrive, the assembled multitude of the approved, convened before the Judgment Seat of Christ, will be filled and covered over, and thoroughly saturated in all the atoms of their substance, with the flood of down-pouring Spirit from unapproachable light; whereby they will be changed and all that isin them of earthiness and mortality will be ‘swallowed up of life’. From that time forward they themselves will, in turn, become the channel for the distribution to mankind of the living waters of the Spirit until ‘the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’“.
And when all these things have been achieved ,Jhe redeemed—the firstfruits to God and to the Lamb—will be able to look back with grateful hearts, and realise that it was through the work and sacrifice of the One whom we remember, that it was made possible:—P. C. Ridout