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.” ~ John 4:10
Give Me This Water
There is a substance which is so vital to life, so foundational to all living things, so basic to existence as we know it: water. Water is life. Plants need ample water to grow into the fullness of life, to flower and bear fruit. All living beings, including humans, need water to survive and thrive. Desert plants can go without rain for months. But all living things eventually need access to water, to some form of moisture. To know water is to know life. Where there is no water, there is no life.
The people of the ancient world knew this well. Civilizations were born and flourished where there were strong rivers and reliable wells in the desert. Rivers provided water for consumption, for transport and for agriculture. The life of the river was the life of the society. The fullness of a river, quite literally the flooding of a river, created and sustained agricultural life. Water drove economies. Trade routes opened where wells could be dug in the deserts. The notion that from dust humanity came and to dust we shall return was always important for a people dwelling in a desert. Dust without life-giving water, remains dust.
God – The Wellspring of Life
Water is a deep theme that runs throughout the bible. God is the well-spring of life. The Lord provided wells in the desert for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. An incident at a well in the lands of Midian set Moses on a different course that would end with the burning-bush encounter. Fresh from slavery in Egypt, God turns bitter water into living water at Marah and provides water from a rock in Horeb for the wandering Israelites. The prophets of old speak of rivers. Isaiah boldly proclaims a word from the Lord in Isaiah 12:3 “Therefore you will joyously draw water from the springs of salvation” and in Isaiah 44:3 “For I will pour out 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.” Ezekiel (Ezekiel 47) sees a river flowing from the temple in Jerusalem, providing life and healing for the nations. Jeremiah (Jeremiah 17: 7-8) says that “blessed is the person who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in God, for they will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out roots by the stream”. The liturgy or worship of the temple even picks up on this theme in Psalm 1. But the most poignant interaction around water happens between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at a well.
Jesus – The Living Water: John 4:1-15
Jesus engages in a wordplay debate around living water in John 4. In the ancient world, living water was any water in motion, like a river or a spring or a well (where the water is flowing beneath the surface). Standing water is water that no longer flows and is held in some way, like in a pond or a dam or a cistern. The Samaritan woman in the story knows this distinction. Her confusion at Jesus’ interaction is utterly understandable.
Jesus asks her to give him a drink of (living) water from the well. She is perplexed at first by his request because of the well-established social division between Jew and Samaritans and says as much. Jesus replies that if she knew who he was, she would ask him for living water. Why is Jesus asking her for living water if he has his own supply of living water to offer? In a very clever and wonderfully life-affirming way, Jesus brings the conversation around to himself (God incarnate) being the well-spring of life. The water that Jesus says he provides, will become in people a spring of life-giving, living water, leading to eternal life. The woman states “Give me this water so I won’t get thirsty again.”
The woman longs for such water as do all who are spirituality thirsty for more of God. All those who cry out with the Psalmist (42) to say “As a deer longs for streams of living water, so I long for you, my God.” A few chapters later in John there is a climactic moment regarding water. On the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, against the backdrop of the ritual of water being poured out in the Jerusalem temple, Jesus stood in the temple precincts and said in a loud voice, “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” (John 7:37-38).
You and Me – Leaking Vessels
So what? What does this have to do with you and me? There is a story about a water-bearer in India who had two large pots. They hung on each end of a pole which she carried across her neck. One pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master’s house. The other pot had a crack in it and only ever arrived half full.
For two years this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots of water to her master’s house. The perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments. The broken pot was ashamed of its imperfection and miserable that it leaked so badly. So it spoke to the water-bearer one day by the stream and said, “I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you.” “Why?” asked the bearer. “What are you ashamed of?” The broken pot replied, “For the past two years I have only been able to deliver half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master’s house. Because of my brokenness, you have to do all of this work, and you don’t get full value from your efforts.” The water-bearer felt sorry for the imperfect pot. So she gently said, “As we return to the master’s house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.”
As they went up the hill, the cracked pot took notice of the sun warming the beautiful wild flowers on the side of the path and cheered up a bit. But at the end of the trail, the pot still felt bad because it had leaked so much water. The pot apologized again to the water-bearer for its failure. But she laughed in delight and said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of your path, but not on the other side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, and I used it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you’ve watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table. Without you being just the way you are, the master would not have this beauty to grace his home.”
As we close, here are some things to reflect on:
- Maybe like the prophets of old, you recognize that you need to put down deep roots in the streams of God’s Word and the Holy Spirit. Dwell on the imagery of a tree bearing fruit even when things get tough. Commit yourself to further study of scripture and responding to the promptings of God’s Spirit.
- Maybe like the Samaritan woman, you have questions for Jesus and may feel confused by some of his actions. Trust Jesus to draw you to himself and to accept his invitation to drink from him. Be open to his life in you becoming a spring of life-giving water that flows through your brokenness (like the pot) to bring life, to create beauty, to inspire wonder in others you meet along life’s journey and ultimately leads to eternal life.
Rev Peter Houston: Diocese of Natal
This Sunday take some practical steps at church, mend leaking taps. Consider putting in a water tank. Look at your use of irrigation water on the plant, can you use gray water?