Series: The Gospel of John
With even the best things this world has to offer, they only satisfy us for a time, and ultimately leave us thirsty again. But Jesus offers living water, which if one drinks, will make it so they are never thirsty again.
I’m pretty old, you know, and I remember the days when Netflix was a service that sent you DVDs of movies. You’d watch one, then have to send it back, and wait for them to send you the next one. Eventually it evolved into a streaming service with TV shows, where you could click on a show you wanted to watch. Then if you finished an episode, you could even push the down arrow and click on the next episode to watch it. Now, however, they’ve taken it further: When you finish an episode, you’ve got about 5 seconds to hit exit before the next one rolls, and boy is it tempting to just let it roll. Just last night I was watching the Americans, the episode ended, the little timer came up, and I’m like, “Well, I do get an hour of sleep back tonight, so surely I should stay up another hour to watch another episode.” By the mercy of God, I hit exit. But why this evolution in Netflix’s approach? Netflix realized that if they can get you to watch another episode, you’ll probably want to keep watching more, and you’ll therefore keep using their product. They learned that whoever watches a show will be thirsty for another, and so they keep the episodes coming. In the story on which we are focusing today, Jesus encounters a woman to whom He teaches a similar principle. He tells her that if she drinks water from the well at which they meet, she will be thirsty again. Much like Netflix, with so much in this world we find that it satisfies our thirst for a time, only to leave us thirsty again, and needing more. But in this story Jesus also offers living water which, if someone drinks it, will make it so they never go thirsty again. So Come to Jesus for living water, because only He has it, it fuels true worship, and it overflows.
Only He has it
So Jesus meets this woman at a well at a time when he is just parched. He doesn’t have anything with which to draw water Himself, so He asks her for a drink. She’s surprised by that: She’s a Samaritan, and He’s a Jew. Samaritans were ethnic Jews who had intermarried with other ethnic groups and mixed their religion with the worship of other gods, so the Jews of Jesus’ day had a very negative opinion of them. This woman, then, was a racial outcast to Jesus, and we find out later in the passage that she’s lived a flagrantly immoral life. Nonetheless, Jesus talks to her and says that if she knew who He was, she would have asked Him for water, and He would have given it to her. Racial outcast though she is, notorious sinner though she is, Jesus expresses His utter willingness to give her living water. She responds somewhat confused again, but John records Jesus saying this in verse 13: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
So there’s the big contrast between the water of this well and the living water Jesus offers. Water from a well is dead water; it can’t replenish itself. Eventually you finish it, get thirsty again, and have to go back to the well. That’s even a euphemism in English: “Going back to the well.” There’s a famous Red Hot Chili Peppers song in which they say, “When will I know that I really can’t go to the well once more?” there likely a reference to the frustration of drug addiction. And Jesus is basically saying here, “Drink this water, and you’ll have a water addiction.” You’ll always need more. But Jesus says the water He gives, once you drink it, becomes in the one who drinks it a spring of water that wells up to eternal life. The idea is that when Jesus gives the Holy Spirit to us, the very life of God comes to live in us, a life that is self-generative. One of the attributes of God is His aseity, or His independence. It means that God is dependent on nothing outside of Himself for life. He’s uncreated, while everything else was made and sustained by Him, and so He never runs out of life. He is one pure act of life, the Father begetting the Son, the Spirit eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son. And when Jesus gives His Spirit to us, He provides a constant supply of life to our spirits, a life that will never end, and a life that, in the end, will give life even to our mortal bodies, which no amount of water from the wells of earth can keep from dying.
Now maybe you wonder, “That sounds nice, but what’s so bad about being a water addict?” We are right concerned about drug addiction today, but nobody’s starting rehab facilities for water addicts. Nonetheless, the human addiction to water does show us something of our limitations: Our bodies don’t yet have eternal life. Many are working hard to get clean water to the whole world precisely because if we don’t have it, we get thirsty, and if we remain thirsty, we die. Jesus is offering a better kind of life. So the woman responds in verse 15 that she wants that water! Then she won’t have to lug her container to the well and carry it back every day, and she’ll never be thirsty. And indeed, whoever receives living water from Jesus will one day never have to take another drink, because they will be in a new body that cannot die.
However, Jesus’ response to the woman shows us that’s not actually His main concern for her at this time. You get that body that doesn’t need water after you die, but this woman is still alive, and in this life, she hasn’t just been addicted to water. So Jesus tells her in verse 16 to go and call her husband. She replies that she has no husband, and look at what Jesus says next: “You are right in saying, ‘You have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband.” She wasn’t just addicted to water; that’s part of being a corruptible human. She was addicted to men; that’s part of being a sinful human, and Jesus goes there. He’s not the kind of person who says, “Hey I know you’ve got some baggage in your life, but let’s not kill the mood by talking about it. I just want to “love” you.” That may feel like love on some level, but it’s pretty superficial. Because when you say that, what you’re basically saying is, “I love you, but only insofar as I keep certain things about you out it.” Well then it’s not really you I love; it’s the sanitized version of you I’ve created in my mind and keep propped up by never facing whatever might taint that counterfeit. No, the love with which Jesus loves sinners is far greater than that. It’s a love that says, “Those sins in your life you don’t want anyone to know about? I know about them. I see more of them than you do. AND, I love you, the real you, the you with those sins. So let’s talk about them.”
And while your addiction may or may not be to drugs or men, we all have our addictions, our wells that we look to for life. In Jeremiah 2:13 God says this, “for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” Cistern is just a fancy word for well. God is saying this is what you all do! You forsake me, the fountain of living waters, and dig wells for yourself, broken wells that can hold no water. And as long as you keep going back to those wells, you’ll be thirsty and die. But Jesus says now, that fountain of living water? God Himself? I’m the one who will give it to whoever asks me for it.
So let’s talk about some of these addictions. Men, or just as commonly, women, are still among the most likely wells we look to for life. We think, “If I could just get this person to like me, then I’d be ok.” And what happens? You get them to like you, and it feels good…for a couple months. But then you see someone else and wonder, “Could I get them to like me?” One husband wasn’t enough for this woman, nor was the next, or the next. Oh, and once you get them, you must keep them liking you. What if that next comment isn’t a welcomed one? What if they learn that thing about you you don’t want anyone to know? And getting married solves exactly none of that. In fact, if you get married because you’re looking for that spouse to fill you, you’ll be a disaster to be married to. You will make your spouse feel like they have to be a fountain of living water to you, and they aren’t. You will suck the life out of them, because they don’t have an infinite supply of it to give. And you will, like this woman, find yourself regularly hitting a point where you feel like you need a new one.
Closely related to the idolatry of men and women is, of course, the idolatry of sex. Sex is a good gift from God, just like men, women, and marriage are, but it’s easily idolized, with similar consequences. Have you ever engaged in sexual immorality and then said, “Well; glad I tried that. It really was sufficient. Now I’ll never thirst again.” No one has ever felt that way after engaging in sexual sin; what inevitably happens instead is you get thirsty again, only now you need something more deviant to achieve the same high. I’ve yet to meet the guy who watches the same porn video for more than like a week. Why? Because whoever drinks from this well will be thirsty again. For others, the idolatry is less about the pleasure of sex, and more about the praise of people. So they get addicted not only to getting a romantic interest to affirm them, but to getting everyone to affirm them. And whoever drinks from that well will be thirsty again. They get one person to like them, but what about that other person? They get into one inner ring, one “cool crowd,” but what about that cool crowd over there? Would they embrace me?
Here’s a good principle to keep in mind: When you quench a thirst, you not only satisfy it; you strengthen it. If you quench your thirst for soda every time you have it, that will satisfy the thirst, but guess what you’ll want more of in the future when the buzz of the last drink wears off? More soda. Watch a lot of Netflix as I mentioned earlier, guess what you’ll want more of in the future once the buzz of the last episode wars off? More Netflix. And soda and Netflix are good gifts from God just like water, but whoever drinks of those waters will be thirsty again. You can’t live off them. They aren’t fountains of living water, and they don’t well up to eternal life. Nothing in the world is: Not a man, a woman, sex, applause, money, house, possessions, career, status, position, or anything else. When will you know that you really can’t go to the well once more? Why not today? Come to Jesus for living water because only He has it. Quench your thirst with Him and you’ll find you never run out of water. And instead of worshiping things God made, the Spirit will fuel in you true worship of the one who made it all.
It fuels true worship
So after Jesus exposes this woman’s sin, she says in verse 19 that she perceives He is a prophet. Yeah, no kidding. So she asks Him a question about worship. The Samaritans worshiped on Mount Gerazim in Samaria, while the Jews worshiped in Jerusalem, and she assumes that He, as a Jew, would have also held that Jerusalem was the proper place for worship. But He tells her that an hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor even in Jerusalem will they worship the Father. He acknowledges that on the question of the proper place of worship, the Jews were right, but says the hour is coming, and is even now here, when, verse 23, “the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Earlier in John Jesus pronounced judgment on the temple, the place in Jerusalem where the Jews worshiped, and presented Himself as the way to true worship of God. Here again we see that the location of worship is relativized with Jesus’ coming. The mark of the true worshipers of God is not that they gather on this mountain or that one, but that they worship Him in spirit and truth. The spirit is the immaterial part of our being, the control center. It’s the part of us that loves, that desires, that truly worships. Our bodies then follow in the activity of worship. But it is possible for your body to engage in worship without the engagement of your spirit, and Jesus is here telling us that such worship is not true worship at all. This woman, for example, apparently worshiped God with her body on a mountain in Samaria, but with her spirit, she worshiped men. And indeed, when she wasn’t worshiping God with her body on Samaria, her body followed her spirit and worshiped men as she united herself to one after another.
I spent much of my life in church services worshiping God with my body, while in my spirit I worshiped the applause of people. Today I still find the same tendency in me. And so with many; they come to church, but what they love, what they worship, what they live for, is something else. Why is that a problem? Verse 24: God is spirit. If I help my kids with my body but not with my spirit, that accomplishes something: They are bodies, and they need things. God isn’t like that. He doesn’t need anything from us. Our relationship with Him is fundamentally spiritual, and where our spirits are disengaged from Him, there is no true worship of Him.
The Father isn’t looking for people who can do impressive, ornate stuff for Him; Jesus says the Father is seeking people who worship Him with sincerity, in spirit, and…in truth. A large part of our worship is adoration, and imagine if I wanted to honor my wife with sincerity, in spirit. What if I said to her, “Baby, I love your blonde hair and blue eyes, and how you’re always so chipper in the morning.” That’d be great, except my wife has brown hair and brown eyes, and is not a morning person at all. So also, what good is our worship of God if we aren’t saying of Him what is true? Jesus says in verse 22 to the Samaritan woman that she worships what she does not know, and that’s not a good thing! And doing it on that mountain or this mountain won’t make it a good thing! True worship of God is not only sincere; it is knowledgeable. Remember again, God is spirit, and a spirit has true thoughts, not a visible appearance. So true worship is worship of Him in spirit and truth. That’s why, by the way, we try to keep worship pretty simple at Citylight and filled with biblical truth. We’re thankful for some incredibly gifted musicians and an aesthetically pleasing building, but we aren’t trying to produce a great show every Sunday, even if that might get more people in the door. The Father isn’t seeking concertgoers to worship Him. He’s seeking people who worship Him in spirit and truth.
And where do you get that if you notice it is lacking in your worship? Where do you get sincerity of heart and true knowledge of God with which to worship Him rightly? You get it from Jesus. He’s the one who gives us the living water of His Spirit, who becomes in us this fountain of living water, working in us true love for God, and leading us into the truth that is there in Jesus. And when the woman responds to the call for worship in spirit and truth by saying that when Messiah comes, He will teach them all things, Jesus says to her, “I who speak to you am he.” He is the truth. So come to Him for the living water you need to fuel worship in spirit and truth.
Real practically, then, here’s what this means: If you lack the sincerity of heart and true knowledge that Jesus calls for here in worship, it may be because you aren’t a Christian. You may be a churchgoer, but in spirit, you’ve never tasted the living water Jesus gives. Come to Jesus today by faith, and He will give you living water. On the other hand, you may be a Christian who really does have this fountain of living water inside of you, but you’re still going back to broken cisterns. So you find on some Sundays, perhaps even many Sundays, you don’t want to worship the LORD, and here’s the mistake Christians often make when that happens: They say, “Well, I don’t want to be hypocritical, so I better not go to church today.” Here’s why that’s a mistake: You’re still going to drink from some well, and when you quench a thirst, you not only satisfy it; you strengthen it. So let’s say you sleep in and go out for brunch instead. That might feel good that day, but what you’ve just done is you’ve weakened your thirst for the fountain of living water and strengthened your thirst for more sleep and brunch. So chances are, throughout that week and into next Sunday, you’re even less likely to want to worship.
I mentioned soda earlier; imagine if someone wants to break their addiction to it and start drinking water, but they say, “I’m only going to drink water when I really want to,” and the rest of the time they drink soda. Guess what? They’re never going to reach a point where they want water. If you say no to church or prayer or fellowship with other Christians or anything else that brings you to Jesus, the fountain of life, any time you don’t want it, you’ll never want it. Instead, engage in those things, but do so with honesty: Come to church and use that moment of silence at the beginning of the service to say something like this: “God, I really don’t want to worship you this morning. But I want to want to. Would you give me that desire as I worship you today?” Then listen for Jesus throughout the service, come to Him by faith, and let Him work in you the living water that fuels true worship. That’s worship in spirit, even as we recognize it’s not as spirited as it ought to be. To want to love God is to love Him, however weakly; the slightest drop of living water in your spirit is proof of the fountain. Come to Jesus for more.
So then after this encounter Jesus’ disciples return and the woman leaves. Verse 28 tells us she left her water jar behind, and that’s interesting, right? The whole reason she came was to fill it, but now that she’s tasted the living water of Jesus, even her taste for earthly water has been weakened. Of course, she’s still in the body, and she would still need to drink earthly water again, but she’s less consumed by it. That’s the effect of living water. As you come to Jesus, you will still like many of God’s good gifts on earth. But they will consume you far less. And you’ll be willing to leave them behind when following Jesus requires it. One of the ways that following Jesus will require it from time to time is in order for the fountain of life that is now in us to overflow. She leaves her jar behind to do what? To go into the town and tell the people about Jesus. And how often is it our unwillingness to leave behind our jars of water that stops us from telling others about Jesus? I confess to my shame I’m never too busy to check Twitter; I’m often too busy to tell others about Jesus.
What compelled this woman to do so? Jesus never told her to. But that’s how fountains work. They don’t have to be mechanically turned on. They overflow. And so the living water inside of her began to overflow. The woman who had been addicted to men, who likely came to draw water at the hottest time of day because it was the time no one else from the town would be there, now goes to the people of that town to tell them about another man she met, a man who truly loved her, in a different way than any of those other husbands or lovers did. He neither exploited her for his own gain nor shamed her. Look at what she says about Him: “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” You might think someone telling you all you ever did wouldn’t be a good thing. “Hey, come see someone who will tell you all the ways you’re guilty of sin!” And yet she’s eager to invite people to come to Him! Why?
For one thing, it’s a freeing thing to face reality. We all sense on some level that there is something wrong with us, and Jesus, the truth, locates it. It’s a joy to be truly known, but we often won’t let ourselves be truly known because we’re afraid that if people, and ultimately, if God, really knew us, He’d condemn us. So as freeing as it may be to face reality, it scares us. Yet Jesus enabled this woman to face the reality of her sin because He’s the one who could do something about it. He really was the Christ; He really could give living water to even the worst of sinners, and He was willing to do so! So she says to the people in town, “Can this really be the Christ?” He knew her at a level that only the Christ could, but still offered her living water. He knew her fully, but loved her truly. And He could do that because as the Christ, the promised Savior, He knew the hour was coming when He would once again be thirsty, but have nothing to drink besides sour wine. He knew the hour was coming when His side would be pierced, and the water of this earth would be drained out of Him. He knew the hour was coming when His very life would ultimately be drained out of Him as He hung on the cross, bearing the condemnation that this woman’s, and our sins, deserved. And He knew the hour was coming when the Spirit would become in Him a fountain of living water welling up to eternal life when He rose from the dead. Today He still lives to pour out His Spirit on whoever comes to Him. That’s the offer this woman extends to the people in town, and verse 30 tells us they came to Him. It’s the offer Jesus extends to you now. Come to Him for living water, and He will give it to you.