He will give the water of life (the Holy Spirit) freely to anyone who is thirsty enough to overcome every obstacle that stands in the way of obeying the gospel.
You’ve probably lived all your life in towns and never been in a desert, but there is a vivid image imprinted in your mind of a man crawling across the sand towards water. He is thirsty, dying of thirst, but the cool oasis is a mirage; the water he sees does not exist. The costly waste of precious effort — only one who was truly thirsty would risk it all again at another promise of water. Would this oasis be real or another bitter disappointment?
So many times she had been to the well to draw water. It was part of life. Every gallon used for cooking and washing had to be fetched in heavy clay jars. So many times a day, she, like everyone else, came to get water. So much water was needed for their animals and for themselves, for their daily existence, and yet the well had never run dry. The people had been drinking from it for many generations. Deep beneath the dry ground the water had a source that had not failed them. Without it, they could not live, and she knew better than we how precious a source of water is.
When the man at the well offered her “living water” she could only wonder where He could get better water than was in the well. She had not yet perceived that He was speaking of the spiritual realm. Then He said that the water He gave would become a spring of water that would well up in her to eternal life. Oh, what water was this? She desired more than the humdrum life of drawing water and just living. She asked Him for this water that held the promise of life. But was she willing to pay the price?
“Go, call your husband, and come back.”
“I have no husband.”
“You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true.”
Ohhh! That hurt! How did He know that? It seemed like He could look right into her soul. Five marriages… five disappointments… All her life she had thirsted for a covenant relationship that would fulfill something deep in her soul, but it always eluded her. She went into each marriage with such hope that it would satisfy her, but each time hope evaporated like a mirage. Finally she had given up hope, not daring to open up her heart to another man, but just settling for mere physical pleasure as long as it lasted. But it troubled her conscience, and this man saw right through her outward composure. She struggled to overcome the urge to just run away. But obviously this man was a prophet, a man of God. Maybe He could answer some of her nagging questions…
“How is it that we worship according to the faith of our fathers, but you Jews say that God doesn’t accept our worship or hear our prayers?”
That question had never come to rest in her. She had tried to fill up her soul with many things, but still she was empty. Nothing had satisfied her. She was still thirsty, and the offer of “living water” that would well up like a spring within her was very appealing, and she was willing to face the shame of her sin and the futility of her life in order to receive that living water.
The Bible does not say much more about this woman’s life beyond the fact that she excitedly told everyone in her village that she had met the Messiah and how He had told her “everything she ever did.” The effect this had on them was amazing, considering two undeniable facts: 1) Small villages being what they are, everyone knew very well what this woman’s life was like, and what “everything she ever did” entailed; and 2) Most people would not want anyone to tell them everything they ever did. But evidently there were many thirsty people in that village, for they overcame the natural urge to keep the walls up around their hurting souls and they compelled the Master to stay there and teach them, and it says that many believed in Him.
What is this “living water” that the Master offered to the woman at the well? Is it available to just anyone? How does one receive it? And how do you know that you have it? These are vital2 questions. You may be surprised at some of the answers that are found in the Scriptures, which are not the traditional answers you may have heard in church.
The first question is answered very clearly a few chapters later in the gospel according to John:
On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture says, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37-39)
So “living water” is the Holy Spirit, right? That’s not so surprising. You may have been told that you already have this living water, if ever you said the “sinner’s prayer” and asked Jesus into your heart. After all, the Holy Spirit, like salvation, is a free gift, right?
The Holy Spirit is given freely, but who is He given to? To under-stand this, you must look more closely at the Master’s words. He said, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink.” So you have to be thirsty, truly longing for spiritual life that you don’t yet have (for the Master told the woman that whoever drinks of this water will never thirst again).
And then you have to come to Him. Where is He? Now you may think this means you just need to “draw near to Him in your heart” or something like that, since, after all, He is literally in heaven right now so you can’t physically go to Him, right? Wrong! Another time, the Master said:
He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also… (John 12:25-26)
The first sentence describes someone who is thirsty, not satisfied with his life in this world. Then it says that someone like that who desires to serve Him must serve where He is. Where is He? He is where His Body is — where His disciples are living together in unity, in community. That’s where eternal life is.3 Now there is a lot written about this elsewhere in this book, which I will not go into here. But suffice it to say that nowhere in the New Testament is there a single example of a person getting saved or receiving the Holy Spirit apart from receiving a flesh-and-blood disciple (sent from a community of disciples) who preached the good news to him.4 The notion that a person can pick up a tract on a park bench and say the “sinner’s prayer” and ask Jesus into his heart, all by himself, is totally foreign to the Word of God.5
So in order to receive the water of life, you must be thirsty, and you must come to Him, and then you must drink. What then does it mean to drink? The thirsty man in the desert gives all his strength to get to the oasis he sees in the distance, but if it is only a mirage, his effort is wasted — he cannot drink. But what if it is real? What will he do then? With great joy he would immerse himself in that water and drink to his heart’s content! He will live and not die. Can we relate this to the Master’s words?
“If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture says, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive… (John 7:38-39)
Clearly, to drink is to believe in Him. So what does it mean to believe in Him? According to the latest statistics, approximately two billion people claim to believe in Him. Are there really two billion people on the earth who have rivers of living water flowing from their inmost being? That is about one third of the world population. But the Master said:
Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. But narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)
Surely those two billion “believers” are not the few the Master spoke of. Even if you estimated that only half of them — one billion — were really serious about their Christian faith, could that be considered the few? Did you ever consider that what He meant by believing in Him might be fundamentally different from the popular understanding?
Perhaps there is a hint here: “He who believes in Me as the Scripture says…” Most translations associate the phrase “as the Scripture says” with the words that follow it rather than the words that precede it, but remember, there was no punctuation in the original Greek manuscripts, so it is up to the translator to supply it according to the context. If the phrase “as the Scripture says” refers to what follows it, you would expect that to be a quotation or at least a paraphrase of something in the Old Testament scriptures, but there is nothing even close. We take it as prophetic of the Master’s words and the apostles’ writings being recorded and preserved as the New Testament scriptures. In that light, the Master was speaking of those who believe in Him according to what the Scriptures say it means to believe in Him.
You see, it is entirely possible to “believe in Him” apart from salvation. For example:
Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in him. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. (John 2:23-24)
They believed in Him, but He did not believe in them!6 They believed, but not in the way the Scriptures say you must believe in order for Him to entrust Himself (give His Holy Spirit) to you. He only gives His Holy Spirit to those who obey Him.7
So how do the Scriptures say you must believe in Him in order to have rivers of living water flow from your inmost being? What does it mean to drink? The Master spoke about drinking another time, and what He said totally separated the true believers from those who only believed in their minds:
Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him… From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more. Then Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” But Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (John 6:53-69)
What was the difference between those who left and those who stayed? Those who stayed had nowhere else to go. Oh, it’s not that they couldn’t have gone back to their old jobs and families. Physically they could have done that. But in their hearts they were totally identified with their Master, totally devoted to Him and dependent upon Him as their source of life. They had all left everything to follow Him8 — their possessions, their occupations, their causes, and even their families. They believed in Him with their whole hearts, entrusting their whole lives to Him, and even when He said things that shocked them, things they couldn’t understand, they trusted Him.
Here some of the other shocking things He said:
If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple… So therefore, no one of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions. (Luke 14:26,33)
Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it. (Matthew 10:34-39)
You can water His words down all you like, but whoever does not drink them full strength is not really thirsty for eternal life, and will not receive the life the Master promised those who believe in Him enough to obey Him.
Notice that the Master spoke of those who were not worthy of Him. Most Christians are not used to thinking in terms of being “worthy” of belonging to or being identified with Christ because they have received a false understanding about the “free gift” of salvation and have revulsion toward anything that sounds like “works salvation.” Indeed, salvation is a free gift, but who is it given to? Only those who show by their obedience to the gospel that Christ is worth more to them than their own life and possessions. It does require effort to obtain the gift of eternal life, as is clear from His words here:
And He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts. He who overcomes shall inherit all this, and I will be his God and he shall be My son. (Revelation 21:6-7)
He will give the water of life (the Holy Spirit) freely to anyone who is thirsty enough to overcome every obstacle that stands in the way of obeying the gospel. That is what it means to drink. The one who is truly thirsty will gladly9 give up his possessions, his career, his social status — all that “his life in this world”10 consists of — for the sake of the treasure he has found. He will overcome the opposition of family and friends who try to dissuade him from abandoning all for the gospel’s sake. He will overcome the tugs of his own emotional attachments to the comforts, pleasures, and security of his old life, as well as the fears of being ridiculed and ostracized by his peers.
Indeed, there is much to overcome in order to obey the true gospel of the kingdom. And those who fail to overcome all that must be overcome in order to obey the gospel will also fail to inherit eternal life. Instead, they will inherit eternal death, for that is what the very next verse says:
But the cowardly and unbelieving, the abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” (Revelation 21:8)
The attributes “cowardly and unbelieving” go together, in contrast to the courageous believers of the previous verse who overcame all opposition in order to drink the water of life. It is not speaking of those who never heard the true gospel and therefore had no opportunity to believe unto eternal life, but of those who did hear the gospel but were too cowardly to obey it. Such ones do not consider our Master worthy of surrendering their life and all they possess, and He does not consider them worthy of receiving His life. In rejecting the living water He freely offers, they make themselves worthy of leading the pack of abominable perverts, murderers, adulterers, sorcerers, idolaters, and liars who shall have their part in the lake of fire.
We sincerely hope that you are not one of them, but are instead truly thirsty for eternal life. Just as the Master offered the woman at the well, we offer to you the living water that has fully satisfied us.11 But you have to drink it freely, that is, without a cause to hold you back. He will give the water of life freely to those who will drink it freely, without anything held in reserve.
“And the Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely.” (Revelation 22:17)
The prophet Malachi wrote the last words recorded in the Old Testament — the final words before a four-hundred-year silence. In Malachi 3:18, these words are recorded: “So you will again distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve Him.”
At the time he was writing, there was no longer any distinction. The prophet was looking ahead to a time in the future when there would again be a distinguishing mark or characteristic of a people who served God and were wholly set apart from the nations around them — the role Israel was to fulfill in the Old Covenant (which they didn’t do — as plainly stated in Matthew 21:43).
Now let’s “fast forward” to the time when the Messiah walked the earth, four hundred years later. He spoke many words, giving instruction to His disciples on how to live as befitting His followers, the requirements for being His disciples. His desire for them was exactly the same as God’s desire had been for Israel in the Old Covenant — He longed to see a people who were different, distinct, distinguishable from the nations around them. In some of the first words He taught His disciples, He made clear the distinguishing characteristics of His followers [the “you” here]:
No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith! Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
These words He uttered in Matthew 6 were not idealistic standards, not merely unattainable ideals, put forward as impossible to attain — He said them and He meant them. He spoke not from a theoretical standpoint, but rather from the life He Himself lived as an example for others to follow. Does it sound impossible? Does it sound unreasonable? Does it sound as if it can’t be done in these modern times?
If not, then where can one find these distinguishable people who are serving God, a people who are actually living according to what Jesus taught in Matthew 6? Only in community. For it still takes a community, you know. As John 12:26 makes abundantly clear, only there in that place [community] can one serve Him. For that is where He is:
If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.
Are you there? Hello!?
Maybe then the reason that you are not there (yet) — where He is — is simply because you don’t hate your own life in this world. Since no one can follow Him until he does, no one can be where He is and serve Him there (the Father honors all who do). Do you think that the Father honors you where you are? It’s evident that you’re still outside the there for the obvious reason that all who believe as the Scriptures say [in the manner the Scriptures require] have rivers of living water flowing from their innermost being.12
To get to that place, one must meet the daily qualifications of discipleship. Here’s a challenge to be completely honest with yourself — is this really happening in your daily experience?
And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me, for whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” (Luke 9:23-35)
So since you know you are not there, you’d better get here. Here (in community with brothers and sisters) you can know with certainty that you are one of the distinguished ones serving God. Why community? It’s the only way to meet the criteria presented here in 1 John of actually daily laying down our lives for the brethren:
We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us. (1 John 3:14,16,23)
By these qualifications one can clearly distinguish between those who serve God and those who don’t.