The Water of Life
By David Feddes
Picture this. It’s a hot day, and you’ve been outside for hours, working and sweating, with nothing to drink. You’ve never been so thirsty in your life. Just then you come to a spring of clear, cool water, bubbling out of the ground. And what do you do? You spit in it. Then you turn away and walk over to a place where the ground is dry and bare. You start digging with your hands. Once you’ve got a bit of a hole dug out, you reach down to the bottom of the hole and scoop up a handful of dirt. You put the dirt to your mouth and try to drink it.
Something’s wrong with this picture, isn’t it? Who in their right mind would reject fresh water and try to drink dirt? But, believe it or not, it happens all the time. In the Bible God says, “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jeremiah 2:13). Instead of drinking freely from the life-giving water of God himself, we choose to be dirt drinkers instead.
All sins really come down to just two, says God: forsaking the Lord, and settling for a substitute that will never satisfy. We forsake true love and settle for lust. We forsake real relationship and settle for reality TV. We forsake true peace and settle for booze and tranquilizers. We forsake eternal riches and settle for money. We forsake infinite glory and settle for status and style. We forsake the timeless truth of Scripture and settle for experts and entertainers. We forsake the Lord and settle for idols. We forsake the robe of Christ’s perfection and settle for the rags of our own pitiful efforts. We forsake the Holy Spirit of the living God and settle for our own made-up “spirituality.” We forsake the spring of living water and settle for dry holes that give only dirt to drink. And then we wonder why we’re so thirsty and unhappy.
Jesus once met a woman who was trying to satisfy her inner thirst in all the wrong ways. This woman went through five different husbands and then moved in with another man without even bothering to get married. Jesus told this thirsty, dirt-drinking soul that “living water” could be hers for the asking (John 4:10). He said, “Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).
And Jesus didn’t just speak of living water privately to an individual with obvious problems. He shouted about living water publicly to crowds of respectable, religious people. Each year the Israelite people had a great feast, celebrating how God had long ago taken their ancestors through the desert to the promised land and provided the thirsty travelers with water along the way. “On the last and greatest day of the Feast,” says the Bible, “Jesus stood up and said in a loud voice, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’ By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive” (John 7:37‑38).
Are you thirsty? Maybe you’ve been a polite, pious person who goes to all the right religious gatherings. Or maybe you’ve been pretty wild and wicked. Either way–whether you’re considered the cream of the crop or the bottom of the barrel (or somewhere in between)–Jesus has one simple question for you: “Are you thirsty?” Whether you’re trying to satisfy your thirst with religion and respectability or in wild and wicked ways, the basic question is still this: “Are you thirsty?”
If you are thirsty, don’t keep digging yourself into a hole and drinking dirt. Instead, accept Jesus’ invitation and promise. “Here’s my invitation,” says Jesus. “If anyone is thirsty–anyone at all–then come to me. Trust in me. Drink the living water of my Holy Spirit. And here’s my promise: You will be flooded with such an outpouring of life that not only will you be filled, you will spill over. The fountain of my Spirit will spring up right inside you, flooding you with so much life and vitality that it will overflow to others.”
In some of the closing words of the Bible’s final book, Revelation 22:17 gives this invitation: “Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.” The water of life is God’s Holy Spirit, whom God poured out on his church on Pentecost and who satisfies the souls of everyone who trusts in Jesus. At least four things are true of the water of life: it’s free, life-giving, delightful, and unlimited.
The first thing to know about living water is that it’s free. You don’t have to pay for it. You don’t have to work for it. You don’t have to qualify for it. You just have to drink it. Jesus says in John 7, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.” You don’t have to bring anything to Jesus except your thirst. He takes care of the rest, free of charge. You can’t earn or add to this living water. The Holy Spirit is God’s gift.
Pastor and author John Piper puts it this way: “God is a mountain spring, not a watering trough. A mountain spring is self-replenishing. It constantly overflows and supplies others. But a watering trough needs to be filled with a pump or a bucket brigade. So if you want to glorify the watering trough, you work hard to keep it full and useful. But if you want to glorify the worth of a spring you do it by getting down on your hands and knees and drinking to your heart’s satisfaction, until you have the refreshment and strength to go back down into the valley and tell people what you’ve found” (The Pleasures of God, p. 215).
All too often, we think of religion in terms of what we do for God in order to earn his favor. But genuine faith focuses, not first of all on anything we do for God, but on what God freely gives to us. If God were an empty watering trough, needing us to fill him up, it would make sense to lug buckets of our best works and achievements into his presence. But God isn’t a watering trough; he’s a mountain spring.
Would you carry a bucket of dirty, lukewarm water up to a fresh, clear spring and dump that brackish water into it? Would you think you had to spit into a spring to add some liquid to it in order to earn yourself the right to drink? Of course not. So why carry a bucket of your own lukewarm, dirty efforts to God as though you’re doing him a big favor? Why spit something of your own merit into God’s free gift of living water? Don’t go to God with a bucket of brackish water. Go with your bucket empty. Don’t go to God with a mouthful of spit. Go with your mouth parched and dry. Don’t bring anything to God except your thirst for him.
“If anyone is thirsty,” says Jesus, “let him come to me and drink.” No merit needed. No payment required. Just come and drink. Jesus will quench your thirst and fill your bucket out of the fullness of his Holy Spirit, at no charge. That’s what the Bible calls grace. Scripture says, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come … buy wine and milk without money and without cost” (Isaiah 55:1). God delights to give the living water of his Spirit as a free gift through Jesus. In fact, he delights so much in giving freely that if you insist on paying, you can’t have it.
Would Jesus become one of us and live a perfect life on earth and die as a sacrifice and rise again and ascend to heaven if we could pay for the Holy Spirit and earn eternal life? Of course not. Jesus paid it all himself. He is our fountain of life. He is the one place where the life of God flows into this world and becomes available to us. So don’t try to pay for living water. Just come to Jesus, drink what he has already paid for, and be filled with the Holy Spirit. “Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Revelation 22:17). Living water is free.
Here’s a second thing about living water: it’s life-giving. If a person goes too long without something to drink, he or she will end up dead. If a field goes too long without rain or irrigation, the crop shrivels and dies. Water means life. The living water of the Spirit means life for the individual soul and life for a society. Without the Holy Spirit, we shrivel and die.
The Bible says, “Cursed is the one who trusts in man… and whose heart turns away from the Lord… He will be like a bush in the wastelands… He will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives. But blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit” (Jeremiah 17:5‑8).
When I’m driving or flying in areas that get very little rain, I’m struck by the life-giving power of water. The desert looks brown and barren for great distances. Then suddenly, miraculously, the deadness of the desert gives way to the glorious green of crops and orchards. Why? Because of irrigation from a river, reservoir, or well. A dry, barren wilderness can become a blooming, flourishing paradise. All it takes is water.
In the same way, a dry, dead soul can become a fruitful paradise of eternal life. All it takes is living water. Having God’s Holy Spirit in you is a matter of life and death. Scripture says, “Those who turn away from [God] will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water” (Jeremiah 17:13). But God also promises in the Bible, “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. They will spring up like grass in a meadow, like poplar trees by flowing streams” (Isaiah 44:3‑4).
Your life may seem like a desert, a wasteland of dirt and dryness. The only sign of life is a cruel cactus here or an ugly scorpion there. That’s what your soul becomes without the Holy Spirit’s living water, and that’s what a society becomes without living water. It becomes dirty, dry, hurtful, and ugly. But Jesus can change that. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God opens his floodgates and fills up a great reservoir of living water. Then, through the channel of faith, his Spirit comes rushing and splashing into your heart. What was once a parched desert begins to flourish and blossom with fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). The Holy Spirit can make this happen in individuals that are dry and dead, and also in churches and nations that are dry and dead. Wherever the Holy Spirit goes, there is revival and fresh life. Living water is indeed life-giving.
A third thing to know about living water is that it’s delightful. The Bible says, “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her” (Psalm 46:4-5). The biblical prophet Isaiah says, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation… Shout aloud and sing for joy” (Isaiah 12:3,6).
Living without God’s Holy Spirit isn’t just sinful; it’s sad. It isn’t just dirty; it’s dreary. Even when you seem to be having fun, there’s a nagging sense of aimlessness and emptiness. Oh, you can always watch one more show or go to one more party, but that doesn’t quench your deepest thirst. Surrounded by fun as far as the eye can see, you’re like someone on a raft in the middle of the ocean, dying of thirst. You’re surrounded by water, but it is salt water. The more of it you drink, the thirstier you get. In the same way, if you’re thirsty for true joy and surrounded by an ocean of pleasure, you can drink in all sorts of fun, but you just get thirstier and sicker and closer to death.
If joy is what you’re after, come to Jesus. Drink in his Spirit, the fresh water of divine delight. The Bible says of God, “You give them drink from your river of delights. For with you is the fountain of life” (Psalm 36:8‑9). Jesus says that he wants his joy to be us, that our joy might be complete (John 15:11).
The Bible tells many stories of people who came to know God in Christ, and one thing that gets special emphasis is their joy. One such person was the woman I mentioned earlier who had been through five divorces by the time she met Jesus. She became so excited about Jesus that she ran and told her whole town about him. Another was an African government official who came to faith right in the middle of a journey, when someone told him about Jesus. The Bible says that “he went on his way rejoicing” (Acts 8:39). And then there was the law enforcement officer who almost took his own life before he came to know the Lord. But once he believed, “he was filled with joy” (Act 16:34).
Still today, when people come to Jesus, they discover that they are drinking from a river of delights. Still today people discover that Jesus was telling the truth when he said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). As a broadcaster I hear from many people who tell of their joy in the Lord, and as a speaker in churches and various other places, I see firsthand the joy that Jesus gives.
I was struck by this afresh during a visit to a prison as a guest speaker. Some of the men came to the prison chapel simply to get away from their cells, but others truly knew Jesus as their Savior and enjoyed worshiping the Lord. During a time of singing, one song those prisoners chose as a favorite was this: “I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me, makes the lame to walk and the blind to see, opens prison doors, sets the captives free. I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me. Spring up, O well, within my soul. Spring up, O well, and make me whole. Spring up, O well, and give to me, that life abundantly.” Even in prison, those men could sing joyfully of God’s river of life. Living water is delightful.
A fourth and final fact about living water is that it is unlimited. The Spirit of God never runs dry. He is infinite, overflowing, inexhaustible. The Bible says that God “gives the Spirit without limit” (John 3:34). How can God do this? Because God has no limit. From all eternity, God the Father and his Son Jesus and the Holy Spirit are united in an eternal unity of life and love and joy. Living water is unlimited because it flows from the boundless, bountiful Being of God, the blessed Trinity.
God is not like us. As John Piper puts it: “We go up and down in our enjoyments. We get bored and discouraged one day and feel hopeful and excited another. We are like little geysers that gurgle and sputter and pop erratically. But God is like a great Niagara–you look at it and think: surely this can’t keep going at this force for year after year after year. It seems like it would have to rest. Or it seems like some place up stream it would run dry. But, no, it just keeps surging and crashing and making honeymooners happy century after century. That’s the way God is about doing us good” (The Pleasures of God, p. 192).
In Ezekiel 47 the Bible paints a marvelous picture of this limitless river of life. The prophet Ezekiel has a vision in which he sees water streaming from the temple of God. In the vision he goes downstream a certain distance and then steps into the water. It comes up to his ankles. He goes a bit further downstream and steps into the water again. This time it comes up to his knees. The water is getting deeper, even though no other streams are flowing into it or adding to it. A bit further downstream, Ezekiel again steps into the water, and this time it comes up to his waist. Still no other stream is adding to it, and yet, when he goes still further along and steps in again, the water has become a mighty river. It is so deep that the prophet can’t walk across it or touch bottom. All he can do is swim and splash around in it. That’s what the water of life is like. The further you go with life in the Holy Spirit, the deeper and better it gets.
In Ezekiel’s vision, this ever-deepening river flows down to the Dead Sea, the lowest, saltiest, deadest place on earth. And what happens? That salty water becomes fresh. The Dead Sea becomes alive with all kinds of fish. Fruit trees of all kinds grow on both banks of the river, and every one of those trees is a tree of life. The leaves never wither. The fruit never fails. Each month there is a fresh crop of fruit that nourishes and leaves that heal. You may be as low and dead as the Dead Sea, but no matter how low you’ve sunk, no matter how dead you’ve become, no matter how barren the world around you might seem, the living water of God’s Spirit changes everything.
It is free and life-giving and delightful and unlimited. Indeed, this living water is so unlimited that when you believe in Jesus and receive the Spirit, he doesn’t just give you enough of the Spirit to quench your own thirst. He causes streams of living water to flow from within you. When you’re thirsty and you come to Jesus, he doesn’t just fill your cup. He makes your cup overflow. You can sing, “I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me.” The Holy Spirit within you bubbles over, bringing the life of Jesus to people around you.
Some of you are hearing all this with tremendous joy. You already believe in Jesus and know the free, life-giving, delightful, unlimited power of his Holy Spirit. Oh, there may be times when you get discouraged or grumpy, and you become so sour that people might think you were baptized in lemon juice. But then the Spirit wells up within you, and you realize afresh that you’ve been baptized into a river of delights.
For others, though, this talk about living water may sound strange. You don’t have a relationship to Jesus, and you don’t know what it’s like to have his Spirit living in you. Well, even if you don’t understand everything you’ve just heard, I pray that it has at least made you thirsty. “Whoever is thirsty,” says Jesus, “let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.” How do you take this free gift? By believing in Jesus. Trust him as your Savior and Master and Friend. You don’t have to understand it all right away. You don’t have to do something in order to qualify. Just believe in Jesus. Ask him to forgive you and to send his Spirit into your life. Say yes to the Lord’s loving invitation: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, streams of living water will flow from within him.”
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.