Thirsty for God – Reflection 4

Jesus claimed to be able to satisfy people’s thirst for God. It was a sensational claim. He was essentially making himself one with God. As C.S. Lewis noted many years ago:

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God.  But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Although the general drift of Jesus’ claim to satisfy our thirst for God is clear, the precise content of the invitation is less clear. For there is uncertainty as to how John 7.37,38 is to be translated. The difficulty arises from the lack of punctuation in the original Greek manuscripts. Normally this does not create difficulties, for the sense is obvious.  However, in this passage the punctuation can make a real difference.  For if we adopt the traditional form of punctuation, then it is from the believer that the “rivers of living water flow”; whereas according to an alternative form of punctuation, it is from Christ that these “rivers of living water flow”.  The issue is:  should we put a full-stop at the end of 7.37, so that a new sentence begins in 7.38? Or should the words about “believing in me” be linked to the drinking. If the latter, then this leaves the possibility of the reference being to Jesus. On the other hand, the NRSV while adopting the alternative form of punctuation, confuses matters by applying the last sentence to the believer: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water”. Yet the NRSV footnote makes clear, the Greek does not specify “the believer”, but literally says “out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water”.

Significantly, there is no Old Testament passage which speaks of water flowing from within a believer, whereas there are many Scripture passages which speak of God’s gift of water.   Many of these passages were read out at the water-ceremony associated with the Feast of Tabernacles:  for instance Ex 17.1-6; Is 12.3;  Ezek 47.1-11; and Zech 14.8.  If the thrust of this passage is of rivers of living water flowing from Jesus, what did John have in mind when he wrote “out of his belly” these rivers will flow?  It is probable there is a reference hereto an underlying Aramaic term (guph) which denoted a ‘body’ or ‘person’, and that this became a substitute for the personal pronoun, so that here it simply means “from him”.

John then specifically links the gift of the Holy Spirit with the rivers of living water:

Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7.39)

This link between the Spirit and water would appear to have been present in the water-ceremony associated with the Feast of Tabernacles.

Many of those pilgrims who had made the long journey to Jerusalem were looking for spiritual reality. What was true of them is true of many today. They may not actually say: “I am thirsty for God”, but they do say, “Life does not satisfy”. The German tennis star, Boris Becker, once came close to taking his own life because he was so overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness and emptiness: “I had won Wimbledon twice before, once as the youngest player. I was rich. I had all the material possessions I needed: money, cars, women, everything”. And yet he had everything, he was unhappy. “I had no inner peace. I was a puppet on a string”.  However, it might be expressed, there is a thirst within us for meaning, for satisfaction, for God. In the words of the Psalmist, “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Ps 42.1,2a); “O God you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you;  my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Ps 63.1-2). Or as the early church father Augustine of Hippo (350-430) so exquisitely expressed it:  “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”. Made “in the image of God” (Gen 1.26), we have been made to relate to God. In the words of an Old Testament preacher, God has “put eternity into our hearts” (Eccl 3.11 NIV)

Jesus can quench our thirst: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me; and let the one who believes in me drink” (John 7.37). This was no one off statement – it was no sudden act of exuberance on the part of Jesus. His words here recall those he had spoken to the Samaritan woman at the well:  “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty” (John 4.13,14a). This is a statement with permanent relevance.  Jesus still quenches our thirst for spiritual reality – for he is the way to God.   As he came toward the end of his life, the former journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, who for many years had been an unbeliever, discovered Jesus:

I may, I suppose, regard myself, or pass for being, a relatively successful man. People occasionally stare at me in the streets – that’s fame.  I can fairly easily earn enough to qualify for admission to the higher slopes of the Inland Revenue – that’s success.  Furnished with money and a little fame even the elderly, if they care to, may partake of trendy diversions – that’s pleasure. It might happen once in a while that something I said or wrote was sufficiently heeded for me to persuade myself that it represented a serious impact on our time – that’s fulfilment. Yet I say to you, and I beg you to believe me, multiply these tiny triumphs by a million, add them all together, and they are nothing – less than nothing, a positive impediment – measured against one draught of that living water Christ offers to the spiritually thirsty, irrespective of who or what they are.

Our thirst is quenched when we believe. “Let the one who believes in me drink” (John 7.38).  We are clearly dealing with a metaphor here. To experience God, to enter into the new spiritual dimension called eternal life, to know the work of the Spirit in our hearts, we must “believe”. What does it mean to believe? In terms of the metaphor it means not just coming to Jesus, but actually ‘drinking’ from the water of life he offers. Imagine yourself lost in the desert.  You’ve run out of water, and there you are feebly stumbling along, desperate for water, with only a matter of hours before you’ll die of thirst, and then all of a sudden you come across an oasis with a well. What are your options?  You may just accept that this well exists – not a mirage – it is for real. Or you may believe that this well is capable of slaking your thirst and allowing you to live. Or you may go further still, and act upon that belief by drinking some water from the well.  In other words, it is not enough to believe that Jesus offers the water of life; nor is it enough to believe that he can actually quench our thirst for God; it involves coming to Jesus, personalising our faith, and believing that Jesus died for us to open up a way back to God for you; and that he Jesus rose so that we might share in his life; and through the gift of his Spirit enables gives us new power to face all the challenges that life may throw at us. What a difference Jesus makes when we drink “of this water” he offers (John 4/14).

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