Living Water and Spiritual Thirst

Living water is one of the many images the Gospel of John employs to describe what in other places the writer simply calls “eternal life.” Eternal life is, of course, eternal.

Mel Blanc is a name that was associated with characters in Warner Brothers Looney Tunes for years. When at the end of a production Porky Pig came across the screen and said, “That’s all folks!” that was the voice of Mel Blanc. When he died his family engraved an inscription on his tombstone that read, “That’s all folks!” Christians refuse to believe that this life is all there is. There is more to come. We believe that we possess a life that transcends death.  

The emphasis, however, in the phrase “eternal life” is not on the quantity of life, which is assumed, but on the quality of life—the kind of life it is. Almost always John’s Gospel speaks of eternal life in the present tense. It is a reality that is possessed now, that one enters into and experiences in this life/world.  

So what is it? Later in John’s narrative, in a setting where Jesus is in prayer, John’s Jesus says, “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (17:3). The writer here provides a key to understanding this concept. To have eternal life is to “know” God; not know about God, but know God intimately, intuitively, experientially, practically. Eternal life is first and foremost life in relationship with God, life in conscious connection to and cooperation with God.

This is why the gift and the giver are inseparable. This is why John’s Jesus says in his conversation with the woman of Samaria, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked for living water” (John 4:10). The gift being offered is not something, but someone. The gift is the giver. What God offers is God’s self.

This divine-human relationship is a dynamic, not static relationship. It is like living water—moving, flowing, changing, surging.   

According to John, those who drink the living water “will never again be thirsty” for it “will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (4:13–14) What might this mean?

First, what I think it doesn’t mean. I don’t think it means that we will have no more spiritual thirsts or desires. There are many times in our relationship with God when our spiritual thirsts do not feel quenched or satisfied. That is, I believe, quite natural and inevitable. Our spiritual thirsts keep us on our spiritual quest—searching, seeking, questioning, pursuing.

So what does this mean? On one level, John’s Jesus could be referencing religion based on holiness codes, purity laws, doctrinal statements, merit badges, and rewards and punishments. Such religion never satisfies, and once one has experienced the living water of a dynamic relationship with God, one will never desire ritual purity, holiness codes, or propositional, doctrinal religion again. Anyone who has ever had mystical encounters with the Divine will tell you that such experiences trump ritual and tradition every time. Not that ritual and tradition are unimportant; they are certainly necessary and have their place in one’s personal and communal spiritual-religious life. It’s just that direct encounter with the Divine quenches a thirst that ritual, tradition, and doctrine cannot. 

I personally apply this text this way: I still have spiritual thirsts that have not been quenched. I still have doubts and questions. Over the course of my spiritual journey my changeless truths have changed. But my basic thirst for meaning has been met completely. I’m connected to a larger story, a larger vision—one that Jesus called the kingdom of God. And my connection to this larger story in God and in Christ is one that keeps drawing me out of my little self, my ego-driven self, my false self into my true self, my self in God. It draws me into the larger story of God’s kingdom, into participation in peace-making and justice-making, into God’s healing and liberating work in the world. I have no desire whatsoever to revisit that basic commitment. That thirst has been forever settled. 

A living faith awakens our spiritual thirsts, which drive us toward the transcendent life that was embodied in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus knew God, experienced God; he knew the kind of intimacy and participation in the Divine Life that all human beings need to live a fully human life—necessary because we all reflect God’s image and the Spirit dwells within us all.

When we listen to the voice of the Spirit, when we align ourselves with the Divine within, then we, too, thirst for the living water that can quench our deepest thirsts for meaning, belonging, and participation in a larger story and vision of a healed, redeemed, reconciled world. 


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