“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” John 4:14
Over the years I have attended countless meetings, lectures, seminars and conferences and, out of all of them, very little remains in the memory. The gatherings that were most effective were generally those that ended with a question: what are you going to do next? It was easy to be impressed by a speaker, to think the content was excellent, the challenge came with that question: what are you going to do next? Any schoolteacher will tell us that having students who are happy might be something desirable, but it is not enough; they need also to be learning, effective teaching is something that changes them.
Saint John Chapter 4 describes teaching and learning; it describes a challenge and a response; it describes a conversation between teacher and student where the student tries to avoid awkward questions.
If we look at verses 10-11, we see the first attempt at avoiding the question. Jesus presents the Samaritan woman with a spiritual challenge in verse 10, “‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink’, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’” The subject matter is quite clear, Jesus is talking about something God will give, but, like a student who knows they have not done their homework and needs to distract the teacher’s attention, the woman tries shift the discussion. In verse 11, “The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep”. The woman knows that Jesus is not talking about water from the well, and then decides that Jesus’ challenge to her should be acknowledged, “Where do you get that living water?” the woman asks. In verse 15, we see the woman has learned from the teaching, there is the start of a change, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water”.
The student has progressed, but wants to avoid the harder problems. A difficult question arises: Jesus says to the woman in verse 18, “you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband”. This is a question the woman does not wish to discuss, so makes a second attempt to avoid what Jesus is asking, in verses 19-20, we read, “The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’“
Jesus listens to the woman’s words and responds, and then brings the lesson back to the point he was making in verse 10, when he spoke of how the woman would react if she knew who was speaking to him. The woman says in verse 25, “I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ)” and Jesus says to her in verse 26 “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
The woman is changed by the teaching of Jesus, verses 29-30 tell us, “Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?’”
When we look at the hymn, “I heard the voice of Jesus say”, we see a pattern in each of the three verses; each verse begins with a saying of Jesus and concludes with a personal response, it challenges us to be changed by hearing what Jesus says to us.
The opening lines of the hymn, “I heard the voice of Jesus say, “Come unto me and rest; lay down, thou weary one, lay down your head upon my breast”, are drawn from Saint Matthew Chapter 11 Verse 28, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest”, says Jesus to his listeners.
Of course, accepting the offer Jesus makes demands humility on our part, it demands that we recognize that living life in our own way is leaving us weary and weighed down. It goes against our pride to admit that we may getting things wrong, that the way of life we have chosen may be grinding us down, that doing as we choose is bringing heavy burdens. Jesus’ invitation sounds easy, until we think about what it means for our own lives, until we realize that we may be very attached to the things that are burdening us. Jesus is not offering a soft option, he is challenging people to be changed, to live life with a different set of priorities.
The hymn offers words of response to the invitation Jesus makes, “I came to Jesus as I was, so weary, worn, and sad; I found in him a resting place, and he has made me glad”. Through our own pride, through our own refusal to let go of our past, do we miss out on the gladness that God offers?
Like the woman at the well, we are offered living water, “I heard the voice of Jesus say, ‘Behold, I freely give the living water; thirsty one, stoop down and drink, and live.’” The challenge Jesus makes to the Samaritan woman is the challenge he makes to us, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink’, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’”
Would we ask Jesus for living water? If we feel that in our own lives we already have all that the world might have to offer us, we might not feel inclined to accept our need for something more, we might be inclined to feel that there is nothing more, that what we have here and now is all there is to life. But if this is it, if our life here is all there is, then the world is a bleak and a hopeless place. If our passing years come to a final end and there is nothing for which to hope, then what purpose or meaning is there?
Jesus offers more, he offers new life. The response we are invited to make to the offer of living water, to the offer of something in our lives that changes everything, is expressed in the words of the hymn, “I came to Jesus, and I drank of that life-giving stream; my thirst was quenched, my soul revived, and now I live in him”.
The hymn speaks of finding rest in Jesus; it speaks of finding Jesus to be the living water; and it speaks of Jesus as the light, “I heard the voice of Jesus say, ‘I am this dark world’s light; look unto me, your morn shall rise, and all your day be bright.’” The words are inspired by Jesus’ words in Saint John Chapter 8 Verse 12, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’”
Like the first two verses, the third verse presents us with a challenge: the first challenged us to accept we needed to find rest with Jesus; the second challenged us to accept we needed to find in him the living water that would revive our soul; and now the third challenges us to accept that our life should be lived following the way that Jesus has shown us.
The third challenge is the most difficult. We might admit our weakness, we might look for new life with Jesus, but living out that life is the hardest thing for all of us—living each day in the knowledge that God is watching us and expecting us to take seriously the words of Jesus. One of the most common complaints against Christians is that we are hypocrites, that our lives do not match our words. If we can be accused of hypocrisy, we need to look at how well we have responded to those first two challenges, how much we have been prepared to acknowledge our need of God, how much we have sought a new life with Jesus.
The challenge to each of us is to be good students, to hear the teaching of Jesus and to be changed by it; the challenge is to be able to sing with sincerity the closing lines of the third verse, to be able to sing the words and, in our hearts, to mean them. “I looked to Jesus, and I found in him my Star, my Sun; and in that Light of life I’ll walk till travelling days are done”.