“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 4:10
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” John 4:13-14
Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. Romans 7:4
I want to build a sidebar today to our sequence in the Gospel of John. Last Sunday Jesus offered us what he calls “living water” (John 4:10). He told us that the water he gives us becomes in us “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). We can’t help but wonder, Okay, but how does that actually work? Jesus is talking about something real and wonderful, but how do I experience it? What do I do to access his living water for my soul-thirst? We will never experience perfection in this life. But even imperfectly, how can we know something of this living water in our lives?
That question about his living water is only one part of the larger question of practical Christianity. Real Christianity is not just believing the right things and doing our best. Real Christianity takes us beyond all that we can do. Real Christianity is what only God can do. Which means that real Christianity is supernatural, it is miraculous, it comes from above. Anything less is sub-Christian and cannot help sinners and sufferers.
This question matters, because real Christianity is the only power that can make a dent on our society today. We are living in a day of intense cultural upheaval. We are living in day of bewilderment and exhaustion. We are living in a day of promises broken and betrayed. Is there anything solid that won’t let us down? Only the living Christ. And he gives himself most in among his people. That is why I believe that only a church in a revived condition, where Christ is present in power, can speak with a prophetic voice today. That is what we need in this day – not our good intentions but his wonderful reality coming down to us today. So this question about living water – when we touch that one question, up comes the most burning issue of our lives. Rather than assume we know the answer, let’s assume we don’t know the answer, and let’s go find the answer, with God’s gracious help.
Jesus offered his fullness of grace to a troubled person there in John chapter 4. He meant it then. He means it now. So how do we get into his living water and all that the gospel promises in this imperfect life? Let’s think it through. Next week we’ll continue with John’s Gospel. I want to say two things today. First, where not to go. Second, where to go.
Where not to go
We can get it wrong in two opposite ways. We can drive into the ditch on either side of the road. The ditch on one side is legalism, and the ditch on the other side is apathy. Legalism is active, apathy is passive, both will rob us of the living water which is reality with God.
Legalism says, “I deserve this. After all, I believe in the right things, I’m doing the right things, I’m standing for the right things. So God should notice me. God should favor me.” What’s wrong with legalism? It marginalizes Jesus and his cross. If we can leverage God and control God and demand from God by our obedience, why bother with Jesus? The Bible says we come to God only as disqualified sinners, holding out the empty hands of faith and receiving the grace of Jesus. The Bible gets us singing, “Just as I am, without one plea, but that your blood was shed for me.” If we treat God as the cosmic gumball machine, and we insert our works righteousness into the slot and ka-ching, out comes the blessing, we know nothing of God. We here today want to identify with the man in the Bible who said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).
Apathy is the opposite of legalism. Apathy does see God’s grace. But apathy doesn’t understand God’s grace. Apathy says, “Because Christianity is about grace, I do nothing. God does it all for me in the sense that I don’t even engage, I don’t think, I don’t exercise faith, I don’t struggle. Grace is automatic. It just happens somehow. Isn’t grace wonderful?” Nowhere does the Bible teach us to think that way. Here is how the apostle Paul summed up his whole approach to life: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than [the other apostles], though it was not I but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). The grace of God gets us motivated and active and working and striving – not to deserve God but to participate with God. Think of the Lord’s Supper. It isn’t legalistic, nor is it automatic. It gets us participating. The Bible says, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16). Grace gets us seeking. The Bible says, “If then you have been raised with Christ” – and we have been raised up by his grace – “seek the things that are above, where Christ is” (Colossians 3:1). Grace gets us partaking. The Bible says, “By his own glory and excellence he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Grace gets us moving and gaining new ground. In the Bible God says, “Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon [in the Promised Land] I have given you” (Joshua 1:3). The power of God’s grace is why Jesus said, “According to your faith be it done for you” (Matthew 9:29). The grace of God is divine power, getting us involved and paying attention and pressing in. Do not think you can’t get traction until you’re healthy. You get healthy as you move forward, believing that God is for you on terms of sheer grace.
Christian spirituality is unlike every other spirituality. Part of the tension that led to the Beatles breaking up was that John Lennon and George Harrison were open to Eastern mysticism, but Paul McCartney wasn’t as open. On their “Revolver” album, which Rolling Stone listed as the greatest album of all time, the song “Tomorrow Never Knows” starts out like this:
Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream
It is not dying
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the Void
It is shining
That you may see the meaning of within
It is being.
That is not Christian spirituality – getting absorbed into the Cosmic All. The grace of God gets us thinking and reaching and seeking and stretching and daring new things, confident that the Lord is with us.
Both legalism and apathy insult God and injure us. The offense of legalism is to treat God as if he can be bought. The offense of apathy is to treat God as if he can be taken for granted. God our Father insists that we treat him as he is – both gracious to the undeserving and worthy of our all. Do we need correction either way? Have we driven into the ditch of legalism? Have we driven into the ditch of apathy? Whatever we’ve done, we can go to God right now with the empty hands of faith, welcoming all he has for broken people open to him. We’ll be amazed at what God can do.
Where to go
The gospel is neither legalism nor apathy. The gospel is not a blend of the two. The gospel is a third way entirely. The Gospel takes us into active passivity.
We see it all over the Bible. Here’s just one passage. Romans 7:4 sums up how we engage with God under the power of grace:
Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.
Francis Schaeffer’s book True Spirituality helped me understand the active passivity of grace. Let’s think it through:
You have died to the law through the body of Christ
What is Paul saying? He’s saying that, through the broken body of Jesus on the cross, we have died to, that is, left behind the pay-as-you-go plan with God. We’re not trading any more in our own rightness. We’re banking on the finished work of Christ on the cross for our okayness with God. His death was full payment to God for us. Now we know that the Monopoly money of our obedience is no currency for influencing God. Christ crucified killed that tired old religion for us. Now we run into the arms of the Father, as we are, in our mess, because Jesus obeyed God’s law for us in his life and paid the full penalty for our disobedience in his death. Now we are freely restored to God by grace!
But that doesn’t leave us in neutrality. That grace doesn’t make us apathetic. Here is where the grace of God takes us:
so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead
We know from verses 2 and 3 what kind of “belonging” Paul has in mind. He’s talking about marriage. The grace of God freed us from marriage to the law. But now we are freed by grace, not so that we are neutral or autonomous or disengaged but so that we may belong to Christ in a new marriage: “so that you may belong to another.”
We used to be married to Mr. Law. Marriage to Mr. Law was misery. He was a good man, but merciless. He just didn’t understand how weak we are. At the end of the day, when he came home from work, he’d ask us, “Well, did you do all the things I told you to do – all ten commandments?” And we never did, not perfectly. The house was always a wreck and the kids were bouncing off the walls, and he never hesitated to point out our failings. Then Mr. Law died. And we got remarried to Mr. Grace, to Jesus. Now he comes home at the end of the day and he sweeps us into his arms and says, “You’re the one I love, you’re the one I chose, you’re the one I want!” And our hearts melt under the power of his grace.
Jesus is not a dead law. He’s not even dead grace. Jesus is the risen and exuberant Life-Giver, and we belong to him now for all that he’s worth. What then is God’s purpose in freeing us from the law and drawing us into the power of his grace?
in order that we may bear fruit for God
What did we do at our conversion to Christ? We weren’t legalistic. We weren’t apathetic. What did we do? We put ourselves into the arms of Christ. And that’s what we continue to do, moment-by-moment. We yield to Christ, like a wife who loves her husband. And what comes of it? We bear fruit for God. It’s an active passivity, welcoming his life-giving power, again and again.
Think of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The angel tells her she’s going to bear the Messiah. How does she respond? She’s a modest Jewish girl. She’s engaged to Joseph, a man she loves. Now the Lord asks something of her that isn’t easy. How does she respond? “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
I can think of other responses. For example, “Okay, God, but you’re going to owe me. If I do this, it’ll cost you.” That’s legalism. Here’s another response. “What you’re saying, Mr. Angel, sounds to me like a promise, like grace. So I’m going to do nothing. Whatever!” That’s apathy. What did Mary say? With active passivity she said, “Let it be done to me according to your word.” She affirmed the word of the Lord. She embraced it. And what came of it? She bore fruit for God.
This is where God wants to take us. It’s where his living water flows. It’s where our hearts say to God – real-time, right in the moment – “Be it done to me according to your word. I trust you. I give my life to you. I bow to your plan and purpose.” This is what the Bible calls “living by faith.” Paul said, “The life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Notice the word “now.” “The life I now live.” Reality with Christ is not a past decision or a future inevitability but living by faith in him right now. You put yourself consciously into the hands of God for his glory. And if you think, “But I have to get my life together first,” that will hold you back. The woman at the well was unqualified. She didn’t even have the gospel well thought out. Here’s all she had, and here’s all she needed. She was with Jesus, responding to him step by step.
This is how you and I can taste the living water. Here’s how it worked for me yesterday morning. I was in my study thinking about something in my life that I find hard to bear. I won’t go into it. But the tears were flowing. And it sounds melodramatic, but at that moment I thought of Pastor Saeed in that wretched Iranian prison, and I thought of Meriam Ibrahim in that prison in Sudan, and I thought of the thousands of others around the world, and the words of the old hymn came to mind:
Must I be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease
While others fought to win the prize and sailed through bloody seas?
And I thought, “Okay. In some tiny but real way, I get to identify with them.” Then I thought of the old Rolling Stones lyric: “So I went down to the demonstration, to get my fair share of abuse.” And I gave it to God. I can’t explain it – what God does goes beyond explanation – but in accepting God’s plan for me, the dignity of it, the privilege of it, my anguish didn’t go away. But I found my anguish intertwined with gratitude. These two emotions mingled together – anguish and gratitude. And the gratitude was not in spite of the anguish but because of the anguish. And at that moment it tasted like living water. What was happening to me? The Lord himself was being kind and faithful. So many of us could tell stories of his care. We are with the risen Christ, receiving his fullness of grace.
And because it’s from above, it can work for anyone in any life situation. Young moms with kids – don’t tell yourself you’re too busy for God. This woman in John chapter 4 – Christ came to her at the equivalent to the grocery store or the gas station. He sought her out right in the middle of her humdrum day. Never tell yourself your life situation is a barrier to God. Your life situation is ideally suited for living water, because it doesn’t come from your surroundings; it comes down from above. Other people in other life situations are equally included – retirees worried the money might not last. Middle-aged dads working hard. Students wondering about a job after graduation. Teenagers feeling alone. Every one of us can say to God this morning, “Let it be done to me according to your word.” There is no perfection in this life. But his living water is for real people living real lives.
But make no mistake.
If we aren’t putting ourselves in the arms of Christ, we’re putting ourselves in someone else’s arms. We are always putting our hope in something, always trusting and obeying and valuing and serving something. We are never neutral. And when we’re engaging with some idol and its false promises, we do bring forth a kind of fruit. But it’s bitter, filled with regret. Only Christ gives life by his Spirit. Charles Hodge, the Princeton theologian, wrote this: “If the Spirit of God dwells in us, how careful should we be lest anything in our thoughts or feelings be offensive to this divine Guest!”Can you imagine anyone married to Mr. Grace saying, “What if I do let other men into the house? I can trivialize my husband. I can be careless. I can be unguarded and unthinking. Why not? He’s all about grace, right?” The very thought is revolting. If we aren’t in the arms of Christ, we are in someone else’s arms, and the Bible calls that spiritual whoredom. There is no living water there, but only sewage. The Bible says, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 4:30). It does not say, “You can earn the power of the Spirit.” The Spirit is a free gift to every believer for Jesus’ sake. But the Bible is saying, “Do not grieve the Spirit. Get rid of everything that offends him, and welcome his blessing.” Is there something you’ve allowed into your life you know is displeasing to your gracious Lord and you’ve got to get rid of it? Real Christianity is a right-now-matters-to-him interaction with the living Christ. You can have reality with him all the time – in pain, in joy, at work, at play, when you are betrayed, when you are loved, when life is dull, when life is great. You belong to Mr. Grace, raised from the dead, more alive than you are. Now give yourself to him. Stay open to him, moment by moment, tender toward him, looking for his fullness of grace to expand in your heart forever.