O LORD, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water. (Jer. 17:13)
Kangaroo carcasses, spread on the side of the dirt road, and next to each lifeless heap, deep scratch marks. Recently returned from his outback trip, a friend painted this sensory picture of deadly thirst. Had we been there, we might have seen majestic animals wildly digging up the red dirt, desperately trying to find water.
This year, country New South Wales has endured one of the worst droughts on record. Cattle have been hand fed by desperate and despairing farmers. Sheep have been put down by the RSPCA. In alarming rates, farmers have sadly taken their own lives.
In spite of all this, here in Sydney, I can still water my lawn, take a daily shower, wash my dishes, and drink as much clean water as I desire. In big cities, we don’t know how good we have it. Hike, work on the land, or survive a natural disaster, and you always think about the supply levels of the most precious liquid on earth.
For the ancient Israelites, as for most people, clean, good water was the difference between life and death, riches or poverty, hope or despair. To describe God as the ‘fountain of living waters’ screams and shouts rather than whispers.
Humanity’s utter dependency on her Creator speaks a reassuring word to those going through hardship (Jer. 2:13; 17:13). God is the only true reservoir in this spiritually arid world. When all other rusty taps only pour out dust, he pours out water, not just a refreshing drink, but the source of life itself. Like the kangaroos, cattle, sheep and farmers, we are dead without it.
Jesus picked up this Old Testament phrase, ‘living water’, when he talked about creating such wells within believers lives (Jn. 7:37-39). He promised this water to a Samaritan Woman, and he promises it to us (Jn 4:7-15). While drinking afresh from his words, what difference will understanding their source make? Let us see. There are four different ways living water is used in the Old Testament.
1. ‘Living water’ is a very normal and common expression meaning flowing or fresh water
Before we over-theologise ‘living water’ in every context, we must see that it is often an ordinary phrase. The ESV most commonly translates the two words, ‘living’ and ‘water’, as ‘fresh water’ (Lev. 14:5,6,50,51,52; 15:13; Num. 19:17. Other English Bibles also use ‘running water’). In the well-digging narratives of Patriarchs there is another use of this expression. ‘Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of spring water’ (Gen. 26:19; the NIV uses ‘fresh water’ and the KJV ’springing water’). These waters flow, are fresh and hence alive.
Acknowledging this ordinary meaning explains why the Samaritan Woman could respond so naturally to Jesus when he offered her a new source of ‘living water’.
“Sir,” said the woman, “You don’t even have a bucket, and the well is deep. So where do You get this ‘living water’? You aren’t greater than our father Jacob, are You? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and livestock.” (Jn 4:11-12).
2. A man can describe his wife as a well of ‘living water’ (Song of Songs 4:15)
A lover can describe his bride as as ‘a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing streams from Lebanon.’ (Song. 4:15)
Fresh or running water would also work in this context. She satisfies his deepest longings and satiates his sensual thirsts, and vice versa. Like a well, she is not just for one drink, but for a lifetime. She doesn’t need to stray anywhere else, nor does he. A family’s well is their most important asset, likewise their embodied-covenantal expression in the marriage bed. This resonates well with Solomon’s warning, albeit using a different Hebrew phrase. “Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well … rejoice in the wife of your youth” (nb. Prov. 5:15,18; ‘moving water’ in Heb. rather than ‘living water’).
We must be careful to avoid importing every Old Testament use into each New Testament occurrence. However, Jesus’ shift in the conversation with the Samaritan from ‘living water’ to her current distorted sexual relationships with at least six men isn’t that strange. Many preachers quote a 20th Century poet: “I can’t get no satisfaction.” The Samaritan Woman is thirsty for actual fresh water and for human-to-human covenantal unity. But Jesus offers more than both of these needs combined. He offers God himself.
3. God is the oft-forsaken well of ‘living water’ (Jeremiah 2:13; 17:13)
The wicked men of Jerusalem who hated Jeremiah’s ongoing message of God’s judgement threw him into an empty waterless well (Jer. 38:6). The irony is not lost. They chose this to be Jeremiah’s prison, perfectly fitting for their crimes, not his. After all they had been rejecting their own water-filled well, and preferred cheap imitations.
“… my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jer. 2:13)
Even if translators had used ‘fresh’ or ‘running’ rather than the more theologically evocative and word-for-word, ’living water’, the same essential truth holds. God is the life-giving well, satisfying and sustaining life.
Our sinful human hearts never just reject God. We might not realise it, but our souls are made to thirst for God (Ps. 42:1). Therefore, to avoid insanity, emptiness and hopelessness, we manufacture other sources of meaning, significance and purpose to fill his place.
Many make or buy a carved figurine to worship, serve, and adore. However, worship of idols is not just a worship of God via a different object; it is an attempt to control the object of worship and use him, her, or it to mitigate the uncertainties of this life.
We worship: a Baal or Buddha idol for a better blessing or bonus at work; an Asherah or ancestor shrine for answered prayers about health; a Molech or Mary statue for more me-time. If even the most intellectual atheists can become practicing idolators, how much more the everyday-person who thinks they don’t need God. Deep soul-satisfaction is sought in having the appearance of a good family life, the most exotic stamps on our passports, or the most varied experiences with food, sex or exercise.
We thirst for some sort of water, and we create well-worn neuro-plastic pathway to those familiar broken cisterns of promise, falsely drinking some water-substitute that is not living-water. God sees this problem as a double-sin, a sin of two movements. First rejecting God, then turning elsewhere for someone who seems like they are less demanding. The parallels with marriage and adultery are pretty apparent.
Jeremiah 17 speaks about the same truth.
“The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron; with a point of diamond it is engraved on the tablet of their heart, and on the horns of their altars, while their children remember their altars and their Asherim, beside every green tree and on the high hills, on the mountains in the open country. … O LORD, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water. (Jer. 17:1-3,13)
Their sin was turning to different gods, other hopes, and false mirages. Their judgment would be severe for forgetting and forsaking the fountain of living water. Their sin is on record, indelibly written on their hearts and their places of religious safety. However their names will ultimately be written in the dirt, a sign of judgment.
Could this be what Jesus was communicating, when all the accusers came around to stone the woman caught in adultery? He twice bent down and started writing on the ground (Jn. 8:6,8). Was he writing down the accusers in the earth? (Jer. 17:13) I know that John 8:1-11 is not in the earliest manuscripts, but it is fascinating that only a few verses earlier in John 7:38, Jesus promises living waters.
Regardless, the truth of Jeremiah stands. Forsaking the source of life will mean being forgotten, and put to shame ourselves. Jesus warns about this waterless judgment more than anyone else (Lk. 16:24). And in contrast the new heavenly Jerusalem was all about an abundance of living water.
4. Jerusalem will be the source of ‘living water’ (Zechariah 14:8)
“On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea. It shall continue in summer as in winter.” (Zech. 14:8)
The ancient city of Jerusalem did have an underground water-source, but had no outwardly flowing river. The Psalmist rejoiced in this truth. “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.” (Psalm 46:4)
But in the Messianic future, Jerusalem’s internal blessing was going to flow into the whole world. Ezekiel saw a vision of a renewed Jerusalem where water flowed from the threshold of the entrance to the temple. That trickle became a great river, headed east, bringing healing to the Dead Sea (Eze 47:1-12) .
Zechariah’s later prophecy progresses that vision further. He saw the river flowing both east and west, influencing not just the land of Canaan but the world further abroad, Mediterranean as well as the Eastern Sea (Zech. 14:8). Those living waters may have their source in the fountain opened for sin and impurity that we have looked at in a previous article (Zech. 13:1. F = Fountain of Water and Blood).
The waters flowing from Jerusalem are described as living. They will be life-giving fresh water. Is Zechariah also drawing from Jeremiah’s description of God as the fountain of living water? It is hard to say with certainty just from this Old Testament prophet, but when you see where the source of these living waters come from in Revelation, we are left without doubt. The water images of Eden, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah are brought together.
“Then he showed me the river of living water, sparkling like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the broad street of the city. The tree of life was on both sides of the river, bearing 12 kinds of fruit, producing its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree are for healing the nations, and there will no longer be any curse.” (Rev. 22:1-3)
At the Festival of Booths, Jesus spoke of living waters to the people in Jerusalem. And what was said in Zechariah “of Jerusalem” he now applied to every believer’s heart.
Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:38-39)
There is so much here to pursue. Jesus is saying that the living waters are in fact the Holy Spirit; and that every individual believer becomes a source. How much does this colour the other theological uses of living water? If God is the fountain of living waters, God gives life by giving us himself.
As the promised rivers of living water were to come from Jerusalem, they would flow through people, moving from Jerusalem, not just into the land of Israel but the world beyond. The Jewish leaders thought Jesus was going to speak to the Greeks (Jn. 7:35). In a sense they were right and in another sense they were wrong. The living waters would flow out into the western sea, but through believers and the Holy Spirit going with them (Zech 14:8; Jn 7:38).
We could also pursue the cry of dereliction in John’s Gospel. “After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” (Jn. 19:28) The trickle, which became a river came from the self-giving of the only One who always honoured and deserved God’s living waters. There are so many more avenues to explore.
Looking at the Old Testament uses of the phrase ‘living water’ provides colour and texture to the way the New Testament uses it, but also direct promises. It also opens up many other related themes.
Promised water is not just restricted to the phrase ‘living waters’. For instance, Isaiah calls people to “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters” (Is. 55:1). Revelation echoes this truth. “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.” (Rev. 22:17)
However, we have seen in the Old Testament that:
- ‘Living water’ is a very normal and common expression meaning flowing or fresh water (Gen. 26:19; Lev. 14:5,6,50,51,52; 15:13; Num. 19:17)
- A man can describe his wife as a well of ‘living water’ (Song. 4:15)
- God is the oft-forsaken well of ‘living water’ (Jer. 2:13; 17:13)
- Jerusalem will be the source of ‘living water’ (Zech. 14:8)
So when Jesus promises living water to the woman at the well, she thinks he is merely speaking about drinkable water, but he is speaking about a satisfaction that is beyond covenantal-sex or even receiving something from God. What all creation needs most is their creator. The promise of Jerusalem being the source of living water and the individual believer being a fountain of rivers find their synergy in the story of the spread of the gospel of Christ.
It’s not just kangaroos that die, with holes next to them. Five bedroom McMansions, streams of social media feed, impressive CVs, golf-handicaps, computer-game achievements, attempted relationships, (and even good ones) might be the futile holes we dig to find significance, security and purpose while denying our God. They barely remain in the dirt next to us. They can not give life eternal or connection with our Creator.
We need God’s living waters and must not turn from him. With that picture in my head, I can’t but help to think of our Australian animals in times of severe drought. As the roo pants ‘for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.’ (Psa. 42:1-2)