A Call to the Thirsty
Series: The Gospel of John
We all sense that we are needy, but what do we really need? Jesus promises to provide something that will satisfy our true thirst.
This morning we’re getting back into our series of sermons through the Gospel of John, and as we do, I want to give you a disclaimer: This week we’re preaching on John 7:37-52. Next week we’re preaching on John 8:12-30. That means we will not have a sermon on John 7:53-8:11, and before we jump in to this week’s sermon, I want to take a moment to explain why. You should see a note in your Bible before verse 53 that says “The earliest manuscripts do not include 7:53-8:11.” We do not have the original manuscript on which John put pen to paper. What we have are a lot of early manuscript copies from different regions, far more and far better than we have for any other ancient document, that all say the same thing, thus proving that they all came from the same source, and giving us confidence that where they all agree, they do so because that’s what was in the original source. In this case, the earliest manuscripts all agree that John 7:53-8:11 isn’t in them. Therefore, it seems most likely that John did not originally write it as part of his Gospel. The more likely scenario is that it was written by someone else, and a later editor who was compiling John’s Gospel thought this a fitting place to put it, so he stuck it there. Since we cannot confirm that it is truly the word of God, however, we will not preach on it in a gathering of the church.
Does that mean the story is false? Not necessarily; the story may have happened, and there’s no theology in John 7:53-8:11 that isn’t true. Does that mean it can’t help you? No; I read all kinds of books that aren’t the Bible that are still helpful. Does that mean you can’t trust the rest of your Bible? No; there’s a reason the rest of your passages don’t have these brackets and such a note around them: Because all the earliest manuscripts do have them! Does it mean we shouldn’t preach on it in church and read it aloud as though it is the word of God? Yes. If you have more questions, as always, come talk to me after the service. For now though, on to this week’s sermon. I get headaches from time to time as I’m sure you all do too, and sometimes when I do, I’ll tell my wife. Invariably, the first thing she suggests to me is, “Maybe you aren’t drinking enough water.” It’s a wise statement from her, because she recognizes that as a human being, I need water to survive. And in Philadelphia, we know pretty reliably where to get water: The faucet works well. Jesus says something like that is true of our spiritual lives. We are spiritually thirsty, we need spiritual water. But the problem is it’s not quite as clear to many today where to get that. In this text, no surprise, Jesus tells us where to get it: From Him. So, Don’t let anyone stop you from coming to Jesus, because He will satisfy your thirst, the world will never agree on Him, and the proud will always oppose Him.
He will satisfy your thirst
Where we pick up in our story, Jesus was at the Jewish Feast of Booths, probably better titled the Feast of Tents, where the people of Israel would travel from their towns to Jerusalem and dwell in tents for a week in remembrance of the time they sojourned in the wilderness and lived in tents before God brought them into the promised land. Over time, it came to be associated with God’s provision of water in the wilderness. Earlier in the Gospel of John Jesus described Himself as the bread of heaven, presenting Himself as the true manna, the bread that God provided from heaven to Israel. Now at this feast He says He’s the one who gives the true water, the water that satisfies our thirst.
So here is the invitation, verse 37: If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Note how open the invitation is: If anyone thirsts. Anyone, regardless of upbringing, class, race, age, gender, reputation, moral standing, if anyone thirsts, Jesus says: Come to me and drink. To what kind of thirst is Jesus here referring? Physical thirst is the surface-level reading, but as we continue in these verses, John, the author of this Gospel, helps us. He says in verse 39 that Jesus was referring to the Holy Spirit. As He has done throughout John’s Gospel, He uses physical images to convey spiritual realities. So here, the thirst of which Jesus speaks is a spiritual thirst, a thirst the Holy Spirit satisfies.
That sense of spiritual thirst may be awakened in us in any number of ways. It may come through disappointment: You realize you’ve pinned your hopes in life to something that isn’t going to happen. You pin your hopes to becoming a doctor, but then you don’t get into medical school. You pin your hopes to having children, but you still aren’t even married. You pin your hopes to developing the deep community, but no matter how hard you try, it isn’t happening. On the other hand, it may come through achieving your aspirations, only to find out they still leave you thirsty. So you finally get to take the vacation you’ve been looking forward to, but then it wasn’t as great as you imagined it would be, and then…it ends. You get the mate, the house, the job, but find you’re still not satisfied. Most deeply, however, the thirst comes when we begin to feel what the Bible says is true of all humans is true of me: That I am not just a good person who occasionally does bad things, but I am a sinner, whose fundamental orientation is against a holy God, and who is therefore deserving of judgment. As J.C. Ryle puts it, “The very first step toward heaven is to be thoroughly convinced that we deserve hell.”
So when Jesus pronounces His blessings, His beatitudes, He doesn’t say, “Blessed are the spiritually strong.” He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” He doesn’t say, “Blessed are those who are righteous”; He says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.” What do you need to come to Jesus, then? As Pastor Timothy Keller has said, “All you need is need. All you need is nothing.” Yet that’s the one thing many of us don’t have. We have our money, our achievements, our friends, and our defenses of our own goodness, all which serve to cover up our thirst, but none of which truly satisfy it. You must let yourself go deeper: Admit that you’ll never be able get it all done and make it all work, never be able to save yourself from your sins, and that the things you use to cover up your thirst can’t satisfy it. Let yourself feel the thirst.
And then here’s Jesus’ promise, if you would just come to Him: Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water. So we see that coming to Jesus means believing in Jesus. And then we see why it is that He will satisfy like nothing else can: The water that He gives will become in us a spring, so that in our hearts, living water will flow. That’s the problem with even the best stuff on earth: It runs out. The vacation ends, right? The best friends move away. Eventually, we all die. But here is water that flows out, that always replenishes itself, because the water is the Spirit of God, God Himself, to whom John tells us Jesus is referring in verse 39. All who believe in Him were to receive Him, though at this point He’d not yet been given, because Jesus had not yet been glorified.
God is one God eternally existing in three persons: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. That means the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit is not the Father, etc., but each are truly God, and there is only one God. What it means to be God, what God is, is to be one essence that exists in three persons: The father begetting the Son, the Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son. That means the Holy Spirit is truly God. That’s why Jesus can say whoever believes in me will have rivers of living water flowing out of his heart: Because all who believe in Him were to receive the Spirit of God, and if the Spirit of God is in you, God is in you, the one for whom you were created, the one in whom there is an infinite supply of life. That’s why everything else leaves us thirsty: It’s not Him, and He’s the one for whom we were made.
Now when John says in verse 39 that to this point the Spirit had not yet been given, what the Greek text literally says is that the Spirit was not yet. Of course, that cannot mean the Spirit did not yet exist: He’s God, and therefore necessarily exists eternally. We see Him in the second verse of the whole Bible, right at the beginning of the story: The Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. Even earlier in the Gospel of John, John the Baptist testified that he saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove and remain on Jesus. But think of it like this: Jesus Christ is God the Son, the eternal second person of the Trinity. In that form, He exists eternally and was there in Genesis 1 as well, as the Word of God through whom all things were made. Yet before He came to earth, I think it would have been equally fair to say, “As yet the son was not, for He had not yet become man.” So here, the Spirit never becomes man, but He does come in a more visible, sensible way, to reign consciously in the hearts of God’s people, after Christ rises from the dead and ascends into heaven.
That’s the age in which we now live! Jesus has now been glorified. He is seated at His Father’s right hand, and now gives His Spirit to whoever believes in Him. So where do you go when you’re thirsty? Where do you go when you sense your needs exceed your resources? Denial and distraction, the TV, the phone, the website, the food, the drug, those things feel better for a time, but they still leave you thirsty. Jesus’ invitation to the thirsty is this: Come to me. Maybe you say, “But I’m thirsty for a job, a house, a mate, affirmation, security, significance. Are you saying Jesus will give me those things if I just come to Him?” No; John is clear that what Jesus is talking about giving you is His Spirit. But what if He’s what you really need? What if the reason you feel like you need those other things so much is because you’re trying to avoid admitting that you need God, and nothing less will do? Might you consider that if you had Him, if you were filled with His Spirit, you wouldn’t feel the same need for those other things so much? That’s part of what Jesus is inviting you into here. Part of exercising faith upon what Jesus is saying here and coming to Him is saying, “Jesus, I kinda feel like what I really need is something other than your Spirit, but I’m going to choose to believe that if I can just have more of you in me, I won’t need anything else.” Jesus will not fail to make good on this promise. Don’t let anything stop you from coming to Him because He will satisfy your thirst with the very Spirit of God, in a way nothing else can.
And one of the things that may stop you from coming to Him is all the different opinions about Him. In the response to Jesus in this passage, we see that the world will never agree on Him.
The world will never agree on Him
So in verse 40 we begin reading that some, when they heard these words, identified Jesus as the Prophet, the ultimate Prophet that Moses predicted would come in Deuteronomy 18. Others identified Him as the Christ, the promised Savior of God’s people who would rule over the nations. It had not yet been revealed to them that those could be the same person. But then there are some who question this because they thought Jesus came from Galilee, where the Christ was supposed to be born in Bethlehem. We know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but they didn’t. So verse 43 tells us that there arose a division among them, and some even wanted to arrest Him. So there were some positive responses to Jesus, but even they disagreed with one another: Some say He’s the prophet, some say He’s the Christ. Then there are questioners: “Hm not sure about that, isn’t the Christ supposed to come from Galilee?” Then there were opponents: Some wanted to arrest Him.
And we find this today too, don’t we? You meet many people who like certain things they heard Jesus said, some of which He really did say, some of which He did not, but nonetheless it evokes a positive assessment. In a place like Philadelphia, people usually say they like Jesus’ teaching about giving to the poor, turning the other cheek, not judging others lest we be judged, and His criticism of the powerful, religious establishment in His day. In more traditional societies they may like Jesus’ teaching on sexual ethics or His clear pronouncement of God’s judgment on sin. Despite the appreciation, there are also many questions: “I like a lot of what He says, but do you really expect me to believe He’s God or that He rose from the dead?” “Why’s He claim to be the only way to God?” “What about homosexuality?” And then there are outright opponents, although these are less common today. The more common approach today is if there’s something you don’t like about Jesus, just pretend it’s not there or reinvent Jesus into what you do like, but there are always some who are willing to acknowledge the full presentation of Jesus that the Bible gives and who just do not like him. Nietzsche is a good modern example: He thought the idea of a hero whose great act was dying deified weakness, and that that was a bad thing, You can still hear his influence today whenever people tell you never to accept the position of a servant and always strive to climb the ladder.
The world will never agree on Jesus. So what are you going to do? As humans, what we would typically like to do, what we are even in some sense wired to do, is to do what everyone else is doing: Go with the crowd, follow the leader, and so forth. We are inherently social beings. God created the first man, gave him a command, and if that man had faithfully obeyed and transmitted the command, it would have been safe for his wife and children along with successive generations to just follow his lead, do what dad says, and stick with the tribe. But dad didn’t do that. Then he had kids, and they couldn’t agree on the best way to live, so one killed the other. And since then, divisions have multiplied, to the point where today there are about a million different ways to live, a million different religions or tribes with which to align yourself, and here’s the fact we can’t avoid: They don’t all agree. They definitely don’t all agree on Jesus. And you only get one life. You can’t test one out for a lifetime, see if it works or not, then go do it over again. And you can’t just choose none of them; you will live in some way. You get one life, then you die, and face whatever comes next.
It would be easier if everyone just agreed, right? Like it’s pretty easy to know how to feel about the Russian attack on Ukraine, right? Maybe we disagree on who to blame and what’s to be done, but it seems like in America at least we can all agree that Putin shouldn’t be doing this. I heard one news personality say that Putin managed to unite the most divided nation on earth. But what do you do when there is not that kind of unity? One option that is especially popular among Americans today when it comes to religion is to pretend that the differences aren’t real. “Ok sure one says He’s the Prophet, the other He’s the Christ, others have questions, others want to arrest Him, but really, at bottom, aren’t we all just seeking after a truth we can’t comprehend?” Well, how do you know that? And why assume it? It’s driven by the assumption common in America that we’re all at bottom basically good people doing our best to find the truth and we’re all just taking slightly different paths to get there. I once heard a Jewish person, reflecting on the horrors that his people went through in the Holocaust, say that Americans lack a “catastrophic imagination.” It’s why things like what Putin is doing shock us; I admit, it shocked me. We think, “People don’t really just do evil stuff, do they?” But then you read the Bible and any random sampling of like, 100 years of world history and you realize, “Oh, actually that’s pretty normal.” It’s terrible, but it’s normal.
The Bible has a much more realistic view of people. In Romans 3 we read that no one seeks for God. If you want to say we’re all basically after the same thing, that’s the commonality the Bible gives us: Not that we’re all trying our best to follow a God we can’t understand, but that we all by nature try our best to reject God, especially when He clearly reveals Himself. Do you remember these words from John 7:7? Jesus says there to His brothers, “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me.” Jesus doesn’t say, “The world’s really honestly inquiring after the truth, and if I could just explain myself a little better, they’d love me.” He says, “The world hates me.” Why? He tells us: “Because I testify against it, that its works are evil.” You see what He’s saying? It’s because the world does understand what I’m saying that it rejects me. So He’s saying, “Look, if you want to come to me, you can’t wait for the world to join you. You can’t wait for consensus. You need this water. I’ve got it. Come and get it.”
Imagine you’re in a village with no water, but someone comes and invites a crowd to come to him, and he will give water to whoever comes to satisfy their thirst. You’re there with your family and friends, and some say, “I don’t know about this guy; where’s he even from?” Others say, “Wow, he sure is handsome, but that doesn’t mean he really has water, does it?” Others are like, “This guy is a liar. I’ve heard the water he’s offering is actually poisonous, and anyone who drinks it will die. Let’s arrest him before he can spread anymore of these lies.” That would be disorienting, right? You’re thirsty, this guy’s offering water, but nobody can seem to agree about whether he’s trustworthy or not. What are you going to do? You can say, “Well I’ll take a poll and go with whatever the majority says,” but do you really want to pin your hopes to the majority being right? You can say, “Well, everyone seems to have part of the truth, so I’m just going to stay neutral on the question,” but how can you stay neutral? You’ll either drink or you won’t. To not decide is to decide. You can say, “Well if I went and drank I’d be saying all these people I respect are wrong; I can’t do that,” but what if they are wrong? The discomfort of facing that will be less than the discomfort of dying of thirst. Here’s what you can’t get around, try as you may: You’re thirsty, someone is offering you water, people you love, trust, and respect can’t agree on whether you should trust him, and ultimately, it will still be your choice whether to go to Him and drink. So what’s your best option? Your best option is to decide whether this guy can be trusted, and if he can be, forget what everyone else is saying, go to Him, and drink. Then go back to those people and say to them, “Guys, it turns out He was telling the truth! The water’s really good! Come, drink with me!”
That’s our predicament today. Here is Jesus, He’s offering water to all who are thirsty, and the world cannot agree on whether you should go. I wish that wasn’t the predicament; it would be so much easier to follow Jesus if every person I respected believed the same things about Him, if even everyone professing faith in Him believed the same things about Him! But they don’t, and I’m guessing not everyone you respect does either. So what are you going to do? You can’t let the world make your decisions for you. You can’t let you friends, your family, anyone make your decisions for you. If you’re thirsty, don’t let anyone stop you from coming to Jesus for water. The world will never agree on Him, and, finally, the proud will always oppose Him.
The proud will always oppose Him
Next in our passage we meet the Pharisees. The officers return to them and the Pharisees want to know, “Why didn’t you arrest Him?” The officers acknowledge that no one over spoke like this man; they recognized something unique in Him. Notice how the Pharisees answer. They don’t say, “Now here is what’s wrong with what Jesus is teaching. Here’s how it contradicts what God has said in Scripture. Here’s how we know He cannot be the Christ.” Instead, they say, “Have you also been deceived? Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in Him? But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed.” In other words, they say, “This is above your pay grade. The authorities and pharisees haven’t believed in Him. These peons in the crowd don’t know the law; that’s why they’re being led astray! You better just do what we tell you.”
Imagine how disorienting that would be for the Jews hearing that. These are their religious teachers after all. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says, “They sit in Moses’ seat.” It was their job to teach the law, and now they’re saying none of them believe in Jesus. Clearly those who do must be led astray then, right? Well, John already gives us some hint that it’s not that simple. It turns out there was one among their number, Nicodemus, who had spoken with Jesus earlier in the Gospel of John, who is at least willing to give Jesus a fair hearing. And in verse 52 we see the irrationality with which the Pharisees are acting. They tell the officers to search and see that no prophet comes from Galilee, but there are two problems with that argument: We know the biblical prophets Jonah and Nahum did come from Galilee, and Jesus Himself was born in Bethlehem! But this is what abusive leaders do when they know the truth isn’t on their side: They appeal to their own power and start making things up.
After just concluding our series of sermons on authority, here we see a picture of abusive authority: It’s the job of priests to teach the law, not to just appeal to their own authority. If the crowd did not know the law, the Pharisees should have taught them it. Spiritual leaders are meant to be a blessing to those they lead, but if you start asking questions of your pastors let’s say, and all you get in response is, “Well this is what we say and what we’ve always done, so how dare you?” you have good reason to be suspicious. If instead what you get in response is, “Well, let me show you in the law itself, in the Scripture, why what I’m saying is true,” then you have good reason to trust. That’s not what the Pharisees did. In pride, they exalt themselves over the crowd and demand the unconditional allegiance of the officers. That’s what proud people always do: They want you to follow them unconditionally, so they definitely don’t want you to follow Jesus. They see Jesus and His words as a competitor, rather than seeing themselves as servants of Jesus and His Word! Don’t let proud people tell you what to do. They want to exert authority over you, but only Jesus has the water of life. Don’t let them stop you from coming to Him.
He’s the opposite of them. The Pharisees were truly weak, they sensed that Jesus was greater than they, so they had to act strong: “How dare you believe in Him when none of us do?” But Jesus was truly strong, and He became weak. Though He truly was the Prophet AND the Christ, He appeared in the form of a servant. Why? Because if He had come in all His glory as Prophet and Christ, He would have only prophesied against us, and judged us as His enemies. There would have been no, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.” So instead He took on the form of a servant, and eventually, He let Himself be arrested by His opponents. He let Himself be nailed to a cross, on which He became thirsty. He let a spear be plunged into His side, so that water, the last bit of life in Him, could be drained out of Him. He let water flow out from Himself so that when He was glorified in His resurrected body, rivers of living water might flow out from us. He was emptied to pour out His Spirit into us. Let anyone who thirsts come to Him and drink.