A Spiritual Drinking Problem

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:37-38)“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.” (Acts 7:51)

Have you ever been so thirsty that you felt as though your mouth was full of sawdust?  I have, and in those moments all I want or can think about is a tall, cool, refreshing drink of water. It doesn’t even need to be all that cool!  Just some water, please! Almost any water will do, just so long as it’s wet!  Physical thirst is like that. When one reaches the point where quenching one’s thirst becomes the central focus, it’s hard to do or think about anything else.

We live in a world that is thirsty for God.  We live in a time when people are thirsty for spiritual meaning, divine presence, and a sense of the “Holy Other.” The world can’t seem to name this thirst for what it is, but Jesus knew and understood it in his day.  His words echo down to us through the Gospel of St. John as almost a clarion call of welcome:

“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me….”

There are no limits on this invitation.  Jesus opens his call to the entire world:  “anyone” is a very inclusive word, after all; I can’t think of anybody who isn’t included in “anyone,” can you?

Jesus’ call is for all who are thirst, who are seeking after divine supply, who are in need of spiritual fulfillment, to simply come to him.  There is no limit on that invitation.  He didn’t issue the call to just Jews, just Pharisees, just men, or just the educated or wealthy people.  Jesus didn’t say “Let those who look, sound, and act like my people come to me….” No, he made an open-ended offer: “Let anyone…”

What Jesus said next, however, does place a limitation on what he is about to give:

“Let the one who believes in me drink.”

The offer is for all to come, but the gift is given only to those who believe in Jesus. That is a very interesting limitation.  What does it mean to believe in Jesus? A clue can be drawn from the belief-action that he is calling for:  “drink.”  The word “believe,” in the Greek original, is (in English lettering): “Pisteuo.” It is a verb and it means to: (1) act, (2) based upon your belief.  Its an active verb, not a passive one, meaning that the action is critical to establishing the reality that is referenced in the object of one’s belief.  In this case, the clue that Jesus gives us is precisely the action that is required:  “drinking.”

We are called to drink from the supply of Jesus’ love.  Jesus calls all to come to him, and for those who desire it to drink of his presence, of his spiritual supply, of his divine life. The offer is open, unlimited, and unearned, as is the nature of God’s grace, but one must still drink – i.e., act in faith – in order to receive it.  God is not going to force the water of eternal life on anyone; it is freely offered, and the response is as simple as taking a drink.

For some reason, however, we live in a day and age in which many people – ourselves included – appear to have a spiritual drinking problem.  Rather than drinking too much, however, our problem is in that we refuse to drink much, if at all!  Many people don’t want to drink from the fountain of God’s supply; they think they don’t deserve it, or won’t be welcome, or that it will change them or make them into something weird.  They are afraid of what drinking from the life of Christ will mean.

I understand these fears. Repeatedly, many people have been told that they are unworthy to approach God or to receive the love that God offers.  They are told that they have to change before they come to God, because “God won’t love you if you do that!” (whatever the “that” may be).  And, truly, some are afraid that the very act of believing – of drinking of Christ’s love – will cause them to change into something that they don’t want to be, from “holy roller” to “hypocrite.”  All of these fears are, of course, baseless. Jesus was clear: “anyone who is thirsty” is welcome to approach, and if one believes in Jesus one may, in and through so-believing, drink of the gift of God’s love.  We cannot merit it, we cannot deserve or earn it; indeed, we are called to drink precisely because we are thirsty, precisely because we don’t merit it, precisely because we can’t earn it.  And, finally, when we drink – when we act with faith in Jesus – we are changed: we come into the real presence of God, are nourished by God’s love, our emotional, spiritual, and even physical injuries are healed, and we are given a new life to live … the life that Jesus lived, welcoming others with the love God has given us.

But how do we drink? We drink of the spiritual life of Christ when we participate in the life of the church, when we attend its worship services, partake of its Sacraments, engage in Bible Studies, enjoy the fellowship of our sisters and brothers, and give of our time, talents, gifts, and service. Through all of these Means of Grace we drink from the fountain of God’s love and are filled and transformed into the Body of Christ.  And this is why having a spiritual drinking problem is such a disaster for the church.  When we fail to participate we go thirsty and lose our ability to give of ourselves for others; when we go spiritually thirsty we rob ourselves of our ability to be the church.

And this is where the final portion of Jesus’ quoted words come into play:

“As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believers’ heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”

How can we be a river of God’s love and grace for others if we’re always thirsty, spiritually parched and in need of the water of life? To put it bluntly, we can’t be. To be a means of grace for others we must first partake of those means of grace for ourselves. Then, and only then, will God’s love flow from us to others.

The word translated “heart” is an interesting one. The Greek word is the same word used, elsewhere in the New Testament, for “womb.”  Literally, “from the believers’ womb shall flow rivers of living water.”  We are called to give, from the very center of our creative being, the love of God to all whom we meet.  We are called to drink, deeply, from the fountain of God’s life and then share that life with others.  To do this, we cannot have a spiritual drinking problem; to do this we must first partake of God’s love.

© 2008 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.