The beautiful city of Cambridge lies on the river Cam. Along the picturesque stretch of river called The Backs, behind the raised banks many of the lawns and gardens of the historic colleges are at the same level as the river, or even lower. To protect the colleges from flooding, the water level in the river is controlled by two locks at either end of the Backs. In the spring of 1978 several days of torrential rain cause the river upstream to rise dangerously high threatening farmland and so the decision was taken to open both the locks to let all the storm water flow through the city safely downstream. Unfortunately the lock-keeper at the top end of the river did not get round to sharing his masterplan with the lock-keeper at the bottom end of the river. So it was that the river Cam rose by around 8 feet overnight and the whole of The Backs was flooded. I remember the sign on the river bank opposite my college which usually said, “Boats must not be moored to this bank.” All you could see was the top of the sign saying “Boats must not”, as the rest of the sign had disappeared together with the bank. There was now a new lake which stretched a couple of hundred yards out over what were usually parklands and playing fields. Indeed a new sport was invented as the students in next door Trinity College could be seen playing croquet on their croquet lawn, in canoes!
I am always reminded of that river which turned into a lake when I read these words of Jesus.
John 7:36 ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.’ 39 By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.
“Let anyone who is thirsty” Jesus said
We live in a wet country. It rains a lot! For most of the time there is more water than we would wish for. But Israel is not a wet country. It is a dry country where it often does not rain enough. In places there are deserts where it never rains at all. So the people of Israel that Jesus was talking to know what it is like to be thirsty. Last summer in Africa we saw a group of elephants gathered in a river bed. The river was completely dry so the elephants were digging with their trunks down into the river bed desperately trying to find the last drops of water flowing underground. They were thirsty. For them, finding a source of water was a matter of life and death. As it is for all living creatures, including human beings.
So it is no surprise that throughout the Bible, life-giving water was used as a symbol of God’s blessing. God is “the fountain of life” (Psalm 36:9). In Jeremiah 2:13 God describes Himself as “the spring of water that gives life.” In an evening service before Christmas we reflected on the wonderful invitation God makes in Isaiah 55.
Isaiah 55: ‘Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;
and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.
2 Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labour on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare.
3 Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live.
Let anyone who is thirsty. If anyone is thirsty. The Psalms talk about being spiritually thirsty for God.
Psalm 42 1 As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?
The blessings Jesus is promising in John 7 are for those who are genuinely seeking after God. I remember Doctor Woo, who worshipped at one of our churches when he was visiting this country from China. He talked about Christians in China would gather together to pray between 5 am and 7 am, because they were so desperate to meet with God. Only God can satisfy our spiritual thirst. And the promise is there all through the Bible right to the end.
Revelation 21 6 He said to me: ‘It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.
Revelation 22:17 Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.
If we are thirsty for God and for the life in all its fulness which Jesus brings, here is the invitation.
“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.”
Come to me, says Jesus.
John 6 35 Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. … 37 All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.’
We heard these wonderful promises from Jesus last week.
John 6 63 The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life.
68 Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.’
Only Jesus can bring us life in all its fulness. Only Jesus has the words of eternal life. His words bring us life. His words release the Holy Spirit in our lives. This is what Jesus said about the work of the Holy Spirit, the Helper, the Counsellor, the Advocate.
John 14 16 I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you for ever—17 the Spirit of truth…. Because I live, you also will live. … 26 The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.
The Holy Spirit comes to us in the name of Jesus and brings us eternal life, the life of Jesus Himself living in us. It is God the Holy Spirit who makes Jesus real to us and brings us all the blessings of salvation as we put our trust in Jesus. Everything that Jesus has accomplished by His death and resurrection is ours, when the Holy Spirit lives inside us.
38 “Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”
Rivers of living water. Not just a few drops. Not just a trickle. More than a spring. More even than a stream. Rivers of living water. A torrent, a flood of the waters of life flowing into us. This is what God the Holy Spirit does in our lives when we believe in Jesus. Rivers of living water!
39 By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.
As the Scripture has said, says Jesus. He may have had in mind these promises.
Isaiah 35 5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.
7 The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
Streams in the desert. Pools and bubbling springs. In our evening service for the New Year we read this promise in Isaiah 43
18 ‘Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.
19 See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.
20 The wild animals honour me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen,
21 the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise.
But when we think of rivers of living water we should not be thinking of mountain streams. We should picture the great rivers of the Jordan and the Nile, or the Thames flowing through London under Tower Bridge. Rivers of living water. Jesus made the same promise to the Woman of Samaria.
John 4 10 Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.’
11 ‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? ….
13 Jesus answered, ‘Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’
The rivers of living water Jesus brings will satisfy us completely and forever. We will never be thirsty again with God’s rivers of love and joy and peace and grace flowing into our lives.
Rivers of living water will flow from within them
The work of the Holy Spirit is WITHIN our lives. God’s blessings do not come to us from outside but they rise up from within: an inner experience of the life of God pouring into our lives. Of course God can bless us from outside, through the Bible and through the church and through worship and through prayer. But God also blesses us from within as his Holy Spirit wells up and inundates and overwhelms us.
Sometimes it can feel as though the Holy Spirit is only a tiny trickling stream in our lives and not a mighty flowing river. The sad truth is that there are sometimes things we can say and do which clog up and even block the river of the Holy Spirit.
Ephesians 4 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.
1 Thessalonians 5 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt.
We can block the work of the Holy Spirit by wilful sin, or lack of commitment, or lack of faith.
Over the years we have had unfortunate experience with the water supplies. In Tunbridge Wells our mains water pipe got furred up with limescale so only a tiny trickle reached the Manse and the road needed to be dug up to lay a new pipe. Some Christians lives’ are like that – the pipe is furred up.
In Brentwood our water pressure dropped to nothing and all we got was gurgling. It turned out the pipe was actually broken and all our water was leaking out under the main road outside. It seems that some Christians’ lives are like that – the pipe is broken.
Can you imagine how amazing life would be if the Holy Spirit was truly flowing through us like an unstoppable river? Sometimes we need to open ourselves afresh to mighty rivers of the Holy Spirit.
2 Timothy 1 6 For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. 7 For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.
We need to open ourselves to God working in us, so that the rivers of living water can flow through us to this parched thirsty world. Hear again the wonderful promise Jesus makes.
John 7:36 ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.’
“Lord, I crawled across the barrenness to You with my empty cup,
uncertain but asking any small drop of refreshment.
If only I had known You better I’d have come running with a bucket.”
Nancy Spiegelberg, Decision, November, 1974