On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”
In my recent experience of hearing this text taught, it seems to have become the norm to use it as illustrative of the fact that all people feel various existential longings, which only Jesus can satisfy. Like the Samaritan woman, we’re looking for love in all the wrong places, and will continue to bounce from one thing to the next in a state of permanent frustration and dissatisfaction until we come to the Lord Jesus to drink the water that springs up to eternal life.
I don’t disagree with those statements as such (though I will mention my reservations about them below), but I think this misses the mark as the primary reading of the text, or the main way of understanding what Jesus is preaching and promising here for several reasons.
Firstly, the reading seems to take as its cue an overly-psychologised view of sin and its effects. The contrast is no longer between life and death, but rather between life and life, where the second, italicised life is, y’know, real life, really living. The distinction imagined seems to me to be the contrast between the humdrum of the office job and a skiing holiday. Our problem, it seems, is that we’re just not living life to the max, like the guys in the Pepsi ad. But while this may feel like a real problem (and I don’t deny those frustrations and dissatisfactions), it is not as high in the priority list of Scripture. The reading that focusses more on Jesus offering satisfaction to existential thirst misses the biggest part of the curse, and recasts it as though God had commanded in Genesis 2, ‘you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly find that there will be a god-shaped hole in you that nothing can satisfy.’ But the real sting of the curse is death. Real physical death, and real spiritual death. The curse does not condemn us to a lower quality of life, it cuts us off from life altogether.
This may feel like nit-picking if both are true, that Jesus does fulfil existential longings and bring us back to real life, but I think it is a point worth stressing, because to diminish the severity of the curse is to diminish the glory of our liberation from it. Christ did not come just to give satisfaction to a frustrated humanity, but to bring liberation to a frustrated creation.
Secondly, emphasising the emotional satisfaction found in Jesus also, it seems to me, comes pretty close to gnosticism by the back door. The body of Jesus is never diminished in any way, of course, but the importance of our bodies is, as our deaths and resurrections (to life or judgment) are made secondary to our emotional frustrations and their satisfactions. It’s a view of salvation that makes much of the inner, emotional, and mental dimensions of humanity to the detriment of the fact that we are embodied souls, and that both body and soul need redemption. Besides, even if we were talking about the redemption or salvation of the soul, that would still seem to me to be talking about something other than the sort of satisfaction that often seems to be on offer. I could say more here of the fact I think we may in fact be over-promising the degree of satisfaction on offer in Christ this side of the second advent, but that can wait for another post.
Thirdly, the reading only seems possible in a context of such comfort that we can’t imagine the need to be given life. The metaphors of hungering and thirsting no more certainly carry less force in an affluent society that has never particularly worried about whether they will go hungry or not, or where water can be had on tap in one’s own home. Combine this with the general aversion to any conversation about death and the general unfamiliarity that most moderns have with death, and the promise to be given eternal life after death seems to be an attempt to scratch where there is no itch. Death is absent from the lives of many of us — elderly relatives are put in homes, few churches are built with graveyards or crypts these days, and few of our modern worship songs (in fact, I can’t think of any) deal with our mortality in the way many older hymns did. In a world where death doesn’t seem as immediate, or life so hard, who wants a gospel that saves the best for later?
Understanding that the gospel is inescapably about the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ and the resurrection of the dead through Jesus Christ is crucial to our faithful gospel witness for two reasons.
Firstly, our pastoral integrity demands it. We may be a culture that is shy in talking about death, but, in case we hadn’t noticed, that hasn’t made a blind bit of difference to the fact that people still die: slowly, or suddenly; expectedly or unexpectedly. What can we say in such situations? ‘Don’t worry, at least you can have true satisfaction in Jesus’? Obviously not. The Christian hope has always been in the bodily resurrection, first of Christ, then of all those who have fallen asleep in Christ. When we say that Jesus gives full life, we’re not just talking about happiness now, we’re talking about resurrection life with him eternally.
Secondly, our prophetic integrity demands it. We may be in a culture that is shy in talking about death, but that doesn’t mean we should join them in shyness. The job of preaching is of course to connect with the culture and show the ways in which the gospel subverts and fulfils longings, but at other times the preacher’s task is simply to confront the culture, to point out in no uncertain terms that death is real because God is real, and no idols or wishful thinking can provide any hope, but only the resurrection of Christ.