The Water of Life (Preached at Westminster Abbey)

And the Spirit and the Bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.

This text is its own witness. It needs no man to testify to its origin. Its own words show it to be inspired and divine.

But not from its mere poetic beauty, great as that is: greater than we, in this wet and cold climate, can see at the first glance. We must go to the far East and the far South to understand the images which were called up in the mind of an old Jew at the very name of wells and water-springs; and why the Scriptures speak of them as special gifts of God, life-giving and divine. We must have seen the treeless waste, the blazing sun, the sickening glare, the choking dust, the parched rocks, the distant mountains quivering as in the vapour of a furnace; we must have felt the lassitude of heat, the torment of thirst, ere we can welcome, as did those old Easterns, the well dug long ago by pious hands, whither the maidens come with their jars at eventide, when the stone is rolled away, to water the thirsty flocks; or the living fountain, under the shadow of a great rock in a weary land, with its grove of trees, where all the birds for many a mile flock in, and shake the copses with their song; its lawn of green, on which the long-dazzled eye rests with refreshment and delight; its brook, wandering away -- perhaps to be lost soon in burning sand, but giving, as far as it flows, Life; a Water of Life to plant, to animal, and to man.

All these images, which we have to call up in our minds one by one, presented themselves to the mind of an Eastern, whether Jew or heathen, at once, as a well-known and daily scene; and made him feel, at the very mention of a water-spring, that the speaker was telling him of the good and beautiful gift of a beneficent Being.

And yet -- so do extremes meet -- like thoughts, though not like images, may be called up in our minds, here in the heart of London, in murky alleys and foul courts, where there is too often, as in the poet's rotting sea -

'Water, water, everywhere,
Yet not a drop to drink.'

And we may bless God -- as the Easterns bless Him for the ancestors who digged their wells -- for every pious soul who now erects a drinking- fountain; for he fulfils the letter as well as the spirit of Scripture, by offering to the bodies as well as the souls of men the Water of Life freely.

But the text speaks not of earthly water. No doubt the words 'Water of Life' have a spiritual and mystic meaning. Yet that alone does not prove the inspiration of the text. They had a spiritual and mystic meaning already among the heathens of the East -- Greeks and barbarians alike.

The East -- and indeed the West likewise -- was haunted by dreams of a Water of Life, a Fount of Perpetual Youth, a Cup of Immortality: dreams at which only the shallow and the ignorant will smile; for what are they but tokens of man's right to Immortality, -- of his instinct that he is not as the beasts, -- that there is somewhat in him which ought not to die, which need not die, and yet which may die, and which perhaps deserves to die? How could it be kept alive? how strengthened and refreshed into perpetual youth?

And water -- with its life-giving and refreshing powers, often with medicinal properties seemingly miraculous -- what better symbol could be found for that which would keep off death? Perhaps there was some reality which answered the symbol, some actual Cup of Immortality, some actual Fount of Youth. But who could attain to them? Surely the gods hid their own special treasure from the grasp of man. Surely that Water of Life was to be sought for far away, amid trackless mountain-peaks, guarded by dragons and demons. That Fount of Youth must be hidden in the rich glades of some tropic forest. That Cup of Immortality must be earned by years, by ages, of superhuman penance and self torture. Certain of the old Jews, it is true, had had deeper and truer thoughts. Here and there a psalmist had said, 'With God is the well of Life;' or a prophet had cried, 'Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and buy without money and without price!' But the Jews had utterly forgotten (if the mass of them ever understood) the meaning of the old revelations; and, above all, the Pharisees, the most religious among them. To their minds, it was only by a proud asceticism, -- by being not as other men were; only by doing some good thing -- by performing some extraordinary religious feat, -- that man could earn eternal life. And bitter and deadly was their selfish wrath when they heard that the Water of Life was within all men's reach, then and for ever; that The Eternal Life was in that Christ who spoke to them; that He gave it freely to whomsoever He would; -- bitter their wrath when they heard His disciples declare that God had given to men Eternal Life; that the Spirit and the Bride said. Come.

They had, indeed, a graceful ceremony, handed down to them from better times, as a sign that those words of the old psalmists and prophets had once meant something. At the Feast of Tabernacles -- the harvest feast -- at which God was especially to be thanked as the giver of fertility and Life, their priests drew water with great pomp from the pool of Siloam; connecting it with the words of the prophet: 'With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.' But the ceremony had lost its meaning. It had become mechanical and empty. They had forgotten that God was a giver. They would have confessed, of course, that He was the Lord of Life: but they expected Him to prove that, not by giving Life, but by taking it away: not by saving the many, but by destroying all except a favoured few. But bitter and deadly was their wrath when they were told that their ceremony had still a living meaning, and a meaning not only for them, but for all men; for that mob of common people whom they looked on as accursed, because they knew not the law. Bitter and deadly was their selfish wrath, when they heard One who ate and drank with publicans and sinners stand up in the very midst of that grand ceremony, and cry; 'If any man thirst, let him come to Me and drink. He that believeth on Me, as the scripture hath said, Out of him shall flow rivers of living water.' A God who said to all 'Come,' was not the God they desired to rule over them. And thus the very words which prove the text to be divine and inspired, were marked out as such by those bigots of the old world, who in them saw and hated both Christ and His Father.

The Spirit and the Bride say, Come. Come, and drink freely.

Those words prove the text, and other texts like it in Holy Scripture, to be an utterly new Gospel and good news; an utterly new revelation and unveiling of God, and of the relations of God to man.

For the old legends and dreams, in whatsoever they differed, agreed at least in this, that the Water of Life was far away; infinitely difficult to reach; the prize only of some extraordinary favourite of fortune, or of some being of superhuman energy and endurance. The gods grudged life to mortals, as they grudged them joy and all good things. That God should say Come; that the Water of Life could be a gift, a grace, a boon of free generosity and perfect condescension, never entered into their minds. That the gods should keep their immortality to themselves seemed reasonable enough. That they should bestow it on a few heroes; and, far away above the stars, give them to eat of their ambrosia, and drink of their nectar, and so live for ever; that seemed reasonable enough likewise.

But that the God of gods, the Maker of the universe should say, 'Come, and drink freely;' that He should stoop from heaven to bring life and immortality to light, -- to tell men what the Water of Life was, and where it was, and how to attain it; much more, that that God should stoop to become incarnate, and suffer and die on the cross, that He might purchase the Water of Life, not for a favoured few, but for all mankind; that He should offer it to all, without condition, stint, or drawback; -- this, this, never entered into their wildest dreams.

And yet, when the strange news was told, it looked so probable, although so strange, to thousands who had seemed mere profligates or outcasts; it agreed so fully with the deepest voices of their own hearts, -- with their thirst for a nobler, purer, more enduring Life, -- with their highest idea of what a perfect God should be, if He meant to show His perfect goodness; it seemed at once so human and humane, and yet so superhuman and divine; -- that they accepted it unhesitatingly, as a voice from God Himself, a revelation of the Eternal Author of the universe; as, God grant you may accept it this day.

And what is Life? And what is the Water of Life?

What are they indeed, my friends? You will find many answers to that question, in this, as in all ages: but the one which Scripture gives is this. Life is none other, according to the Scripture, than God Himself, Jesus Christ our Lord, who bestows on man His own Spirit, to form in him His own character, which is the character of God.

He is The one Eternal Life; and it has been manifested in human form, that human beings might copy it; and behold, it was full of grace and truth.

The Life of grace and truth; that is the Life of Christ, and, therefore, the Life of God.

The Life of grace -- of graciousness, love, pity, generosity, usefulness, self-sacrifice; the Life of truth -- of faithfulness, fairness, justice, the desire to impart knowledge and to guide men into all truth. The Life, in one word, of charity, which is both grace and truth, both love and justice, in one Eternal essence. That is the life which God lives for ever in heaven. That is The one Eternal Life, which must be also the Life of God. For, as there is but one Eternal, even God, so is there but one Eternal Life, which is the life of God and of His Christ. And the Spirit by which it is inspired into the hearts of men is the Spirit of God, who proceedeth alike from the Father and from the Son.

Have you not seen men and women in whom these words have been literally and palpably fulfilled? Have you not seen those who, though old in years, were so young in heart, that they seem to have drunk of the Fountain of perpetual Youth, -- in whom, though the outward body decayed, the soul was renewed day by day; who kept fresh and pure the noblest and holiest instincts of their childhood, and went on adding to them the experience, the calm, the charity of age? Persons whose eye was still so bright, whose smile was still so tender, that it seemed that they could never die? And when they died, or seemed to die, you felt that THEY were not dead, but only their husk and shell; that they themselves, the character which you had loved and reverenced, must endure on, beyond the grave, beyond the worlds, in a literally Everlasting Life, independent of nature, and of all the changes of the material universe.

Surely you have seen such. And surely what you loved in them was the Spirit of God Himself, -- that love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, which the natural savage man has not. Has not, I say, look at him where you will, from the tropics to the pole, because it is a gift above man; the gift of the Spirit of God; the Eternal Life of goodness, which natural birth cannot give to man, nor natural death take away.

You have surely seen such persons -- if you have not, I have, thank God, full many a time; -- but if you have seen them, did you not see this? -- That it was not riches which gave them this Life, if they were rich; or intellect, if they were clever; or science, if they were learned; or rank, if they were cultivated; or bodily organization, if they were beautiful and strong: that this noble and gentle life of theirs was independent of their body, of their mind, of their circumstances? Nay, have you not seen this, -- I have, thank God, full many a time, -- That not many rich, not many mighty, not many noble are called: but that God's strength is rather made perfect in man's weakness, -- that in foul garrets, in lonely sick-beds, in dark places of the earth, you find ignorant people, sickly people, ugly people, stupid people, in spite of, in defiance of, every opposing circumstance, leading heroic lives, -- a blessing, a comfort, an example, a very Fount of Life to all around them; and dying heroic deaths, because they know they have Eternal Life?

And what was that which had made them different from the mean, the savage, the drunken, the profligate beings around them? This at least. That they were of those of whom it is written, 'Let him that is athirst come.' They had been athirst for Life. They had had instincts and longings; very simple and humble, but very pure and noble. At times, it may be, they had been unfaithful to those instincts. At times, it may be, they had fallen. They had said 'Why should I not do like the rest, and be a savage? Let me eat and drink, for to-morrow I die;' and they had cast themselves down into sin, for very weariness and heaviness, and were for a while as the beasts which have no law.

But the thirst after The noble Life was too deep to be quenched in that foul puddle. It endured, and it conquered; and they became more and more true to it, till it was satisfied at last, though never quenched, that thirst of theirs, in Him who alone can satisfy it -- the God who gave it; for in them were fulfilled the Lord's own words: 'Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.'

There are those, I fear, in this church -- there are too many in all churches -- who have not felt, as yet, this divine thirst after a higher Life; who wish not for an Eternal, but for a merely endless life, and who would not care greatly what sort of life that endless life might be, if only it was not too unlike the life which they live now; who would be glad enough to continue as they are, in their selfish pleasure, selfish gain, selfish content, for ever; who look on death as an unpleasant necessity, the end of all which they really prize; and who have taken up religion chiefly as a means for escaping still more unpleasant necessities after death. To them, as to all, it is said, 'Come, and drink of the water of life freely.' But The Life of goodness which Christ offers, is not the life they want. Wherefore they will not come to Him, that they may have life. Meanwhile, they have no right to sneer at the Fountain of Youth, or the Cup of Immortality. Well were it for them if those dreams were true; in their heart of hearts they know it. Would they not go to the ends of the earth to bathe in the Fountain of Youth? Would they not give all their gold for a draught of the Cup of Immortality, and so save themselves, once and for all, the trouble of becoming good?

But there are those here, I doubt not, who have in them, by grace of God, that same divine thirst for the Higher Life; who are discontented with themselves, ashamed of themselves; who are tormented by longings which they cannot satisfy, instincts which they cannot analyse, powers which they cannot employ, duties which they cannot perform, doctrinal confusions which they cannot unravel; who would welcome any change, even the most tremendous, which would make them nobler, purer, juster, more loving, more useful, more clear- headed and sound-minded; and when they think of death say with the poet, -

''Tis life, not death for which I pant,
'Tis life, whereof my nerves are scant,
More life, and fuller, that I want.'

To them I say -- for God has said it long ago, -- Be of good cheer. The calling and gifts of God are without repentance. If you have the divine thirst, it will be surely satisfied. If you long to be better men and women, better men and women you will surely be. Only be true to those higher instincts; only do not learn to despise and quench that divine thirst; only struggle on, in spite of mistakes, of failures, even of sins -- for every one of which last your heavenly Father will chastise you, even while He forgives; in spite of all falls, struggle on. Blessed are you that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for you shall be filled. To you -- and not in vain -- 'The Spirit and the Bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him drink of the water of life freely.'

title page
Top of Page
Top of Page