25th May 2004
Just then [as Jesus was talking to a Samaritan woman] his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, ``What do you want?'' or ``Why are you talking with her?''
Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, ``Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?'' They came out of the town and made their way toward him.
Meanwhile his disciples urged him, ``Rabbi, eat something.''
But he said to them, ``I have food to eat that you know nothing about.''
Then his disciples said to each other, ``Could someone have brought him food?''
``My food'', said Jesus, ``is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.''— John 4:27-34
When the disciples return from their trip to buy food, their concern is a practical one: food. I don't want to criticise them for that. Food is important. But it's interesting how completely they miss the point. When Jesus answers, ``I have food to eat that you know nothing about'', it doesn't seem to occur to them their master, who spends half of his time talking in parables, might not be speaking literally.
It's funny to see exactly the same thing happening in Matthew's gospel:
When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. ``Be careful,'' Jesus said to them. ``Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.''
They discussed this among themselves and said, ``It is because we didn't bring any bread.''
Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, ``You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? [...] How is it you don't understand that I was not talking to you about bread?'' [...] Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.— Matthew 16:5-12
Here, as in the John 4 passage, the disciples need to have the point spelled out to them. They're not on the same wavelength as Jesus, and I think that is because they are not experiencing the same kind of spiritual life as he is.
If we are Christians, then we live a Christian life; but there are several different bad approaches that can be fooled into taking:
In contrast to all these ways of thinking, Jesus sees his life in God as an end in itself - not something to be borne stoically, not something that he needs to bring strength and energy to, but the source of his strength, energy and joy.
His disciples really ought to have understood this: in John 10:10, he says ``I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.'' he said this in the context of a culture where there was no strong belief in life after death (the concept is surprisingly absent from the Old Testament), so the abundant life that Jesus was offering would have been understood to mean this life.
So Jesus' disciples would have known that Jesus was offering them a life in God that was a wonderful and joyful thing.
There are several reason why we don't feel the same way about our life in God as Jesus did, why we don't see it as ``food'' for us.
(Every generation thinks its culture is ungodly; Ours really is!)
If I seem to be blaming 21st Century London life for our problems, that's because it really is a difficult time and place for a Christian to live. It is well documented that persecuted Christians in China feel sorry for us in the West, and can't understand our sympathy towards them. The thing is, our response to the difficulty of when and where we live can't be to cut ourselves some slack, make allowances and lower our expectations. Instead we must resolve to fight all the harder. If life for all Christians is like being soldiers on a march, then being a Christian in 21st Century London is like marching through a desert. But if soldiers in that situation take it easy or go more slowly, they will eventually die of thirst. There is no option but to push on through.
For Jesus, the presence of God was a sustaining thing. We need that to be true for us, rather than living a life where our time with God is a drain on us. We need to get more from our relationship with God than we put into it.
The key to this is earlier in John 4, when Jesus is talking to the Samaritan woman at the well:
``Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.''— John 4:14
(Yes, Jesus mixes his metaphors between food in verse 34 and drink here. So it goes.)
What Jesus is talking about here is a relationship with God that is self-perpetuating. His own relationship with God is such that it nourishes him more than it drains him. The effort he puts into praying is less than the sustenance he gets from praying, because the stream is flowing.
This is a very, very simple insight, but a very important one. It's worth taking a moment to make sure we understand it.
``My other piece of advice, Copperfield'', said Mr Micawber, ``you know. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen, nineteen and six: result, happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds, ought and six: result, misery.''— Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
In our life with God, there is a very simple equation. We put a certain amount of energy into the relationship, and get a certain amount of energy out of it. If the expenditure exceeds income, then the ``stream of living water'' is flowing backwards and our relationship with God is unhealthy. If income exceeds expenditure, then the stream is flowing and we're in a position to be a blessing to others.
In other words we need to be takers from God more than we're givers. If you think that sounds selfish, you've not been paying attention when Jesus invites us to drink the living water (John 4:14) and to come to him when we are weary and burdened (Matthew 11:28), and when Peter tells us to cast all our cares on him (1 Peter 5:7). If we think we can give God anything he doesn't already have, we are deluding ourselves anyway. Even ``our righteous acts are like filthy rags'' (Isaiah 64:6).
A healthy human relationship is essentially symmetrical: two friends lean on each other, learn from each other, help each other, carry each other's burdens. The New Testament has a lot to say about ``each other'', and it all serves to emphasise that our relationships with each other should be this way. In our relationships with each other, it's ultimately unhealthy if one person is always helping or looking after or teaching another. That way, dependency lies. It's not true friendship.
But in our relationship with God, dependency is absolutely right and proper! We are dependent on him, and there is no point in our trying to make our relationship symmetrical as it is with our friends. Our relationship with him is of a completely different kind, more like that of children to a parent than of friends together.
We need to be unashamed to take from God. That is part of what Jesus meant when he said that ``unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven'' (Matthew 18:3).
If we take more from God that we put into our relationship from him, if the stream of living water flows out from us, then we are in a position to give to others. If we're not able to feed on doing the will of God, though, we will inevitably end up feeding on others instead. We will become a drain on the church instead of building it up. We want to find our help first of all from God.
That doesn't mean we never go to other Christians for help. But it does mean that we start with God himself, and that whatever help we look for from others helps us towards God rather than creating or feeding a dependency.
If you're reading a paper copy of this document, the soft-copy can be found at www.miketaylor.org.uk/xian/john-4.html