Visible Manifestations of the Invisible God
In the Old Testament we see several theophanies. A theophany is a visible manifestation of the invisible God when he visits his people. These theophanies are always mysterious, full of wonder and worship. The New Testament (the four gospels in particular) is one grand theophany as the incarnate Son of God is manifest to sinful man. However, due to our lack of familiarity with the Old Testament and our careless reading of the New Testament, we tend to miss the wonder and the worship.
One such divine encounter is found in John 4 with Jesus and the woman of Samaria. He came to a town “near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph,” (v. 5) and there was a well in this field known as, “Jacob’s well.” John tells us that, “Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well.” (v. 6) On the surface, this simply appears that the Savior is thirsty for some water, and then he will use the occasion to evangelize this woman from Samaria. However, something much more profound is happening here when we look beneath the surface.
Who is This?
This particular woman came to Jacob’s well at midday to draw some water. Jesus asks her for a drink. Immediately, this scenario should remind us of the theophany which Abraham experience in Genesis 18. There we read,
“And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day.” (v. 1)
In a familiar fashion, the Savior appears to this woman “in the heat of the day.” There in Genesis 18, we also see a certain earthliness about the theophany as bread and water is presented to the LORD. In verses 3-5 we read,
“O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.”
So here is Jesus, thirsty, in the heat of the day, at Jacob’s well. Only this woman is totally blind to the glory of God that is right before her face. She is puzzled that a Jew would ask her, a woman of Samaria, for a drink of water. Far too often, we too are like this woman, completely failing to see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ as it is clearly revealed to us in Scripture.
When Jesus gently rebukes her and replies to her inquiry about him asking her for water, we catch a glimpse of transcendent glory—that is, if we have eyes to see. Jesus says to her,
“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” (v.10)
Our Savior is never careless in his words. Every word spoken is full of meaning and profound truth. In this particular text, the profound truth is revealed in the connection between the question of “who it is that is [speaking] to you,” and the concept of “living water.”
The Fountain in the Old Testament
We must understand the Old Testament foundation to this living water, and as we do so, we will see who it is that has appeared in the heat of the day to this woman. There are two texts in Jeremiah which speak of this living water. In Jeremiah 2:12-13 we read,
“Be appalled, O heavens, at this;
be shocked, be utterly desolate,
declares the LORD,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
broken cisterns that can hold no water.”
Then, in Jeremiah 17:13 we read,
“O LORD, the hope of Israel,
all who forsake you shall be put to shame;
those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth,
for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water.”
There is both condemnation and salvation in these verses. The root problem of all of humanity is that we turn away from God himself as our satisfaction, our joy, and our delight. We have all forsaken the fountain of living waters, and we foolishly choose for ourselves broken cisterns which cannot hold water. We prefer “the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25) over the pure and everlasting pleasure of worshiping God. We have “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” (Romans 1:25)
God is all-sufficient and all-glorious. Sin is forsaking that infinite glory and goodness which is God himself, and choosing to find happiness in created things which were never sufficient to satisfy our souls. In so doing, we blaspheme the glory of God, making him look less desirable than money, sex, pornography, family, food, shelter, sports, and leisure. That is what makes sin utterly sinful beyond measure. Every inclination of the heart that finds it’s deepest satisfaction in any created thing is a blasphemous desire against the bountiful, ever-flowing, infinitely-enjoyable, nourishing, refreshing, pure fountain of living water—which is God himself.
The Fountain in the New Testament
In the Old Testament, we primarily see condemnation on this account because we have all forsaken the fountain of living waters. However, these verses point us toward a reality which is fulfilled in the New Testament, and in that great reality we see our salvation. This is what we see here with the woman at the well.
Jesus said to the woman, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” (v.10) Who is the fountain of living water in those Old Testament texts in Jeremiah? It was clearly and unmistakably “the LORD.” The LORD (all capitals) is known as the tetragrammaton, which is the proper name for the only true God. Transliterated from Hebrew, it consists of the four letters “YHWH” and is normally pronounced, “Yahweh.” They had “forsaken Yahweh, the fountain of living water.” (Jeremiah 17:13) The living water is Yahweh himself.
Now, “who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink’?” Who is it that might supply both us and this woman of Samaria with living water? Yahweh, that is who. This woman is having a theophany. Jesus is here revealed as none other than Yahweh himself. She is seeing a visible manifestation of the invisible God through the incarnate Son of God.
The Athanasian Creed says, “We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.” The Bible begins with the truth that there is only one true God. Deuteronomy 6:4 says, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” When the triune nature of God is revealed (primarily in the New Testament, but also throughout the Old Testament) it changes absolutely nothing about the immutable nature and character of God. There is one indivisible substance of the Divine nature.
Jesus is not a “lesser God” or dim reflection of the true God. Jesus is the whole fullness of deity dwelling in bodily form. (Colossians 2:9) “He is the image of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1:15) “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” (Hebrews 1:3) Though he is clothed in true humanity, this woman is beholding the face of Yahweh himself. She has seen the face of God and lived.
A Gracious Savior
The great tragedy is, while standing face to face with God, she still cannot see his glory. She knows nothing of this living water. She does not know “who it is” that is standing before her. She sees him only as a man, and all she can think is that he doesn’t have a bucket, so how could he possibly supply her with living water?
We are dull and stupid creatures by nature. Even as those who have been born again,
“How little a portion is it of him that we can understand! His glory is incomprehensible, and his praises are unutterable. Some things an illuminated mind may conceive of it; but what we can express in comparison of what it is in itself, is even less than nothing.” (John Owen)
Yet, despite our dullness and our tendency to sin, here we catch a glimpse of eternal glory in the face of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the glory of God revealed, and here his glory is seen in his life-giving all-sufficiency. In verses 16-18 Jesus reveals that he already knows this woman has had five failed marriages, and that she is currently living in sin with her boyfriend. This is an unclean woman from Samaria, one who’s life is marked by a sexually immoral, lying, and a false hypocritical religion. Rather than rejecting her and casting her off, it is to such a sinful one as this that Jesus freely offers himself as living water.
Even though she is still not seeing due to her own hardened heart of unbelief, Jesus makes the matter of who he is even more plain to her. She says, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” (v. 25) Then Jesus replies, “I who speak to you am he.” In the original Greek it is, “Ἐγώ εἰμι, ὁ λαλῶν σοι.” That may be translated, “I AM, the one speaking to you.” The Greek “Ego eimi” is the same as the LXX Greek translation of Exodus 3:14, where God reveals himself in a theophany to Moses as, “I AM.” Jesus plainly reveals himself here as the I AM of the Old Testament. Jesus is the uncreated, eternal, self-existing, self-sufficient, immutable, Creator and Sustainer of all things—and he has come to give us life.
Jesus could have scolded her harshly and reprimanded her for her life of sin, but instead, he approaches her gently and graciously, freely offering her living water. We have all forsaken the fountain of living waters and hewn out broken cisterns for ourselves. We are not only guilty of this before coming to faith in Christ, but even as Christians, every time we sin we are drinking from a broken cistern. Jesus knows every last one of our sins, and he knows them in even greater detail then we do, and yet he freely holds himself out to us as living water. Is not the gentleness of Christ and his abounding grace reason to return to him again today? Does this not compel us to turn once again to Jesus as the only joy and satisfaction of our souls? If he would speak so tenderly to this woman of Samaria, would he speak harshly to you if you desire to come to him?
Jesus gives us an open invitation to come to him. In John 7:37-38 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.’”
This is offered freely: “If anyone thirsts…” It doesn’t matter if you are the most hardened, unregenerate, God-hating sinner—if you thirst, you may come. It doesn’t matter if you are a Christian who is severely backslidden in grotesque sin—if you thirst, you may come. It doesn’t matter if you have been as faithful a Christian as the apostle Paul—if you thirst, you may come. The only requirement is thirst.
We all thirst. Even the best of saints grow thirsty and in need of refreshment. You may feel unworthy of refreshment, but you may still come and drink and be satisfied. The offer to return to the Savior is always good. He says in Jeremiah 3:12-13,
“Return, faithless Israel,
declares the LORD.
I will not look on you in anger,
for I am merciful,
declares the LORD;
I will not be angry forever.
Only acknowledge your guilt,
that you rebelled against the LORD your God
and scattered your favors among foreigners under every green tree,
and that you have not obeyed my voice,
declares the LORD.”
God promises that we will see his smiling face when we return to him in faith, confessing our sins to him. It is not in his nature. He is merciful, and therefore he will not look scornfully at his people with an angry scowl across his face. All of his anger and his wrath was satisfied on the cross. Believers in Christ only receive mercy when they return to him.
Likewise, the Lord says to Hosea,
“Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the LORD loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins.” (Hosea 3:1)
Yes, even God’s own people have turned to other gods and loved unclean things. Yet, the Lord loves us even as a faithful husband loves his adulteress wife. This is the same Lord who now cries out to us, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.” We have full assurance according to his word, that if we come, he will receive us. Not only that, but he says, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”
Though we sin, though we deserve nothing from God, though our hearts are still prone to wander from the God we love—even so, we have not been left to fend for ourselves. “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” Let us daily return to the Lord, the fountain of living water, and we will daily find rivers of living water flowing out of our hearts through the Holy Spirit. If we forsake him daily and drink from broken cisterns, we should not expect any refreshment for our souls. However, if you are thirsty, the offer to come is always good. So come to Jesus and drink!