Remember the song “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth”? When I was a kid, I thought that had to be the dumbest song ever! Seriously?! Who would ever ask for teeth for Christmas? Teeth will grow in on their own! And while you wait, can play with that sweet Barbie dream house or race track that you asked for from Santa!
Maybe you’ve seen the meme going around on Facebook recently: “Dear Santa, I’ve been good all year! Well, okay most of the time, once in a while. . . . Never mind, I’ll buy my own stuff.” Apparently, sometimes we think the only way we can get what we truly want is to go buy it ourselves.
But sometimes we don’t know what we really need—like the time when I was five years’ old, and Santa brought me a cowgirl outfit—complete with a sheriff’s badge and fringe. Who even knew they made such an awesome thing? It was perfect and I didn’t even know to ask for it! Or the year I received an engagement ring—a gift that I longed for but didn’t dare ask.
It makes me think of the white elephant game where everybody brings a gift, and since no one knows what it is or who brought it, you don’t know which one to pick. But what if you had insider trading information? What if you knew that someone had brought a gift that was perfect for you? If you what the gift was, and who was offering it, you’d immediately ask for it! You might keep that in mind as you read the following story adapted from John 4.
An Unlikely Christmas Story
Imagine a hot dusty town with the noon-day sun high in the sky. Jesus was sitting by a well in Samaria. Tired from walking for hours, he had sent his followers into town to buy food. No doubt he was thirsty, but he had no jar to lower into the water and the well was very deep—over 30 meters deep! He would just have to wait until someone came along who could help him.
Slowly, a Samaritan woman came trudging along the path to the well, an empty water jar balanced on her hip. Even from a distance she looked bowed and weather-beaten. She had a broken air about her; life had been hard. When she finally glanced up and saw a man sitting near the well, she stopped dead in her tracks. Who was he and what was he doing here?! She wasn’t expecting to encounter anyone and certainly not a man! Normally, no one came to draw water in the heat of the day. They’d all wait until early evening when the breeze would finally ease the sweltering heat. The women would gather and take turns—both at drawing water and at exchanging juicy tidbits of gossip. That was precisely why she avoided the crowd. She’d been the object of caustic gossip for far too many years. She’d overheard the ugly names they called her behind her back in not-so-subtle whispers. Although she tried to convince herself she didn’t care, it was easier to get her water in silence. She just wanted to be left alone.
Repositioning the jar on her hip, she started walking once more towards the well. Better to face him than the busybodies later on. There was no chance that this guy would start up a conversation. First he was a man, and second he was Jewish. She could tell by the knotted tassels hanging down from the four corners of his cloak—a custom that reminded Jews of God’s commands. Well, the Samaritans had the Scripture too, she thought to herself. At least the first 5 books anyway, even if they did ignore the other 34 that the Jews boasted in. Always on a religious high horse, those Jews! Hmmph. She spat on the ground. They thought they were so superior and called the Samaritans half-breeds. How could she help it that over 700 years earlier, the Assyrians had captured Samaria, sending much of its Jewish population off into exile and then forcibly re-settling other people groups in their land. It wasn’t her fault they’d intermarried over the years. It was hard enough to find a good man in the best of times!
As the woman drew near the well, she averted her eyes and walked past Jesus. Setting her jar on the side of the well, she tied the rope securely around the handle and slowly lowered it down the long shaft. Who was he, and what was he doing here, anyway? Most Jews wouldn’t even dare travel through Samaria on their way to Galilee from Jerusalem. Of course it was the shortest distance as the crow flies! But they’d rather head east all the way down the mountains, cross the Jordan River, travel north alongside the river, and then cross the river a second time. All that—just to avoid contact with the Samaritans. But this guy had come through her village on purpose. “Why?” she wondered. As she started pulling the full jar the long distance from the surface of the water, she gave him a sideways glance—only to find him smiling at her kindly. She quickly looked away and pulled harder until she finally hoisted the heavy jar over the side. The thought crossed her mind that no one had looked at her kindly for a very long time. She paused to catch her breath before slowly untying the thick rope.
A gentle voice shattered the silence: “Will you give me a drink?”
Startled, the woman wheeled around, leaving the jar perched on the well’s edge. “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?”
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.”
Living water?! The thought of a fresh stream bubbling up from a mountain spring and flowing freely giving life to everything it touched made her realize that she was parched. Unbidden, she licked her lips. “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?”
Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 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.”
Intrigued but confused, the woman said, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Then—out of the blue—Jesus instructed her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
The woman’s cheeks flushed red-hot, and she looked away. “I—I have no husband,” she stammered.
Jesus gently replied: “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
And just like that, with three sentences, Jesus stripped away the façade that she’d painstakingly constructed over the years, exposing the ragged scars that lay beneath. In just a few words, he’d uncovered a world of hurt and brokenness. Yet when Jesus revealed that he already knew absolutely everything about her, he didn’t seem to be scolding her; in fact, he seemed to commend her for admitting the partial truth—even though she hadn’t told the whole truth. He seemed to be inviting her to look back over her life and recognize that it was a spiritual desert. He was asking her to admit her brokenness and to confess her every sin. How could he have known?! Who was he, and what was he doing here? The woman reeled and looked for a way to maneuver out of the spotlight. She grasped at the topic of religion.
“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” There, that ought to ignite a debate as it always did. After all, the Jews had destroyed the Samarian temple some 150 years previous.
But Jesus didn’t fall for it. He got right back to the heart of the matter. It wasn’t about religion, but about relationship! “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. . . . A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
Confused, and perhaps wanting to put an end to the discussion, the woman said, “I know Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
Then Jesus revealed the unimaginable, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
Just then Jesus’ disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman, but none of them dared asked why. The woman, however, suddenly spun around and headed off briskly toward town, leaving her water jar at the well. When she realized who Jesus was, she immediately obeyed his previous instruction to go get her husband and come back. In fact, she went one step further: the woman who had studiously avoided the crowds now told them all, “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?!” And the whole town followed her back to the well.
Meanwhile Jesus’ disciples urged him to eat the food they had brought, but he refused saying he had food to eat that they knew nothing about. In answer to their puzzled looks, Jesus replied, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” Gesturing at the crowd now pouring out of the village headed in their direction, Jesus declared that the fields were ripe for harvesting. As the Samaritans gathered at his feet, Jesus began to teach them and stayed two more days at their request. The townspeople then declared to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”
And that’s how Christmas came to a village in Samaria! Did you hear what Jesus said to the woman? Basically, he said, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that is offering it to you, you would immediately ask for it!”
The Gift Tag
At this time of year, thinking about a Christmas package may help us to reflect on this gift that Jesus talked about. Like any package it has a gift tag.
From: God who is searching for worshipers Jesus calls it the gift of God, so it’s clearly from God. And what does this passage tell us about this God? He is Spirit, and he is searching for those who will worship in Spirit and in truth. Those who worship God would soon be able to worship in Spirit anywhere—not just at the temple in Jerusalem—but they must also worship him in truth. In other words, we can’t make up who God is just to suit ourselves. This God is searching for worshipers—just like the woman at the well. Does she strike you as an unlikely prospect? The townspeople probably thought so, and definitely the disciples did. But not Jesus. He was looking for unlikely people in unlikely places.
To: All who are thirsty The Samaritan woman was certainly thirsty. Somehow she knew intuitively that she was created for relationship. You see, in the beginning, God made humanity in his image so that we could know him and love him; so we could walk in relationship with him and worship him. But the Bible says that human beings tragically traded the truth of God for a lie; instead of worshiping the Creator, they began to worship the things he created. They wanted to be like God and decide for themselves what’s right and what’s wrong. So they turned their back on that relationship and walked away from God. As a result of their sin, brokenness entered the world, and that brokenness has affected every person in every generation since.
We all have a sense of longing, and we try to fill that thirst with everything imaginable. We make long wish lists and spend all our time and money trying to buy things or do things that will satisfy: finding the perfect job, the newest gadget, that dream house. But after a while, they turn out to be . . . just things! Sometimes we look to human relationships to quench that thirst: a new romance, a spouse, our children, or an ever-expanding list of Facebook friends. But the momentary satisfaction doesn’t last, and before long, we’re thirsty again—like the Samaritan woman. She had looked to relationships for satisfaction and had come up empty again and again and again.
Five husbands! Can you imagine five trips to the altar? The first was probably a Yes-to-the-dress, big fat Samaritan wedding; the second, perhaps a back yard celebration with family and friends; the third was a low-key event with one or two people who still cared; the fourth was likely a trip to Vegas; the fifth, a half-hearted trip to the local marriage commissioner; and the sixth? Well she just couldn’t even. Imagine the raw courage it took to keep trying, the determination to attempt once more to fill that aching void in her heart! Imagine the type of man she got by the end, the kind of woman she became. Maybe she was calloused or bitter; maybe just broken, shattered, certainly dysfunctional. Oh, she was thirsty all right. And she knew it. She was just the sort of worshiper God was looking for, so he sent Jesus on a rescue mission to find her and offer her the gift.
Jesus described the gift as a spring of water welling up to eternal life. What in the world does that mean? Hundreds of years before Jesus, an Old Testament prophet recorded that God himself is the source of living water. Speaking about his people through Jeremiah, God said, “These people have committed two evils. They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jer 2:13).
A few chapters after the story of the Samaritan woman, John recalls that Jesus uses this same metaphor in another context: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:37). John goes on to explain that this living water refers to the Holy Spirit whom Jesus would give to his followers after he had been resurrected. Jesus promised to make his home in the hearts of those who believe in him through his Spirit, giving them abundant, eternal life that would satisfy their thirsty souls. Because Jesus—like God—is the source of living water, Jesus is in fact the gift.
Jesus gave a clear answer to the woman’s internal questions: Who was he? And what was he doing there? He was the Messiah—the fulfillment of all the Old Testament promises that a deliverer would come to make all things right. According to John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus was the gift of God offered on that very first Christmas so long ago. Although he was equal with God, Jesus willingly humbled himself to be born as a helpless baby in order to reveal to us what God is like. As an adult, Jesus was fully God: for example, he knew the Samaritan woman’s life story. But he was also fully man: he became tired and thirsty. But Jesus didn’t become a human simply to show what God is like.
The Price Tag
Have you ever received a gift that still had the price tag on it? Isn’t it awkward?—especially if the giver paid an exorbitant price! When the woman at the well took Jesus up on his offer of living water, there is no way she could have possibly fathomed how much the gift would cost him. In order to make it possible for her to receive the life-giving Spirit, it would cost the very life of the Son of God.
Ironically, the only other time that the Bible records Jesus’ being thirsty is on the cross. Scourged and beaten so that his very life’s blood poured out of him, Jesus cried out just before he died, “I thirst.” He took on human flesh for that very purpose—so that he could be nailed to a cross. He took the Samaritan woman’s place—and ours as well. The Bible says, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross so that we might die to sin and live for righteousness” in order to bring us back into right relationship with God (1 Pet 2:24; 3:18). God then raised Jesus from the dead, demonstrating that not only had he defeated sin and death, but also that he had the power to give eternal life to believers as well. Now that is a great gift. But it gets even better!
The Gift That Keeps on Giving
In some sense, the gift of the Spirit is like that engagement ring I received on Christmas Day many years ago. The Bible explains that the Spirit is a pledge of an existing relationship that will deepen more fully in the future. In the chapter before this story, John the Baptist refers to Jesus as the Bridegroom. So who is the Bride? Well, the last book of the Bible pictures Jesus’ return to reign as King of a new creation where everything is put right. There it describes the Bride of Christ as the purified people of God throughout all the ages, clothed in bright clean linen, beautifully adorned for her husband. One day God will make his home in the midst of his people for all eternity, and sin and death and sorrow will be no more! Now that is good news for this woman who had spent her whole life desperately searching for a satisfying relationship. Even the best relationships on earth pale in comparison to our eternal union with Christ the King!
A Reciprocal Gift
What do you do when you unexpectedly receive an amazing gift from someone? Doesn’t it make you want to reciprocate? Run out and buy something of equal value?! But what can you give to someone who gave his life for you? What can you give to the God who has everything?! You can give him the one thing he doesn’t have—your heart. He wants us. Our lives.
As I was finishing writing this reflection, I received an email from a Christian company where I’d bought something online years ago. These usually show up in my junk folder, but this one came to my inbox. Normally, I would just hit delete, but the “super sale” in the subject line caught my eye, so I actually clicked on the download picture button. When the image appeared, I couldn’t believe it! There was a red, long-sleeved T-shirt with a cross that said: “All He wants for Christmas is you! Jesus has his arms open wide for you!”
All I Want for Christmas . . .
Even after hearing about this indescribable gift, you may be thinking something along the lines of the above Santa meme: “Umm. Never mind. I’ll buy my own stuff.” But who knows better than the God who made you what you really need? Why spend your money, your time, your very life on what does not ultimately satisfy? It’s like digging a hole in the ground and repeatedly filling it with stagnant water that will only leak out.
If we know the gift of God and who it is that is offering it, we’ll realize that really, all we want for Christmas is Jesus. The last page of the Bible closes with an invitation that ties all these themes together: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.”
How do you receive this free gift?
When someone offers you a gift, you have to receive it to actually make it yours. The same is true for receiving the gift of God.
- Admit your need to him: We are broken; we are sinners; we are thirsty.
- Turn away from your sin and turn toward God.
- Trust in Jesus, believing that he died on the cross to pay for your sin and rose from the dead.
- Receive his forgiveness and his life-giving Spirit.
- In exchange, place your life in his hands.
Perhaps you’ve already received God’s amazing gift sometime in the past, but sometimes we can begin to take it for granted. We start looking to the things of this world to satisfy the longing of our hearts that only Jesus can fill. This season is a perfect time to return and drink deeply from the well of living water. Truly, when we look down deep, he really is all we want for Christmas!