Living water will refresh even the most parched and desolate of our hearts—
if we believe in the One from whom these streams flow.
Desert places. At the bedside of my estranged father in the intensive care unit where he lay dying of cancer, his face turned away from me, neither of us saying anything.
Desert places. The street corner in a wealthy community where a one-armed man washes automobile windows for change across the street from a gleaming church.
Desert places. A ditch full of burned human corpses next to a road on which children walk home from school in a war-torn developing nation.
Desert places. The hospital emergency room where a computer printout summarized an "Abortion Spontaneous," a medical term for the miscarriage that took away the baby for whom my wife and I had waited so long.
Desert places. Bleak, lonely landscapes that strangle growth and joy. Empty, hard wastes swept by hot, pitiless dry winds that bury hope and deny life itself.
A perfect prophetic symbol
I live in a city in a desert. If I drive a short distance north or east, I arrive in a blistered region where summer temperatures soar over 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Here, hardscrabble shrubs plunge roots deep through sandy soil in search of any moisture. Ancient lakebeds, now long dry, mutely testify about emptiness and loss. Forbidding mountain ranges allow only rare rainshowers to give short-lived relief to a harsh ecosystem.
Could there be a more appropriate metaphor than the physical desert for the desert places of the human heart? God inspired the prophet Isaiah to foretell the destruction of sinful Israel. Yet Isaiah simultaneously foresaw the eventual refreshment— the regeneration—the rebirth—of his nation. And he poetically used desert imagery to describe it:
"The desert and the parched land will be glad: the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy’’ (Isaiah 35:1-2).
The desert bursting into bloom? But how? Because God himself would come to save his people! The prophet continued to encourage:
"Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, "Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you’" (verses 3-4).
Reeling from military conquest and the deportation of many of its citizens, broken Israel must have found Isaiah’s prophecy incredible. He proclaimed that water would gush forth from the desert! He wrote:
"Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow" (verses 5-7).
According to Isaiah a new, holy path would replace the old, hard, sin-ridden barren landscape:
"And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it: it will be for those who walk in that Way; wicked fools will not go about on it" (verse 8).
The Savior to come
Isaiah’s scroll went on to quote, in advance, a miracle-working figure through whom rebuilding, replanting and refreshing would begin. Again, Isaiah poetically set the anticipated renewal against images of ruin and waste:
"The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God" (Isaiah 61:1-2).
This remarkable person would come to
"comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor. They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations" (verses 2-4).
The prophecies fulfilled
Centuries later, in the synagogue at Nazareth, a man stood up and read, from a scroll, the first two verses of the astounding prophecy in Isaiah 61. After that, Luke says,
"He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’" (Luke 4:16-21).
The speaker was Jesus. His listeners found the prophecy, which he claimed to be personally fulfilling, even less credible than their ancestors had hundreds of years earlier. They ran Jesus out of town! Yet it was through Jesus Christ— God in the flesh—that those long-cherished promises of restoration and renewal—of refreshing—were fulfilled. The fulfillment, however, was less than anyone had expected. It was also far, far more than they expected.
Physical images, spiritual intents
The Israelites of Jesus’ day dearly awaited the restoration of their nation, based on the prophecies of Isaiah and other ancient seers. They expected physical renewal, national ascendance, the bursting forth of material abundance. The Jewish Feast of Tabernacles celebrated their fall agricultural harvest, a time of physical abundance and thanksgiving. It was at this Feast that Jesus proclaimed the spiritualintent of the refreshment he had come to offer:
"On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’ By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified" (John 7:37-39).
What Jesus proclaimed, foremost, was a spiritual renewal of human hearts. His work as Messiah allowed humans to receive new life— the indwelling of God’s Spirit. He conquered the empty wastes where we find ourselves, separated from God by sin.
Of course! The hearts of Jesus’ listeners had been barren and bleak spiritually for so long that they overlooked the crying need for those desert places to be refreshed. Yet this was exactly the refreshment Jesus ultimately offered. Jesus came to save those who would turn to him in repentance and faith. He replaced the old, barren, sin-filled landscape with a new, holy path—the Way of Holiness. He defeated death itself, the ultimate enemy of all people. Jesus was talking about refreshing the desert places of the human heart!
Those who believe in Jesus Christ look forward to the renewal of the world that will occur when Jesus returns. But the apostles’ preaching and bringing of the repentant to conversion primarily focused on the far more profound spiritual renewal of human hearts that comes through repentance and belief in Jesus Christ.
After healing the crippled beggar it the temple, the apostle Peter urged the crowd to embrace the refreshing freedom from sin made possible by Christ:
"Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets" (Acts 3:19-21).
Yes! The lame leaped like a deer. And in the wilderness that was a heart separated from God, refreshing water gushed forth—streams of living water!
Streams of living water. Through Jesus Christ, Christians enjoy oneness with the One "who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows" (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).
Streams of living water. We can let go of anxieties and worldly worries and know true peace. In prayer, we can share our every concern with our Lord and Savior, who gives us peace that transcends human understanding, and we can know that our heavenly Father cares and will make everything right (Philippians 4:6-7).
Streams of living water. Faith sees us through times of grief and physical uncertainty. We revel in the new birth we have been given, thanks to Jesus Christ’s own resurrection from the dead. We know with certainty that our spiritual inheritance can never spoil or fade, and we look forward in hope to enjoying the fullness of God’s salvation at the return of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:3-5).
Streams of living water. Our faith in Jesus Christ, our Savior, fills us with what the apostle Peter calls "inexpressible and glorious joy" (verse 8) for the salvation he provides for us.
Streams of living water. Spiritual refreshment. A new life in Christ—and joyous hope for the future. The gift of God’s salvation!
The water of life
Do you feel a need to be refreshed? Does your parched heart long for the delightful waters of forgiveness, faith, peace, joy? Would you gladly depart whatever lonely, dry landscape you find yourself in for oneness with your Creator God? The times of refreshing have come. "Whoever believes in me," Jesus said, "...streams of living water will flow from within him" (John 7:38).
The story of the Bible begins with God and humanity in perfect harmony in a beautiful garden. Sin corrupted that joyous picture, but God in the flesh washed sin away with his own blood. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ reconciled humanity with God. With the desert wastes restored and refreshed, the Bible ends with God and humanity again in perfect harmony in a beautiful Eden-like garden.
Here’s the vision God gave his friend John: "Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb.... On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations" (Revelation 22:1-2).
The desert places of your heart can be refreshed by streams of living water, through repentance and belief in Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world.
Norman L. Shoaf