The Greater Gift
Chapters 2 to 4 (roughly) in John's Gospel repeatedly depict the contrast between things spiritual and things earthly. Moreover, Jesus announces by his words and actions that the "spiritual" is now on offer. In a sense it replaces the earthly (as Jesus replaced water with wine at the wedding-feast). He tells the Samaritan woman at Sychar, "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." (4:10) The woman is at first only interested in earthly water, but Jesus promises another kind. You can see the woman's mindset, after a few moments of confusion and mental stumbling, begin at last to shift.
The offer of this spiritual water propels the Samaritan woman toward a momentous recognition. A choice is at hand. She can dismiss this ragged fellow as a wandering crank, or she can receive the gift on offer. The gift of God, Jesus called it. I read in the IVP Commentary on John that this phrase was "a comprehensive term for everything that God bestows on man for his salvation."
So there is a gift on offer, a gift of God. Well, as I mentioned a couple of days ago, much depends on our "sense of the giver." That is, who offers this marvelous gift? Is it truly a "gift of God," or is that just the sales pitch of some wandering desert mystic, angling for food and a bed for the night?
At this point Jesus begins to reveal who he is to the woman. He tells her things about her life that he simply shouldn't know. A light seems to go on inside her. She begins at last to understand. The earthly has been pierced by the spiritual, the light of eternity has entered a woman's darkness, and where the light is, the darkness must flee.
Three things: this water that Jesus offers is a gift of God, it is spiritual as opposed to earthly, and it encompasses everything necessary to salvation ("it wells up to eternal life"). Let's look more closely at that last piece of information. This water "wells up." It is not a stagnant pond, or a deep well into which one has to drop one's bucket. It's a spring. It wells up, and it wells up "unto enternal life." It is the provision of God for life everlasting.
The woman, though, is still thinking in earthly terms. "Living water" literally means "running water." That, we might say, is its earthly meaning. The Samaritan woman is still not comprehending. Does this mean I won't have to come for water every day? As the IVP commentary puts it, "Jesus is offering her eternal life, but she thinks he is talking about indoor plumbing."
Earthly thirst might be temporarily slaked by earthly water, but here is a provision for spiritual thirst that will not run out, and that one does not labor for, and that sustains not merely the physical, the earthly, life of the man, but the spiritual man, even unto eternity. (v.14)
The IVP commentary again: "Jacob gave a well that provides water, but Jesus is the giver of a greater gift, living water. ... Jesus not only brings revelation of God but gives the Spirit by which this revelation is internalized in believers, giving birth to spirit (3:6)."
It is only by the Spirit that we can ever understand spiritual things. Only by means of the gift itself, in other words, that we can even begin to comprehend either the gift or the Giver. Our place is only to receive.
Now, we are only scratching the surface of this passage, of course, but I just wanted to use it to show the great value of the gift that God offers through Christ. It is the transfer of citizenship from an earthly kingdom, destined to fall, to a heavenly and eternal kingdom. It is everything that pertains to life, real life, godliness, spiritual maturity, and heavenly treasures. And when we receive it, our whole point of view shifts from the earthly to the spiritual.
And why does God offer such a gift? Because He, the Giver, loves us, his wayward children, with a love that chases us down, a love that rescues, a love that saves. The gift of God in Christ is all this and more, and it is to the baby in the manger as the oak is to the acorn. What we celebrate, when we celebrate the birth of that baby, is God's costly provision of salvation for those who, like the Samaritan woman, were stumbling in the dark.
Let's be bold about declaring the real meaning of Christmas. Christmas is not fundamentally about receiving earthly gifts, but about receiving the gift of God, which is to say, eternal life through Christ Jesus.