Preaching Living Water When Your Well Has Run Dry, Part 2

In my previous column in The Pastor's Workshop, I began with the question: How can you as a preacher offer living water even when your own well is bone dry? I talked about how common it is for preachers to get to the place where they are "sucking the muck from the bottom of the well." When we get to this familiar but uncomfortable place, perhaps it's time (or past time) for us to take a break from preaching to be refreshed.

But, often this is just not possible. If you're the primary preacher in a multi-staff church, you may be able to hand off the pulpit to an able substitute. But most preachers do not have this convenient option. Moreover, regular preaching is probably central to your job description. When I was pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I was blessed with a fine staff, but they already had more than enough on their plates. Besides, I was expected to preach most of the time when I was not on vacation or study leave. So I often found myself wanting to dispense living water when my inner water bottle was empty.

What should a preacher do in this all-too-common situation?

I believe that times of dryness remind us that we are not the source of living water for our preaching. We do not magically generate living water through our cleverness or articulateness or enthusiasm. Rather, living water comes from the Lord.

In John 4, Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman at a well. During a brief conversation between them, Jesus said that he is the source of "living water." When the woman was understandably confused, he explained that "those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life" (Jn. 4:14).

As preachers, we have a dual relationship to the living water of Jesus. On the one hand, we drink deeply from this water in order to refresh our own souls, so that the life of God will permeate our present existence. On the other hand, we become channels of this water to others. Living water comes only from Jesus. But we can help people to drink his water as it flows through us and as we point to Jesus, the only true spring of living water.

How do we do this? We might think, first, of our responsibility to preach God's truth rather than our own wisdom. In John 6, after many who had followed Jesus left him because they were offended by his teaching, he asked the twelve disciples: "Do you wish to go away?" Peter responded, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life" (Jn. 6:67-68). When we preach, we are passing on words of eternal life, including those spoken by the Word incarnate and those found in the Word inscribed. No matter how desiccated we might feel, if we faithfully convey God's truth as revealed in Scripture, we will be offering people new life.

But the analogy of living water in the Gospel of John is not used for the words of life delivered by Jesus. Rather, living water stands for the Holy Spirit (Jn. 7:37-39):

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing [in the temple], he cried out, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, 'Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.'" Now he said this about the Spirit . . .

The Spirit of God, often associated with wind or fire, is also like flowing water: fresh, refreshing, life-giving, effervescent. The Spirit gives us what we need as preachers, including gifts of prophecy, teaching, exhortation, and knowledge. Moreover, as we preach, this same Spirit works in the hearts of our listeners, fostering understanding and inciting conviction.

When our own souls are parched, we are more aware of how much we need the Spirit of God. In energetic times, we might actually assume that the effectiveness of our preaching has to do with our insights, our illustrations, and our intelligence. But when we are dry, when we feel weak, when it seems as if we have nothing to say, then we are better able to grasp the truth of our own inability and the Spirit's limitless ability. I wonder if this explains, in part, why God allows us to experience the dryness in the first place. Perhaps God is graciously saying to us, "It's not about you. It doesn't depend on you. You need me. I am here for you."

The more I recognize that the impact of my preaching comes from the Holy Spirit, the more I spend time in prayer in addition to study. The more I acknowledge my weakness, the more I am able to see God's strength at work in and through me. When I am dry, I know just how much I need the living water of God.

Thus, ironically, we may be more effective channels of living water when we are spiritually dry than when we are spiritually hydrated. Admitting our thirst, we are ready for God's refreshment. Confessing our neediness, we are open to God's help. When we're dry, our illustrations may not be as polished, our prose not as poetic. But in our dependence upon the living water of the Spirit, we may actually be better able to offer this water to those who are thirsty.