Artist-musician Madonna made a career out of pushing the limits of morality. Every few years she seemed to come out with something more outrageous. Tim Keller references a statement she made in an interview with Vogue magazine where she explained why:

My drive in life comes from a fear of being mediocre. That is always pushing me. I push past one spell of it and discover myself as a special human being but then I feel I am still mediocre and uninteresting unless I do something else. Because even though I have become somebody, I still have to prove that I am somebody. My struggle has never ended and I guess it never will.

In other words, she recognized that her abnormal behavior came from a place of emptiness. Even after all her success, she still felt naked. She continued to search for something that would make her feel special and significant.

The prophet Jeremiah diagnosed her craving nearly three thousand years ago, when he described the twofold dimension of soul-emptiness: “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” (Jer 2:13). We rejected God, who was to us like a fresh, ever-flowing fountain of joy, and in his absence we turned to “broken cisterns,” which couldn’t hold the “living water” we needed. Cisterns, in those days, were small pits lined with rock, designed to collect rainwater. But they usually leaked, so any water you collected eventually seeped out. Jesus picked up on Jeremiah’s analogy and illustrated it in the life of a broken woman he met in a very unlikely place.


Jesus sat down one afternoon at a well in a Samarian city and asked a woman, who was the only other person there at the time, if she would get him something to drink. Jews normally didn’t mingle with Samaritans, and she demurred because the two ethnicities had a long-standing hatred of each other. Jesus ignored her rebuff and responded, “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” (John 4:10 ESV).

The Greek phrase for “living water” literally means “flowing water,” the kind of water that runs in deep, pure, underground rivers. It’s cold and clear—unlike the tepid, stagnant water she was pulling out of the city well. She didn’t yet realize he was being spiritual. She was legitimately curious. What well is he talking about?

Sensing her confusion, Jesus said, I’m talking about a different kind of water: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again” (4:13–14 ESV).

If she was in a mist before, now she’s in a fog. Drink one time from a well and never be thirsty again? She probably assumed he was mocking her, and she responded scornfully: “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water” (4:15).

She’s attempting to call his bluff.

Oddly, however, Jesus responds by telling her to go get her husband.

She stutters, “But . . . I don’t have a husband.” And even if she did, what would he have to do with anything?

Jesus responds, “That’s right. You have no husband now. But you’ve had five husbands, and the guy you are sleeping with now is not your husband.”

If you were writing the musical score for this scene, this is where you’d cue the dramatic “gotcha” music.

She’s been exposed. What was more was that adultery in those days was a capital offense. What Jesus knew about her could get her killed.

Yet Jesus was not trying to startle, embarrass, or threaten her. He was trying to show her what he meant by living water. This woman had been doing the same thing with her lovers that she was doing with the city well. No matter how much she drank each day, she always woke up the next day thirsty.

Blessings like marriage, family, sex, money, and popularity are wonderful, but if you try to put them in the place of God, they will leave you thirsty. Attempting to replace God in your heart is what the Bible calls “idolatry.” It’s when you take a good thing—like marriage or money—and turn it into a “god” thing. Then it inevitably becomes a disappointing thing.

That’s precisely what the woman had been doing at the well of romance. When she met that first man who would become her husband, she probably thought, “This is it! This is what I’ve always dreamed of—to be special to someone.” And maybe she was happy for a while. But then something went wrong—maybe it was his fault, or maybe hers. Either way, she ended up alone.

Along came man number two. This time she thought, “Well, I’m wiser now. I won’t make the mistakes I made last time.” Marriage number two began. It fell apart too.

Rinse and repeat the process with husbands three, four, and five. By the time Jesus met her, she’d apparently given up on the idea of marriage altogether. She assumed that “free love” was the path to a happy life. But there she stood, still thirsty. And ashamed. And asking the same question millions of us ask ourselves every day: What’s missing?

Had she just not met the right man?

No. She was drinking from the wrong well.

People approach romance like a drowning man approaches a life preserver. He’s drowning in a sea of loneliness and despair when along floats a five-foot-two blonde life preserver, so he lunges for it.

The life raft of romance, however, was not designed to bear the weight of our souls, and by clutching it so tightly we threaten to drown both our lover and ourselves. Lonely, insecure single people become lonely, insecure married people. If anything, they become worse. That’s because problems like loneliness and insecurity cannot be cured by the love of another human being.

Ernest Becker, an agnostic anthropologist and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, observed,

Modern society, after having ceased to believe in God . . . turned to the romantic partner as a replacement. The self-glorification that we need in our innermost being, we now look for in the love partner. The love partner becomes the divine ideal within which to fulfill one’s life.4

Becker then noted that we can hear this illustrated in today’s popular love songs. Most love songs sound quasi religious, as if romance is a spiritual pursuit. Jordin Sparks sings, “Losing you is like living in a world with no air.” Bruno Mars laments that losing his latest girlfriend felt like losing “the sun” from his life. Hozier tells his girlfriend that she is heaven’s “true mouthpiece” and that being with her is like “going to church.”

Romantic love, when it becomes our most important thing, disappoints. Hip-hop star Drake admitted,

There was a point where I felt like I needed to keep the company of a different woman every night. I was trying to fill a void. But in those moments after sex, I’d know it wasn’t working. Those quiet moments are the realest moments a man will ever have in his life. . . . The next day I’d convince myself to do it again. But during that time, I knew it wasn’t working.

I often tell couples in premarital counseling that if they would let me, before their ceremony, I would write with a permanent marker on each of their foreheads, “Warning: Cannot support the weight of your soul,” like one of those signs in front of an old mountain bridge warning that it cannot support gigantic loads. Your romantic partner is just not designed to sustain the weight of your soul. Only the love of God can.

King Solomon observed that God had created us with eternity in our hearts (Eccl 3:11). Your soul has an eternal thirst. Only an eternal God can fill it. Other gods will not work; they are not God enough.

Maybe romance is not your well of choice, but every person chooses a well from which to seek soul satisfaction. It’s the essence of what it means to be a sinner (Rom 1:23).

What is it for you? When you imagine your future, what absolutely needs to be there for you to feel happy? What are those things that, if you lost them, would make life not worth living?

Those things are your “well.”

Maybe your well is career success. Maybe it is a stable, happy family. Or financial security. Maybe it’s being known as the best at what you do—having your jersey suspended from the rafters, so to speak.

Like the well of romance, these things provide thrilling satisfaction—for a while. But then we wake up thirsty.

Greear, J. D., and David Jeremiah. 2018. Not God Enough: Why Your Small God Leads to Big Problems. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

We have just released a new Bible Study based on J.D. Greear’s newest book, Not God Enough. These lessons are available on Amazon, as well as a part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription Service. Like Netflix for Bible Lessons, one low subscription gives you access to all our lessons–thousands of them. For a medium-sized church, lessons are as little as $10 per teacher per year.