By Joel Jackson
When I’m honest I know exactly how it happened. Of course, I never intended to have five husbands. I wanted happiness. I told myself that if I just tried harder, put in more time, it could work. My whole life revolved around searching. And I did enjoy the chase. But my thirst kept returning; none of my relationships fully satisfied me. I feared that I would never be truly happy. So I moved on, and on, and on.
John 4 describes a lonely Samaritan woman drawing water at noon. A scandalous woman, a man-eater. Five ex-husbands, and now a live-in boyfriend. You likely know the type. She drifts along, making decision after terrible decision. What is her problem? Why does she do this to herself?
I’ve only recently come to realize that her problem is my problem. We don’t realize that our search for happiness is a trap. My name is Joel Jackson, and I am the woman at the well.
What If There’s Nothing Left for Me?
I don’t know about the woman’s childhood, but I know about mine. It was pretty good. I had a stable home. I have two parents who love God, love me, and love each other. I accepted Jesus’ death for my sins. But looking at my entire life, I can now see that I didn’t trust Jesus’ love for me, nor his example of service and self-sacrifice. Instead I gave my heart to anything that I thought could give me happiness.
People talk about the goodness of God and how he satisfies. But I wasn’t feeling it. Again and again I poured myself, my time, my energy, and my money into whatever I thought would make me happy. I found a little happiness reading fiction that let me pretend to be a hero. I found a little happiness playing video games that distracted from the disappointment of being me. I even found a little happiness in camping and hiking, because they let me prove that I was capable. It wasn’t perfect, but it got me through another week. Like the woman, I thought that I was choosing how I wanted to live my life.
For years I had no idea that I was actually a slave to my pursuit of happiness. I would contemplate washing dishes or picking up some groceries or helping my wife prepare a meal. Basically anything other than quenching my thirst. But I would get a frantic feeling, this sick fear that I was wasting today’s chance at happiness. I assumed my fear was normal. Sometimes I would push through and do the work anyway, but I was always resentful. I justified doing as little as possible before escaping back to my pursuit of happiness. Fear silently ruled my entire life.
I was afraid that if I loved God with my whole being, I would have nothing left for myself. If I loved my neighbor as myself, I couldn’t possibly be happy. My fear assured me that imitating Jesus would only leave me empty; if I pursued my own self-interests I could eventually be satisfied. After five husbands, the woman recognized that her go-to answer wasn’t actually solving her thirst. After a decade of playing around at life, I wasn’t satisfied either. And that was the moment Jesus stepped in to offer what we both needed.
“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” (John 4:13, 14). My moments of happiness didn’t last. I kept going back to whatever seemed to work, only to get another scant cupful of comfort. But I’ve been a Christian for years. Why wasn’t I experiencing this spring of water welling up to eternal life?
I thought that what Jesus meant by “spring of water” was automatic happiness. I thought my fear would simply go away. I hoped for bliss. But Jesus didn’t die to make me happy; Jesus rose again to give me freedom. Instead of worshipping God in spirit and in truth (John 4:23, 24), I was worshipping happiness. I was choosing to remain a slave to fear. I couldn’t be filled by this spring of eternal water because I didn’t understand that I had to choose freedom.
Loving Others at My Own Expense
So I am making a hard choice. I am choosing to trust Jesus’ example instead of my fear. I still catch myself seeking happiness. But I’m learning to stop and ask Jesus for the strength to firmly tell my fear no. I immediately look for a way to serve the people around me through love. Fear tells me to take care of myself at the expense of others. Jesus showed me how to love others, even at my own expense.
It’s not easy. As I scrubbed the dishes today, my old habits were internally screaming, “You don’t want to be doing this! This isn’t making you happy!” And yet I’m discovering something impossible. By saying no to pleasing myself, I’m experiencing the quenched thirst I’ve been looking for my entire life. I spent years searching for ways to make myself happy. I’m actually finding peace as I imitate the love and service of Jesus. It makes no sense, but it’s true. I am being filled with eternal water as I actively imitate Jesus’ love and self-sacrifice.
Marriage is a gift from God. Reading, playing games, and camping are healthy ways to enjoy creation. But nothing finite can satisfy my soul. The woman at the well married five men because she believed marriage would make her happy. I spent over a decade floating along, playing games, and reading for pleasure. The pursuit of happiness took control of my life and trapped me with fear. Jesus offers freedom from the search for happiness. He is giving me the ability to serve and love like him. It’s not always easy, but it’s proving worth it.
Joel Jackson fights his fear through loving and serving others in Cincinnati, Ohio.