A Feature Review of
Selling Water By The River: A Book About the Life Jesus Promised and The Religion That Gets In the Way
Reviewed by David Nash
*** Watch the trailer video for this book…
While reading this book, I saw myself in a classroom listening to Shane Hipps gently and clearly leading a group of people into an understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Hipps is the teaching pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids. This book comes out of his experience of teaching at Mars Hill. Having fourteen chapters, this book fits into a quarter year’s teaching schedule.
The book title shapes the theme of authentic spiritual experience contrasted to a religious faith that comes through institutional religion, a popular conversation for today. To quench one’s thirst for God, a person can choose to reject the stagnant, polluted water of the world and choose, instead, to drink one’s fill of the Living Water which God provides through Christ. Through this Living Water a person enters into the “peace, love, and joy” while living one’s life in the secular world. Hipps writes especially for those who are caught up in a dogmatic creed that must be accepted as the only truth.
The image of Living Water comes from the Gospel of John, chapter 7:37-39. Hipps intends this symbol to be the guiding image of authentic living as he moves through the discussion of each chapter. Unhappily, the Living Water flows through the book , sometimes within a chapter, and then goes underground as other pictures emerge, only to re-surface once again.
Chapter one is a meditation of the human desire to “experience the deep joy, boundless love and indestructible peace that Jesus promised.” (5, et al.) Hipps returns to this triad throughout the book as the “most basic quest” of the human soul.
Chapters two and three go together: Chapter two is a helpful discussion of what to become aware of as one reads and interprets the Bible, especially as a person moves beyond a literal interpretation; chapter three describes the boundaries and limitations of religious institutions, and how such boundaries are critical to one’s spiritual experience of God. Yet, institutions can get stuck in their limits in such a way as to inhibit spiritual experience.
In Chapters four and five, Hipps draws a contrast between “believing” and “knowing” which is confusing. For Hipps, believing has to do with believing in doctrines and creeds, while knowing has to do with the experiential knowing of God. Hipps will need to find another word for “believing” which will focus entirely on the doctrine of institution with which he quarrels.
The confusion can be cleared up if the reader follows the biblical lead in understanding “belief” to be putting one’s trust in God, and not in a particular creed. Thus, believing and knowing (in Hipps view) by definition becomes the same dynamic of faith.
Fear and love are the topics of Chapters six and seven, with love being part of the triad of experience. Chapter eight presents “the nature of the gospel,” re-telling the story of Acts 8, Philip with the eunuch who thirsts for God, illustrating that the Kingdom of God is “ever-growing, ever-changing, and ever-living” (108). Chapter nine continues the emphasis on the Kingdom of God as Hipps returns to his triad quest with the addition that the answer of the quest can be found within us: as Jesus announces that the Kingdom of God lies within each of us, “According to Jesus, the heaven we are waiting for, the joy we long for, the peace we search for can be found hidden within us.” (116) The “kingdom within” produces an inner joy independent of any outward circumstance.
Returning to the theme of Living Water in chapters ten and eleven, Hipps opens up the story of the Woman at the Well (John 4). In his explication of the story, he admits that the penal-substitutionary theory of atonement does not quench the thirst for God of the human soul. What is needed is the experience of the God of “healing, peace and hope.” It is the difference between two Greek words for life: “psyche” (the way humans structure their lives) and “zoe” (the God-given way of living, eternal life) that the Apostle John contrasts in his Gospel.
Having rejected the substitutionary theory of atonement as not satisfying the human quest, nor useful in our culture today, chapter twelve presents through an anecdote a vicarious theory of atonement in which we might live through Christ. The anecdote is suggestive and works to an extent. The coming of death and the resurrection completes one’s life. The final chapter declares that God’s Living Water is for us now. We need not wait until we die to partake of such life-giving water. As human beings, we carry the image of God within us “where the Infinite has come to live in the finite for a limited time” on earth. (190)
There is much to appreciate about this book. Hipps is a skilled writer and communicator. He knows his readership. He uses language that is free of jargon, a simple (but not simplistic!) language which reaches out in picture-words to grab the mind and heart of the reader.
Yet, I am disappointed that he did not make more of his primary and powerful image of Living Water. His exposition of the Woman at the Well (John 4) is insightful. I wanted Hipps to use the same insightful mind for the primary text of John 7:37-39 which is his text for the book. In particular, using the whole passage would have strengthened the focus of the book, “Out of the believers heart shall flow rivers of living water. Now Jesus said this about the Spirit …” (v. 38-39a)
Again, he appears not to integrate the symbol of Living Water more fully into each chapter. In several chapters, he casually mentions it as he moves along to another subject. He uses other images in various chapters to advance his argument, strong images that support his narrative: that of a map and knowing the territory of the map, of wind and sailing, the contrast of the gardener and the guard, to make his point.
Further, to illustrate his topics, Hipps uses events that come out of his own life. We are reminded that for those who have eyes to see, God continues to Incarnate God’s Self in the common, mundane, daily events of human life. Hipps has the eyes to see and the awareness of God’s movement in his life.
What bothers me most about Hipps’ presentation lies in the thread of the triad virtues of joy, love and peace. (He also mentions “fulfillment” as a throwaway line). (128) Every religion seeks these gifts, especially Buddhism. The way that these three are used in the text almost becomes the narcissistic search of individual endeavor.
Further, these three are a truncated presentation of what it means to live in Christ, indeed, to live at all.
For the fullness of living in Christ , it is necessary to add service to others and suffering in order for one’s faith and life to be real. Such is the gift of following Christ in this life. Perhaps, in his next book, Shane Hipps will venture into these two areas of Living Water.
The hymn has it: “I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me; It was not I that found, O Savior true; No, I was found of thee.” And another hymn, after noting Peter crucified upside down and John’s exile on Patmos, ends: “The peace of God, it is no peace, But strife closed in the sod. Yet, brothers (sic), pray for but one thing – The marvelous peace of God.”