John G. Paton: Jehovah’s Well of Water

4 min

Aniwa is a small atoll, a coral island, in the modern state of Vanuatu in the South Pacific. In the 1800s when this biographical sketch takes place, the island chain was called the New Hebrides. Aniwa is one of the smallest inhabited islands in the group. The island’s total land mass only covers 3 square miles. Unlike some of the mountainous islands in the chain, Aniwa is very flat. The inhabitants who lived on this tropical island were in bondage to ignorance, superstition, and fear. As cannibals, they killed and ate their enemies. They worshipped gods carved of wood and stone. The people also practiced witchcraft and were subject to the power of their “sacred men.”

Because the island was small and it lacked abundant rainfall, the inhabitants suffered from a shortage of fresh water. When tropical rains did come, the water drained quickly into the sea. No springs, lakes, or freshwater creeks were to be found on the entire island. The few places where rainwater collected became stagnant pools infested with parasites. Many of the islanders suffered from a parasitic disease known as elephantiasis or Barbados leg. The malady made the sufferer’s legs and feet swell to enormous proportions. With no fresh water, the natives instead drank coconut milk and also hydrated their bodies by eating sugar cane, which has a high water content. As for water for washing clothes, they had no need for water for that task since they did not wear clothes!

One day on the island, a bold missionary assembled the chiefs together. He wanted to tell them about his ambitious plan: it would bring forth water from the earth by the power of the name of Jesus Christ! The missionary, John G. Paton, and his family had been laboring for many months on this small tropical island. Surrounded by pagan cannibals, he fervently hoped that this new undertaking would, in his words, “break the back of heathenism” and show the island inhabitants the power of Jesus’ name.

Paton, called “Missi,” which was the Aniwa natives’ abbreviation of “Missionary,” finally decided that he needed to attempt to sink a well on the island for the support of his own wife and children. Paton acknowledged: “Of the scientific conditions of such an experiment I was completely ignorant.” To “sink a well” meant that he would have to dig through loose soil and coral, so deep that he would dig below the water table. He feared that, after all the effort, he might only find salty water that was unfit for drinking. But Paton testified, “Still I resolved to sink that shaft in hope, and in faith that the Son of God would be glorified thereby.”

On hearing of Missi’s project, the Aniwan chiefs looked at him with astonishment, mingled with pity. Namakei, the oldest chief on the island, told Paton, “O Missi, rain comes only from above.” When the missionary responded that in his native Scotland fresh water does indeed come springing up from the earth, the natives firmly said, “O Missi, your head is going wrong!”

Undaunted, the intrepid missionary began digging with a pick, an axe, a spade, and a bucket. The natives of Aniwa looked on as he worked alone with great determination under the blazing tropical sun. Soon, Paton was exhausted. He next held up a supply of fishhooks and promised a fishhook to each man that would help him dig.

Over the course of several days, Paton and a few native helpers continued to dig. The chiefs still asserted that Missi had lost his mind. They were especially convinced when part of the hole collapsed one night. Paton shored up the sides of the hole with wooden braces and continued digging, much to the astonishment of the natives. Confident that water could not be found by digging, they urged Missi to give up the project before he was buried alive! Six feet. Twelve feet. Fifteen feet. Still no water. The chiefs solemnly warned Missi that if he did not stop digging, he would break through the island and drop into the ocean, be eaten by the sharks, and never be seen again.

The resolute missionary prayed that God would show the power of His Own name to these superstitious chiefs. He prayed that God would give them water from the earth. And he kept digging. Twenty feet. Twenty-five feet. As Paton dug deeper, he continued shoring up the sides with wooden braces to prevent another collapse. Thirty feet. Still no water, and the missionary was almost out of fishhooks! As the hole became deeper, few natives wanted to go down into the hole to dig. So, the missionary toiled alone at the bottom of the hole as the islanders above peered down at him.

Paton wrote in his autobiography: “At the moment I knew I was risking much, and probably incurring sorrowful consequences, had no water been given: but I had faith that the Lord was leading me on, and I knew that I sought His glory, not my own.”

At thirty-four feet, water started gushing in from the stroke of the pick! The missionary’s heart burst forth in praise to Jehovah’s name as he shouted for the chiefs to come and see! Curiously, they peered down into the hole to see the wonder of “rain” coming up from the earth! The chiefs tasted the liquid from the earth with astonishment: It was water! Fresh water! The islanders called it “Jehovah’s rain.”

The old chief Namakei assembled the people of his village and invited them to taste the water. John G. Paton remembered the words of Psalm 34:8, “O taste and see that the LORD is good.”

The miracle of the sinking of the well did overthrow the pagan worship on the island. In the presence of his people, the old chief himself announced: “Missi, wonderful is the work of your Jehovah God! No god of Aniwa ever helped us in this way. The world is turned upside down since Jehovah came to Aniwa.” Namakei urged his people to give up their idols. He asserted, “Namakei stands up for Jehovah!” The wooden gods of Aniwa were publicly burned. Stone gods were sunk deep in the ocean. The people began to wear clothing, listen to Paton’s Biblical preaching, and learn to sing the name of Jesus. Over time, every man, woman, boy, and girl on the island became an avowed follower of Jesus because they had seen the power of His name!

“Jehovah’s Well” never ran dry. The natives supplied coral blocks to permanently strengthen the walls of the well, and a bucket and pulley were fitted for the well’s mouth. Jehovah’s Well supplied clean, fresh water for the entire island for more than a generation. Jesus, the Living Water, had come to the little island of Aniwa. The people had tasted the living water of the Lord Jesus Christ, “springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14).

Sources and Further Reference:

  • Paton, John. John G. Paton: Missionary to the New Hebrides. Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1994.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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