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Episode 29: Water

The Gospel of John places an emphasis on water, but not on a change in its taste. Instead this gospel focuses on the abundant supply of water.
     Two hydrogen atoms bond with one oxygen atom to create the second most necessary element for life on our planet, water. Throughout the ages, descriptions of water have flowed from the pens of many writers, well, like water. ‘Water takes the shape of its vessel.’ ‘Water calms the soul.’ ‘Drops of water wear down solid rock.’ It would seem that thoughts concerning water permeate our conscience. Water seems to hold a similar importance within the mind of the writer of the Gospel of John. Of the appearances of water in the gospels more than half occur on the pages of this Gospel. This percentage rings true in the New Testament within the writings attributed to John as well.

In the Old Testament

     One cannot begin to think about water without returning to the beginning of the Bible when “The earth was unseen and unprepared, and darkness was above the great deep abyss, yet God’s Spirit carried itself over the water.” (Genesis 1:2 LXX) Water begins the story, waters are separated to make room for the sky, and all kinds of living creatures find life in the water. (Genesis 1:20) Yet, these waters hold tremendous power as well. At the time of Noah, God sent the waters to cover the dry land that had separated them at the beginning. (1:6-10, and 7:20) At all times, however, water is subject to the spoken word of the LORD God.

     The Old Testament prophets portray God as the source of water. Indeed, this perspective lies behind the complaint Jeremiah lodges.

My people have committed two evils; They have
abandoned me, a spring of living water, and they have
dug broken pits for themselves, which are unable to
store water. (Jeremiah 2:13)

Living in the Babylonian empire, the prophet Ezekiel is provided a vision of the city of Jerusalem. From within the house of the LORD water pours out toward the east to form a river of fresh water flowing south to the Arabah in which many fish will live, an allusion to the original Genesis account. (Ezekiel 47:1-10)

Elsewhere in John

     Water plays a central role in two episodes in this Gospel: the wedding at Cana and the well in Samaria. In the first account, the wedding party exhausts the supply of wine on hand. The servants are instructed to fill six stone jars with water. Some water is then taken to the one in charge of the food service. When poured for his tasting, this water is now wine. Although many at the wedding remain oblivious to this miraculous sign (Episode 24), Jesus’ disciples and the servants who worked with the water observe these events. In this case, the water takes a new form representing a blessing from God, one directly associated with Jesus. (John 2:1-11)

     The discussion between Jesus and the woman beside a well near Sychar in the region of Samaria starts with his simple request for a drink of water. The woman’s response to Jesus’ request, amplified by his actual communication with her, reflects the ‘behind the scenes’ cultural challenge of this account. Although this gospel never indicates that the woman fulfills Jesus’ request, their conversation morphs to address the water, the LIVING water, which Jesus can offer to satisfy her thirst. Her interest in the water he has access to represents a 180 degree shift from Jesus’ request for a drink from the well to this woman requesting a drink of the living water. (John 4:7-15)

     The theme of living water enters the story a second time during a fall celebration. The Festival of Booths provided an opportunity for celebrants to remember their ancestors’ travel throughout the wilderness between Egypt and their entry into the land of Canaan. Among the various ceremonies was one recalling God’s provision of water when it was needed. On the final day of the Feast Jesus stands up at the Temple (Episode 26) and says,

“If anyone is thirsty, let that one come to me and drink.
The one who believes in me, just as the Scripture says,
‘A river of living water will flow forth from his
belly.’” (John 7:37-38)

He thus associates himself with several prophetic passages from the scroll of Isaiah concerning water. The writer of the Gospel of John further associates this living water with the Spirit (Episode 20), connecting Jesus’ words specifically with these of Isaiah.

Then I will give water to those who thirst in the barren
lands, I will place my Spirit on your descendants and
my blessing on your children. (Isaiah 44:3 LXX)

     Water also serves as the distinguishing factor between John the Baptizer (Episode 5) and Jesus. On three occasions John identifies himself as limited to baptism with water alone. When his Jerusalem interrogators inquire into his identity, John makes no claim to be among the expected figures, indeed he recognizes someone superior to himself in their midst. After identifying the Lamb of God walking through the crowd (Episode 20), John informs those gathered that he came “baptizing with water in order that [this expected figure] might be revealed to Israel.” (1:31) John then repeats his purpose for baptizing with water; his role in this grand story is to identify this superior personality who will baptize with the Spirit of God. (1:33)

Concluding Thought

     Water is a necessary element for human life. Water refreshes after a long day of travel. Immersion in water serves as a metaphor for a renewed attention to the commands and instructions of the LORD. Yet in comparison to other liquid refreshments of the era, water remains bland. The Gospel of John places an emphasis on water, but not on a change in its taste. Instead this gospel focuses on the abundant supply of water. The six stone jars would hold approximately 150 gallons of water, about 750 liters, enough for over 4000 typical glasses of wine today. Yet, the servant may have drawn the water that changed to wine directly from a well, which would imply a new unending supply of this blessing from God.

     The woman at the well envisions an abundant supply of this thirst satisfying water. If she can access this living water-not water drawn from a cistern, but coming from a well or spring-she will never have to walk out from the town to this place again in order to quench her thirst. Her unending supply will prevent her daily activity of disgrace she now faces. The crowd at the Festival in Chapter 7 are promised a “river” of living water that will also quench their thirst. Water in the Gospel of John represents more than a mere liquid. Through its various appearances it becomes associated with the Spirit of God. This abundance of water becomes a symbol for life of the ages, the abundance of life made available by the Word at the Beginning with God who brought all things into existence, even water.

Take 5 Minutes More

     We are all thirsty; the question is, thirsty for what? There are many types of drink that can quench our thirst, but not all are as productive. Beer, sugared drinks, carbonated drinks, alcohol, these each have side effects. Only water does not. We are always encouraged to drink more water than we do for better health. The same is true for those who have experienced a spiritual birth. Many alternatives exist, yet only one has no negative consequences. Only a few of us consume as much of the Living Water as we should for our health.

     Take time to log your intake of the Living Water over the next three days. Keep track of your time reading or listening to Scripture. Record those moments when your thoughts turn to God in prayer–even when it is more like a sip of water rather than an entire glassful. How healthy do you really want your spiritual life to be?


Updated August 4, 2022