Water is indispensable for life. There are organisms which require a very small quantity, but no matter how they are constituted, they need water to live. In the most arid desert, under the surface, there are living things which retain water and use it with amazing economy. They also would die if they lacked water. It is not by chance that the explorations which are now taking place on the planet Mars consider it a priority to determine whether water ever existed there. The reason is obvious. Water is the sine qua non for life in the physical world. As I write this column on Sept. 27, 2012, the scientists who are conducting the exploration of Mars announced that they have received pictures of stones rounded by their movement under the force of the current of a stream. What millions of years ago was a stream of water, however, is now a dried bed.
That water is essential was already recognized in the ancient world. Most of the pre-scientific stories of creation begin with a primordial ocean as the original reality that had to be subjugated for the creation of the world in which we live. This is the case also in Genesis 1 where the narrative begins with “and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1: 1). In Genesis 2 the garden that God planted in the primordial desert could become a reality because of the river with four branches that gave it life (Gen, 2: 10). The description of the new earth in Revelation, which enumerates the basic elements of the story of Genesis 2, includes the river of life (Rev. 22: 1). In the vision of a restored Jerusalem received by Ezekiel, the small stream of water that flows from under the altar in the temple eventually becomes a powerful river of life to the nations (Ez. 47: 1 – 12).
These richly allusive descriptions of water provide the background framing the references to water that illumine the theology of According to John. To start, we note that in this gospel the baptism of John the Baptist is explicitly contrasted with the baptism of water and spirit of Jesus. In the baptism of John water functions as the purifier of sins. As such, his baptism is a rite of purification. By contrast, the water of the baptism of Jesus establishes a new life. The baptism of water and spirit engenders sons of God.
The water of the baptism of Jesus, however, remains undefined. No discrete explanation is given of the water that serves as a vehicle of the Spirit. What is it that distinguishes it from the water of the baptism of John the Baptist? This obfuscation is more disconcerting because in this gospel we are told that Jesus baptized more disciples than John (4: 1). No doubt the narrator wished to establish a distinction between the two waters, but fails to make it. Apparently he has something up his sleeve.
Something somewhat similar occurs in the scene of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. The Samaritan depends on the water of the well Jacob dug to provide for the needs of his family and his cattle (4: 12). This is a water source that has supplied the physical needs of people and cattle for about seventeen centuries. In all this time no one has ever been disappointed by coming to it in search of water and finding it dry. This water source has given life to multiple generations. The well dug by Jacob has been a fountain of life whose effectiveness through time is undeniable.
The water of the well of Jacob is characterized by only one of its properties; its capacity to quench thirst is temporary. A short while after having drunk of that water whoever drank it becomes thirsty again. By contrast, Jesus promises that the water he will provide will quench forever the thirst of whoever drinks it (4: 13 – 14). What surprises us is that when the Samaritan woman anxiously asks: “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw” (4: 15), instead of giving her the promised water Jesus changes the subject.
The report of the wedding feast at Cana mentions that in the house of the feast’s host “six stone jars were standing there, for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons” (2: 6). In contrast to the water of the well which Jacob dug “and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle” (4: 12), the water of the stone jars in the house where a wedding was celebrated in Cana of Galilee was not water for daily use, to quench thirst. This was water for purification rites which “the Jews” had to perform periodically according to the rules of the case. One of the rules was that the water for purifications could not come from a cistern or a pool. It had to be water that had been moving in a current, “living” water. That is why the six stone jars were empty. They were filled when purification rites were to be carried out.
The water of the baptism of John, the water of Jacob’s well, and the water with which the stone jars of a house in Cana were filled symbolize religion at the formal level, at the level of traditional and prescribed rites that have sustained a people in a relation with God. As a formal institution with its traditions through generations religion has quenched the thirst for God of many. As such it merits gratitude and recognition.
The presence of the Son of God in the world, however, has transformed the situation. Water has become wine, and the wine provided by the Son is not just the common wine that is served when the guests have been drinking freely and have lost the capacity to assess the quality of what they are drinking. Wine experts, in full use of their faculties, have declared it the best wine they ever drank. The wine that takes the place of the water is not only effective as a thirst quencher. It is indispensable in a feast where people are not just living but celebrating the fullness of life promised at a wedding.
As argued in previous columns, According to John abandons the apocalyptic perspective that informs the ministry of Jesus in According to Mark, and that According to Matthew and According to Luke adopt with modifications peculiar to each. In According to John the scene of Jesus calming the storm in the Sea of Galilee is told with rather significant modifications. The scene is an echo of the stories of creation in which the creator imposes his will over the primordial sea. It is only in the gospels that the Lake of Genesareth is known as the Sea of Galilee. As a body of water this “sea” is not much bigger that the small interior lakes of the state of Michigan in which I reside. To the evangelists it is a “sea” for theological reasons. The sea represents the primordial waters that are the source of the powers that oppose God’s purposes and must be subdued before creation can take place. In the visions of Daniel the political powers that persecute the people of God are represented by mythological beasts that come out of the sea. In the vision of the new earth in Revelation it is specified that in it there will be no sea (Rev. 21: 1). Surely the early Christians understood that the representation of Jesus walking on the sea and imposing his will against its fury announces the triumph of life over the chaotic forces of death.
According to John draws a dramatic scene in which Jesus makes himself known for the first time as “I am” (6: 20). It is Jesus walking over the stormy sea, the source of anxiety and fear. The one who walks over the water of the sea is the resurrection and the life, the one who triumphs over the powers of evil and death that intend to separate the creatures from their Creator. Water not only can represent religion as an institution that is partially effective since it quenches thirst temporarily; it can also represent the demonic power that rises with force to smother life itself in the claws of death. The image of Jesus as the sovereign over the sea is full of power and hope.
The central, decisive scene in According to John is the appearance of Jesus at the final day of the feast of tabernacles. The atmosphere for the scene is charged because Jesus is already a marked man; it looks as if Jesus is not going to attend the feast because his hour has not yet come (7: 6, 8). During the first days of the feast there is great expectation in the multitude as to whether Jesus will come or not. Jesus’ brothers criticize him for not making himself known, and the multitude would like to come to a conclusion as to whether he is genuine or a charlatan (7: 12). However, “for fear of ‘the Jews’” the people were not expressing their desire to make up their minds about him (7: 13). Their doubts and expectations are resolved “about the middle of the feast” when Jesus not only comes to Jerusalem but spends the day teaching at the temple (7: 14).
The feast of tabernacles, or of the booths, lasts seven days and commemorates the providence of God when the people wandered in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. The most necessary thing in that inhospitable wasteland was water. In those trying days God provided a rock that supplied for their needs. On the last great day of the feast the priests and the people descended to the pool of Siloam and filled their jars with water. Then they climbed to the altar in the court of the temple and poured the water in their jars on top of it. This made the water run from the altar through the court of the gentiles and eventually drop down the hill to the valley of Kidron. In this way the feast not only commemorated the water supplied by the rock in the desert, but also anticipated the fulfillment of the vision of Ezekiel about the stream of water that flowed from below the altar of the temple (Ez. 47: 1).
When the priests and the people were enacting the dramatic flow of water from the altar, Jesus proclaims himself the fountain of the water of life: “If any one thirst, let him come to me, and let he who believes in me drink” (my translation). The basis for the proclamation is a quote from Scripture: “Out of his heart (koilías = cavity, entrails) shall flow rivers of living water” (7: 37 – 38).
Earlier in his conversation with the Samaritan woman, Jesus said to her that if she knew with whom she was speaking, she would be asking for water from him, “and he would have given you living water” (4: 10). But his answer was not trying to distinguish the water of a well from water that moves in a current. The living water Jesus offers the Samaritan at the well of Jacob is of another order. It is the water that flows with the wine of his blood.
All the references to the “living water” that Jesus offers when his hour had not yet come (2: 4, 23; 7: 8) point to the water Jesus provides when his hour had come (13: 1). His living water also flows from the rock, but it flows with blood. In the same way as Moses struck the rock and water flowed from it to give life to the people that wandered in the desert (Ex. 17: 6; Num. 20: 10 – 13), a Roman soldier struck the already dead body (a rock) of Jesus on the cross, and from him flowed the blood and water that gives life to the people who believe in him (19: 34).
The text of Scripture that predicts that from his cavity (entrails) would flow rivers of living water has not been found. The reference could be to Is. 12: 3: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” Or, it could be to Jer. 2: 13: “For 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.” The poetic references to the rock of Horeb speak of the abundance of water provided by God in the desert: “He made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers” (Ps. 78: 16). “He opened the rock, and water gushed forth; it flowed through the desert like a river.” The water of the fountain of salvation is the water of the Rock on Calvary, and Jesus promised that all those who drink it will never thirst again. In the Johannine perspective, living water does not flow from the altar of the temple in Jerusalem which both Ezekiel and John the Theologian saw in vision. It flows from the rock of the temple that is the body (2: 21) of the one who, like the serpent that Moses lifted up in the desert, has been lifted up so that every one who believes in him has eternal life (3: 15). This is the water that Jesus offered to the Samaritan woman and to all the participants at the feast of tabernacles, and that According to John offers to all those who read it. This is not the water of the baptism of John the Baptist, or of religion at the level of sacramental rites, but the water that flows with the wine/blood of life in the Spirit.