Where We Find Water in the Bible
Water runs through the Bible. FR RALPH DE HAHN looks at some examples, especially from the gospel of St John.
As many regions on earth face water crises, it is interesting — and also spiritually stimulating — to reflect on the beautiful image of water as presented in the gospel of John.
The synoptic gospels — Matthew, Mark and Luke — present their experience and knowledge of the man Jesus; they relate his birth, life, miracles and death, but very much with the same purpose.
The evangelist John is different. He is the “other disciple” who was the intimate companion of the Lord. And it is in his gospel that the divinity of Jesus is unveiled and the “I am” is proclaimed (8:58).
His is a gospel of the Holy Spirit leading us into all truth. He brings the Master from Galilee into the heart of Jerusalem, and very cleverly associates his teachings with the great Jewish festivals — such as Sukkot (Tabernacles), Shavu’ot (or Pentecost; the feast of weeks), Hannukkah (day of atonement), Passover and others.
John is ever-conscious of the Thanksgiving festivals associated with the beauty of creation and all that it produces for the good of God’s people—water, grain, vine, fruits, oil, animals and bread.
The Christian faith also draws from nature to the ultimate worship of the Creator, and these positive signs of his presence we present as “sacraments”.
Let us look only at water, that very precious gift essential to all humanity and to the process of growth.
From Moses to Paul
Already from the ancient prophets, we hear the prefiguring of these life-giving waters.
Moses had given the wandering Jews bread from heaven and water from the rock (Numbers 20).
Later Paul will write that “all drank the same spiritual drink… from the spiritual rock that went with them…But the rock was Christ” (1 Cor 10).
We also have the vision of Ezekiel: “…and behold, water was issuing from the threshold towards the east” (47:1).
In Zechariah, we read: “On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the people of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness” (13:1). He further gives new meaning to the water, saying: “On that day Living Waters shall flow out from Jerusalem.”(14:8).
It is in the final chapters of Revelation that we learn the greatness of this promise: “Then he showed me the river of the waters of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (22:1).
Now, as we return to John’s gospel, we find Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem, crying out: “If any man is thirsty, let him come to me! Let the man come and drink, he who believes in me.” Then quoting from the scriptures normally read on the feast of Tabernacles, he echoed the line in Zechariah: “From his breast shall flow fountains of living water” (Jn 7:37).
Water in John’s gospel
Water symbolism pervades the gospel from beginning to end.
In chapter 3, Jesus enlightens Nicodemus: “Unless a man is born again of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
Man needs a rebirth for “what is born of the flesh is only flesh”. There is a supernatural life.
In chapter 4 we have this fascinating encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well.
It is noon and Jesus asks for a drink; in exchange he offers her Living water. “The water I shall give will turn into a spring inside, welling up to eternal life…and you will never be thirsty again.” Jesus is the new Moses who offers us living water from the rock, and the rock is Christ.
Chapter five of John’s gospel tells of a man afflicted for 38 years who is unable to plunge into the pool of Bethesda, which had healing power after the angel had touched the waters.
The sick man had faith in this divine power: “Do you want to be well again?” asked Jesus. The man had faith in Jesus’ offer, and was totally healed.
“Get up, pick up your mat, and walk,” Jesus told this man who moments before couldn’t even reach the pool, and he did.
In chapter nine we find Jesus leading a blind man into the light.
“I must carry out the work of the One who sent me..I am the light of the world.” Having said this, Jesus spat on the ground, made a paste from the spittle, placed this on the man’s eyes and instructed him: “Go and wash in the pool of Siloam” (a name that means “sent”). The blind man, now seeing the Light, confessed his faith in Jesus (Jn 9:6-8).
From Cana to Calvary
One is tempted to go back to John chapter two: It was the wedding feast of Cana; there was not enough wine for all the guests, so at the Lord’s command, many vessels were filled with water from the spring. The water was then changed into wine—the best wine ever tasted.
Before his death, Jesus would change wine into his own blood.
The evangelist now takes us to Calvary for a drama of major importance.
One of the soldiers pierced the side of the crucified Christ and there flowed blood and water (19:34). This is rightly interpreted as the two vital sacraments of the Church: baptism and the Eucharist.
In his first letter, John writes: “This is he who came by water and blood; not with water only, but with water and blood…there are three witnesses—the Spirit, water and the blood, and these three are one” (1 Jn 5:6-8).
John, in his gospel, often emphasises the role of the Spirit (15:26; 16:13). Man’s deepest thirst is the thirst for “life in abundance” (10:10). And faith in Jesus is the only way we drink of the Living Water.
Referring once more to the prophetic teaching of Ezekiel, the living water flows from the temple, and at the feast of the Tabernacles in Jerusalem, Jesus declares himself as the real temple. He — the crucified, pierced and resurrected — is the true fountain of life, the source of life for all ages.
And from this spring of love, the believer becomes one with Jesus and participates in the New Life he alone offers.