Jesus, John the Baptist, and the Waters of Life: John 3:22-36 and 4:1-16

This passage contrasts "he who is from above" (and by extension those "born from above") with "he who is of the earth." This is another of John's dualisms: above/heaven vs. the below/earth/world-kosmos. The One from above comes to reveal/bear witness to the things seen and heard above—that is "what he [from above] has seen and heard [from above]," that is, the divine mysteries and the kingdom of God. But those from the earth don't believe him.

Those who accept the witness of the One from above about the "words of God" that he has "seen and heard" above, receive the "Spirit without measure" and are thus born from above by the Spirit. Finally, whoever "believes in the Son"—that is in the words of God and the witness of the heavenly things seen and heard above by the Son—receives eternal life. Believing in the Son is thus not merely believing that Jesus is the Messiah, but believing the heavenly things/words of God that Jesus reveals. This discourse meshes tightly with the previous discourse on the Spirit in John 3:16-21.

Jesus and the Living Water, Pt. 1 (Jn. 4:1-15)

John 4:1-45 is set in Samaria, at a place called Sychar (4:4), which is near biblical Shechem (modern Nablus). The well described in these verses is probably is the modern Bīr Ya'qūb (Jacob's Well), which is about a mile southeast of old Nablus. Today there is a Greek Orthodox church on the site, dedicated to St. Photina, the legendary name of the Samaritan woman. The well and field are associated with the biblical patriarch Jacob (Gen. 33:18-19; Josh. 24:32). Jesus was passing through the region on the way to Galilee from Jerusalem.

The story begins in a mundane enough fashion, with Jesus resting by the well, while his disciples have gone to get some food. A woman comes to draw some water and Jesus asks for a drink (Jn. 4:1-8). At this point, however, the story takes on a new dimension. Based on past experience of social segregation between Jews and Samaritans, the woman is surprised that Jesus will talk to her—"for Jews have no dealings with Samaritans" (4:9, cf. 8:48). Samaritans were descendants of the northern kingdom of Israel, which had been destroyed by the Assyrians in 721 B.C.E. Based on centuries of feuding and misunderstanding, Samaritans and Jews viewed each other with suspicion and even hostility. I'll discuss the religious schism between the two groups next week.

In his typically enigmatic fashion, Jesus tells her that, if she knew to whom she was speaking, she would ask for his "living water" (hudōr zōn) (4:10). What did the idea of "living water" mean to first-century Jews? In its most basic meaning it is simply fresh, flowing water. In the first century, Judea was a land of underground cisterns, where rainwater was collected and stored during the rainy winter months for use throughout the year. However, this water was frequently murky and stagnant (Jer. 2:13). Fresh, flowing water from a spring or well was rightly considered more healthy. Furthermore, according to Jewish tradition, living/flowing water should ideally be used for ritual purifications (Mishnah, Mikvaot, 1.8). Living water was both pure water and purifying water.

In Jewish culture, living water had also taken on an important spiritual meaning to which John is alluding here. First, just as Moses provided the Israelites with water and bread/manna in the wilderness (Ex. 17:3-6; Num. 20:4-11; Ex. 16), so Jesus now provides Israel with the water and bread of life. In Jeremiah the Israelites are accused of forsaking YHWH, the "spring of living water" (Jer. 2:13, 17:13). Now Jesus again offers that living water.

Another probable antecedent comes from Sirach 24:21, where primordial Wisdom says: "Those who eat of me will hunger for more, and those who drink of me will thirst for more" (cf. Prov. 13:14, 18:4; Is. 55:1-3). The Hebrew Bible also contains prophecies describing eschatological waters of life flowing from the foundations of the temple to water and give life to the entire world (Zech. 14:8; Ezek. 47:9; cf. Rev. 22:1-2; Odes of Solomon 6:8-18). (This metaphor is related to the "new temple" traditions in the gospel, which I will discuss next week.) The idea of living waters in first-century Judaism thus provides a rich symbolic background for these verses.

What we find in the first six chapters of John is a sequence of what could be called nutrition metaphors. They create an extended allegory between the material necessities of mortal life with spiritual necessities of eternal life. In his early ministry as described in John's first chapters, Jesus gave three discourses describing spiritual life as three basic forms of nutrition:

  1. Breath/Spirit of Life (3:1-15, 6:63)
  2. Water of Life-Living Waters (3:5, 4:10-15, 7.
    38, 19:34; Rev. 22.17)
  3. Bread of Life (6:22-59)

2/18/2011 5:00:00 AM
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    About William Hamblin
    William James Hamblin is professor of Near Eastern History at Brigham Young University. You can follow and discuss "An Enigmatic Mirror" on Facebook.
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