Water as a Symbol for the Holy Spirit in John

In the Gospel of John, the Holy Spirit is likened to water. While interacting with the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4), Jesus offers her living water. He declares that anyone who drinks this water will never thirst again. Once received, this water will become a spring, welling up to eternal life (v. 13). By the end of the encounter, the Samaritan woman accepted the offer of Jesus since she leaves her water jar behind and goes on a mission, bringing her townspeople to encounter Jesus (vv. 28-29). Later, on the final day of the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus again promised living water to the thirty who come to him (7,37-39). In this episode, the living water that Jesus gives is clearly identified as the Spirit (v. 39). When blood and water flowed from his pierced side as he hung on the cross (19,34), Jesus finally gave the Spirit – the living water – to his followers.

For readers of John today, much of the significant of the image of water can be easily missed. For many, water is readily available. Those living in an urban setting can be unaware of the necessity of water for agriculture and thus daily sustenance. Modern readers can forget that water is a basic necessity for life and its lack is something to be feared. In first century Palestine, water was not in abundant supply nor as readily accessible. Long droughts were not uncommon. From their daily experience, those who first heard the Holy Spirit described as water would have been struck by the image. The necessity of water for life would have been much more present in their minds. Similar to water, they could readily grasp how urgent and necessary the Holy Spirit is.

First century Jews would also appreciate the significance that water had in their Scriptures and therefore better appreciate what Jesus was offering them with the “living water”. In the Old Testament, water can be used to symbolize the following realities: 1) wisdom (Prov 10:11; 13:14; Wis 7:25); 2) the Spirit of God (Isa 32:15; Ez 36:25-26; Joel 2:28-29); 3) cleansing (Lev 14:5-6.50-52; Zech 13:1); 4) the Torah (Sir 24:23-29); 5) the power of healing (2 Kgs 12:5); and 6) the final state of salvation (Isa 30:23-26; 41:17-20; Ez 47; Zech 13,1). For the initial audience of John’s Gospel, the water that Jesus offered the Holy Spirit could be understood as fulfilling all these meanings which water had in the Old Testament.

One way we can better appreciate the gift of the Holy Spirit is by understanding what it means that the Holy Spirit is the “living water”. The Holy Spirit is necessary for life and growth. Being identified with water, the Holy Spirit corresponds with a rich tapestry of images from the Old Testament and fulfills what water symbolized there. Like the Samaritan woman, let us more fully accept the gift of Holy Spirit in our lives.