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.

A "Culture of Dialogue" in the Bible

In response to discord in society, Pope Francis has called for a “culture of dialogue”. He encourages us not to ignore or stigmatize those we disagree with. Rather, we are to respect them and enter into open dialogue. In this way, consensus and agreement can be built. If we look carefully, we are able to find a culture of dialogue within the Bible. There are texts within the Bible that are clearly in dialogue and even disagreement with one another. Authors take up themes presented by previous writers and engage with them, offering another perspective. Over time, a clearer picture of God’s revelation is painted. 

For example, consider two questions posed by Isaiah. During a polemic against idolatry he asks, “to whom can you liken God and what form compare to him?” (Isa 40:18). According to the prophet, nothing on earth can compare to God. Some chapters later, Isaiah puts this question in the mouth of God: “where could you build a house for me, what place could serve as my abode?” (Isa 66:1). Again, the answer is clear. God cannot live anywhere on earth.

Isaiah’s questions are taken up in Genesis 1:26 and Exodus 25:8-9. These texts, which probably took shape sometime after the questions in Isaiah were written, give different answers. Genesis 1:26 narrates that God made man in his image and likeness. Unlike Isaiah 40:18, the author of Genesis 1:26 clearly believed that there was something on earth that could be likened to God: every human person. In Exodus 25:8-9, God promises Moses that if he builds a sanctuary just as he is commanded, then God will dwell there. Unlike Isaiah 66:1, the author of Exodus 25:8-9 thought that God could dwell somewhere on earth.

The questions of Isaiah are taken up again in the New Testament where new answers are given. Paul’s letter to the Philippians declares that Jesus was in the form of God (Phil 2:6). To Paul, it is clear that Jesus cannot be compared with God in the same way that Genesis 1:26 says every human being can, since Jesus is Lord, the one God has exalted and who all will praise. John puts things more clearly. Jesus wasn’t simply created in the image of God. Jesus and the Father are one (John 10:30). Elsewhere, John responds to the question posed by Isaiah 66:1. Unlike Exod 25:8-9, which argued that God can live in a sanctuary made by people, John teaches that Jesus is the only true dwelling place of God on earth (eg. John 1:4; 2:21).

In the examples above, the Bible exhibits a “culture of dialogue”. First, questions are posed by Isaiah, who also offers tentative solutions. These questions are then challenged by the authors of Genesis 1:26 and Exodus 25:8-9, who engage openly with Isaiah. Finally, Paul and John give fuller responses in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. This development illustrates the fruit that comes from engaging with the ideas of those who see things differently. With God’s help, this dialogue can lead to a deeper comprehension of the truth.

Why Did People Want to Kill Jesus?

Why did people want to kill Jesus? Although there are few ways we could answer this, it might be helpful to try to discover THE event that make people want to bring Jesus to be tried and killed. For much of Jesus’ ministry, he encounters opposition, especially with the Jewish authorities. When we examine the Gospels, however, there seems to be a turning point in each of them where the decision is made by the authorities to have Jesus put to death. Jesus did something which was “the straw that broke the camel’s back”, as the saying goes. So, what is this event? Remarkably, it depends on which Gospel you consult.

For the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) the turning point in Jesus’ ministry that leads to his death is the cleansing of the Temple. When Jesus enters the Temple, he takes possession of it and begins teaching. The crowds who were there listened attentively to his words. The authorities were indignant. They began to ask Jesus where his authority came from. Who was this man - this carpenter from an unimportant town in the north - to come into the Temple in this way and teach?! The authorities tried to trick him. They asked him questions in order to make him look foolish in front of the people. Jesus, however, responded to all comers. In each round in the battle, he was undefeated. The crowds continued to grow in their acceptance of him. Because they could not overcome Jesus directly and in the open, the authorities sought one of his own to betray him, Judas. Eventually, they trumped up charges against Jesus, and brought him before Pilate. Some of the people who clung on Jesus’ teaching called for his death. 

John paints a different picture. In John’s Gospel, Jesus does not cleanse the Temple at the end of his ministry, but at the very beginning. For John, the event that leads to the death of Jesus, the turning point in the Gospel, is the raising of Lazarus. After Jesus performs this great event, crowds of Jews believe in him. This worries the Jewish authorities. They feel like they are losing control. Eventually they decide to try to have him put to death.

So, what is the answer? Did the cleansing of the Temple lead to Jesus’ death, or the raising of Lazarus? Both the Synoptics and John convey a true message. They are meant to be heard in unison. From a chronological standpoint, the Synoptic Gospels are probably correct. The Synoptics challenge us to consider how we can be like the crowds. Often we can enthusiastically follow Jesus and his teaching when things go well. At times, however, we too can betray Jesus and what he calls us to, especially when there is pressure from others to do so. John, however, is not wrong. He is trying to make a theological point rather that recount the exact order of events. In John’s Gospel, Jesus needs to cleanse the Temple first because he replaces the Temple. The Temple was the dwelling place of God. In John, however, we read that the word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). Before, God dwelt on earth in the Temple. Now, God dwells on earth in the person of Jesus. In John’s Gospel, having the raising of Lazarus lead to Jesus’ death conveys a profound message. Giving life to Lazarus leads to Jesus’ death. Jesus’ death in turn will give life to us all. John reminds us that salvation from Jesus is a gift. Regardless of the fact that we are weak and betray Jesus, he gives himself up for us as a free gift.