In the fourth chapter of John’s gospel, we read of an interaction that Jesus had with a certain Samaritan woman, whom Jesus met at a well whilst waiting on His disciples, who had gone into the village. This woman was not in a good place spiritually. She had been through multiple marriages and was currently living with a man she was not married to (cf. John 4:16-18). Jesus knew that she needed His help. Rather than disdaining her, He had compassion. He also had the solution to her condition.
Having asked her for a drink, following a brief conversation, Jesus told her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water (John 4:10; ESV).”
Concerning this “living water,” Jesus also told her, ““Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life. (John 10:13b-14; ESV)”
The “living water” Jesus promised sounds quite important. It not only satisfies the recipient, quenching his “thirst,” but it produces eternal life. But “living water” is obviously a metaphor, which raises the question: what does the “water” represent?
John 4 is not the only place in which Jesus uses the phrase, “living water.” A few chapters later, in John 7, we read, “On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37-39; ESV)
So there we have the explanation of the metaphor: the living water represents the Spirit of God, given to those who would believe in Jesus. Which does raise some other questions. How was the Spirit given? Some would argue that Jesus was referring to miraculous powers, but those were given to the apostles before the death of Jesus, not after (cf. Luke 9:1)
The Scripture Jesus is referencing is found in the prophet Zechariah: “On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea. It shall continue in summer as in winter. (Zechariah 4:8; ESV)”
Zechariah was himself predicting the spread of Christianity and the taking of the gospel into all the world, the fulfillment of which we read in Acts 8:4: “Now those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word.”
In Acts 2:38, Peter promised that the Spirit would be given to those who obeyed the gospel message, with repentance and baptism. This connection between the giving of the Spirit and the baptism of Christ is further reinforced in Acts 19:1-7 in which we find that the baptism of John did not include the giving of the Spirit, but the baptism of Christ did.
This issue of the Spirit, and the “living water” is multifaceted, but let’s notice one immediate application. The fountains of living water, given by Christ, which then wells up and flows from the recipient into the lives of other people, is most understood in relation to the preaching of the Gospel and the words of the same.
“I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ,” writes the apostle Paul, “because it is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16).” Questioned by Jesus regarding his intention to remain a disciple, the apostle Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” God Himself, offering salvation to the house of Cornelius told that man, “Send to Joppa for Peter, he will give you words by which you and all your household will be saved (Acts 11:13-14)
When Jesus told the woman she should ask for the living water, He was meaning that she should ask for the words of the Gospel to be preached to her. She had a spiritual need. The message of Christ contained the solution. We have spiritual needs and the living water Jesus offers, the words of the Gospel, is still the solution.
If you would like to learn more about the living water Christ offers, the church of Christ invites you to worship and study with us, at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio. Likewise if you have any questions or comments, we invite you to share them with us at chapelhillchurchofchrist.org.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.