"HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?" pondered the middle-aged woman as she panted up the road to her village of Sychar, water jar forgotten. “How did we get into this heavy theological conversation from a simple request for a drink of water? Sometimes conversations take sharp turns, but this is just too bizarre. I’ve known a number of men in my life, but only the crazy ones told me they were the messiah! Better check this out with the town elders.”

In contrast to the approximately 800 references to water in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament is relatively spare. A friend explained the difference. The ancient Hebrews emerged from the eastern desert cultures of Egypt and Babylonia (now Iraq), which built their empires around rivers and where water was scarce and precious. But the New Testament writers were oriented toward the wetter West, where seafaring Greeks and Romans had appropriated the Mediterranean Sea as their major mode of transportation and conquest. For example, even though the book of Acts only mentions the word “water” in reference to baptism, the early missionary movement depended on travel by ship to spread the gospel message.

Water in the synoptic gospels
All four gospels introduce us to John the Baptist down by the Jordan River, who dunks in its flowing water those who repent from sin as a symbol of their cleansing. After John moves offstage, the synoptic gospels center much of Jesus’ activity in the towns around the Sea of Galilee. Here he not only teaches from a boat (Matthew 13:2; Luke 5:3), but he and his disciples travel in it from one side of the lake to the other, which includes a miraculous walk on and rebuking of the stormy waves (Matthew 14:22-27; Mark 6:47-52; Luke 8:22-25). Other references to water are few and sometimes incidental.

But both Mark and Luke include a curious reference to “a man carrying a jar of water” (Mark 14:13; Luke 22:10). Before his final Passover, Jesus instructs his disciples to follow this man to the house in Jerusalem where they are to request use of the upper room for Jesus to share Passover with them. The occurrence of a man doing women’s work of fetching water must have been so rare in this large city that it could have meant only one of two things. Either this was a celibate Essene community of only men, who consequently had to do all the housekeeping; or it was a household of Jesus-followers whom he had already taught the importance of service beyond gender roles.

The water of life in John’s gospel
But water, rich with symbolism, comes into its own in the fourth gospel. With 24 references in nine different episodes, we can “plunge in,” as it were. For here Jesus himself is the water of life.

In John 1:29-34, Jesus comes to John at the Jordan River, as have many others. But what a difference! The text never says that John baptized Jesus. Rather than needing repentance, Jesus is hailed by John as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29). Then John testifies in verse 32, “I saw the Spirit descending on him like a dove, and it remained on him.” Though the synoptics identify this event as happening at the moment of Jesus’ water baptism, this writer cleverly avoids their embarrassing statements of Jesus receiving John’s baptism of repentance along with everybody else.

In John 2:1-11, Jesus performs his “first sign” (2:11)—changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana. The symbolism of water here is startling. The huge stone jars Jesus asks the servants to fill with water are “for the Jewish rites of purification” (2:6), since only stone can remain ritually pure. By changing the water into wine, which belongs only in impure clay amphorae, Jesus in effect attacks the Jewish ritual purity system. No wonder the servants do not tell the steward where the wine came from! Jesus and the servants probably chuckle over their secret while the wedding guests imbibe what just moments ago was water for ritual cleansing.

Breaking water at birth
In John 3 we meet Nicodemus, a teacher in Israel who has observed Jesus’ signs and can’t figure him out. There is no water here, except in Jesus’ use of the female image of birth. “To enter the realm where God dwells,” says Jesus, “you must be born anothen” (3:3). This is a clever word play, where the Greek anothen can mean either “again” or “from above.” Nicodemus chooses the common meaning, “again,” and taunts Jesus by imagining a grown man emerging from his mother’s womb. Jesus replies that to enter God’s kingdom one must be “born of water and spirit” (3:5). This reference to water, I think, stands for the amniotic fluid that breaks out from the womb of the Spirit, our birthing Mother.

The most sustained use of water as reality and symbol occurs in John 4, in the longest theological conversation between two people in the entire New Testament. Most of us know something about “the woman at the well”—including, I hope, the racial overtones that echo our shameful U.S. Jim Crow laws. In John 4:7-9, she asks, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” But Jesus completely ignores both ethnic and gender barriers and teases her with a statement loaded with double meanings. “If you only knew who was asking you to give him a drink, you would have instead asked him for a drink of living water!”

Whatever “living water” means to us today, in that world it meant running water. In contrast to the still and often stale water of cisterns and wells, running water from rivers and springs was clean and fresh, as well as ritually pure. Was this odd Jewish gentleman, as verse 12 puts it, “greater than our ancestor Jacob who gave us the well?” But Jesus (in 4:14 and 7:37-39) promises living water that not only keeps the one who drinks it satisfied but will become within her “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life”! The woman still operates on an earthly level: “Please give me this water so I won’t have to keep coming here to draw water!” But eventually this ordinary Samaritan woman persists until she “gets it,” in contrast to Nicodemus, the teacher in Israel, who doesn’t.

Dirty water becomes holy water
After a visit to the pool of Bethsaida in Jerusalem, where Jesus’ command (rather than the water) healed an invalid (5:1-9), we come to John 13:1-17, the turning point of the whole narrative. Ironically, it pivots not on a miraculous “sign,” not on a lake or spring or pool—but on a basin of what will become very dirty water. In 13:1-5, Jesus knows that “his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.” So he strips down to the attire of a slave, picks up a towel, pours water into a basin, and washes the dirt-crusted, calloused feet of his disciples.

Though dramatic irony characterizes the whole of John’s gospel, this example is so powerful it brings me to tears. In the middle of a narrative pervaded by the highest Christology, we find the “only begotten Son of God” kneeling before others to do scut work. Obviously there are no servants or wives present at this meal, or feet would have been washed before dinner. None of the men have stooped to wash even their own feet, so Jesus demonstrates to them the most radical characteristic of his New Community: love shown through menial service. It doesn’t take much water to get the point across—only one basinful.

One last water example occurs in John 19:34, after Jesus has been “lifted up” on the cross (3:14; 12:32) as part of his ascent back to God. When a soldier pierces his side, blood and water come out, echoing the sign of water-turned-to-blood-red wine at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The invitation to the water of life comes at the heavy cost of life itself.

A river runs through it 
The final references to water are in the last book of the New Testament—the Apocalypse. Some images of judgment involve the poisoning of water (Revelation 8:10-11) or the drying up of the great river Euphrates (16:12)—reminding us of water contaminated through fracking or oil spills, or water fights in the U.S. Southwest over what’s left of the Colorado River.

But ultimately beauty and abundance predominate. Although John’s gospel and Revelation have different authors and writing styles, they converge on the image of living water. The Lamb will guide the multitudes from every nation to springs of the water of life (Revelation 7:17). The one who sits on the throne promises, “To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life” (Revelation 21:6).

This gift is for all who live in the New Jerusalem: “The angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.” This river is productive. “On either side of the river is the tree of life with its 12 kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (22:1-2). The vision of the future is solid and substantial. We will never outgrow our need for water.

In the meantime, back to earthy affairs
Was the Samaritan woman disappointed that Jesus did not magically provide a bubbling spring in her back yard to eliminate trips to the well? Some have suggested she was a social outcast because of her past history of five husbands (John 4:18) and because she came to the well at high noon to avoid other women (4:6). On the other hand, her conversation with Jesus portrays an intelligent, inquisitive woman with theological interests. And she was persuasive enough to bring many of her townspeople back to the well to meet Jesus and be persuaded to believe in him as the “savior of the world” (4:42).

Through this unexpected encounter, an unnamed woman not only found Jesus’ internal living water, but she and her water jar were likely invited back into the community of women who gathered daily at the well in the cool of the morning. Part of her gift of living water may well have been a party line on the ancient equivalent of Sychar’s telephone tree!

Reta Halteman Finger, who taught Bible at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., is the author of Roman House Churches for Today and co-author of Creating a Scene in Corinth: A Simulation (2013).