Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community

By Craig R. Koester | Go to book overview

5 Water

IMAGES OF WATER, LIKE THOSE OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS, CREATE ANOTHER rich and variegated motif. John baptized with water in order to reveal the one God sent to baptize with the Holy Spirit (1:24–25), and Jesus transformed water into wine, manifesting his glory (2:6). Nicodemus was told that a person had to be born of water and the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God (3:5), and John’s disciples learned that people went to Jesus for baptism because it had been granted from heaven (3:22–27). Jesus offered living water to a woman of Samaria, who left her water jar to bring her townspeople to meet him (4:10, 28); and with a word he healed an invalid who sought help from the troubled waters of the pool at Bethzatha (5:7–8). At the Feast of Booths, Jesus invited all who thirsted to come and drink of living water (7:37–39), and he gave sight to a blind man who washed in the pool of Siloam (9:7). On the eve of his death, Jesus poured water into a basin and washed his disciples’ feet in the manner of a slave (13:5). He was crucified the next day; and when a soldier pierced his side with a spear, blood and water came out (19:34).

These references to water convey meaning through one of the most common elements of human life; drinking and washing are part of a daily routine for people everywhere. Because no one can live without water, it is widely used in religious symbolism, and common experience enables it to call forth a range of different and even contradictory associations. A glass of cool water is refreshing on the tongue, but waves surging over one’s head bring the threat of drowning. The gentle rains that spatter on parched earth awaken the seeds within it to life, but the torrents that wash down the hillsides wreak destruction. Paradoxically, water brings both life and death.1

1. Stemberger, Symbolique, 149–51. On the water motif see Jones, Symbol of Water; Ng, Water Symbolism in John; Culpepper, Anatomy, 92–95; van der Watt, Family, 238–35.

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