It started at a prayer meeting several weeks ago. While praying for my city I felt led to read Jesus’ words and to pray for the Spirit to come afresh to my city, “Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.’ By this he meant the Holy Spirit” (John 7:37-39).
The image of a spring of the Holy Spirit set my mind ablaze. The town I live and minister in is Safety Harbor—the ‘Green Spring city.’ According to the local legend, the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto discovered the natural springs of our city when he landed in Tampa Bay ca. 1539. Believing that springs were the site of Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth, he christened these springs Espiritu Santo—the springs of the Holy Spirit. These springs now sit in the belly of a Spa and Resort in town. Over the years it has been the site of bathhouses and health spas. These waters that flowed here were once revered and sought after for their healing properties.
Thinking of springs of living water in a prayer meeting made me wonder about the metaphoric and spiritual significance of water in John’s gospel. I do better reading the Bible if I ask questions for the text. So I read through John looking for water. Four of John’s ‘sign’ miracles involve water: The wedding of Cana (2:1-12), the healing at the pool of Bethesda (5:1-15), Jesus’ walking on water (6:16-24), Healing of the blind man when he washes in the pool of Siloam (John 9:7; 11; 15). Additionally Jacob’s Well provides a meeting place between Jesus and a Samaritan woman (John 4) and Jesus washes his disciples feet (John 13). During the crucifixion, Jesus thirst (19:28) and the act is done when blood and water pour from the wound in Christ’s side (19:34). The book closes on the shores of Galilee when several disciples meet the Lord after a night after returning to fishing (John 21). While there are several other motifs in John’s gospel, water flows through it.
But as I read John’s gospel and asked questions about water and its significance I also noticed where water was lacking. The gospel that gives us ‘living water’ is surprisingly not wet. While the synoptic gospels record several trips across the Sea of Galilee by Jesus and the disciples in John the disciples are in the boat in just two chapters (in John 6 framing the feeding of the five-thousand and their return to fishing in John 21). Even the call of Simon and Andrew is surprisingly waterless. Jesus doesn’t board Simon’s boat and send him to deep water so he can teach the crowds (like he does in Luke 5). Nor are we told of Jesus’ encounter with Simon Peter and Andrew and the sons of Zebedee while they were mending their nets (like in both Mark and Matthew). Instead Andrew seeks out Jesus because of John the Baptist’s testimony about him. He runs and tells Simon, ‘We have found the Messiah” (John 1:42). Here their coming to Jesus emphasizes their coming more than Christ’s initial call, but it is noticeably dryer.
I think part of what John is doing in drying out the scene is playing with the metaphor of water. The theme of thirst becomes more significant and urgent under the dry Palestinian sun (John 4, 6:35, 7:37, and 19:28). The lack of water makes us pay attention when we find it. But often John’s gospel sets out to marginalize the importance of water, setting it alongside God’s spirit and Christ’s presence.
The first time we see water in the text is chapter 1. John the Baptizer comes a baptizing (1:28). He tells the Pharisees, “I baptize with water” (1:26). The one who would come after him (Jesus) was going to baptize with the Holy Spirit (and not just water). In John 2:1-12, six jugs for ceremonial washing are filled with water and transformed to new wine. As significant as baptism (and other ceremonial cleansing is) the Spirit and New Wine are offered as something radically better. In John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus that those in the Kingdom need to be born not only of water but also of the Spirit (3:5). It is clear from these texts that water is valued as a natural commodity, but Jesus was unfolding a spiritual, supernatural reality. By the end of chapter three we learn that Jesus’ disciples are baptizing more people than John (3:26; 4:1).
Water is again compared with the things of God continues in John 4. Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at well and asks her for a drink. They begin with a conversation about water. But Jesus turns the conversation to something better than mere water. Something he calls living water,” If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water” (4:10). And again, “Anyone who drinks this water [the water from the well] will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:13, 14). By the end of their conversation, the woman leaves her water jug (this is significant) and goes to tell people of her town about Jesus (4:28).
In John 5, an invalid for thirty-eight years is unable to get himself to the waters of Bethesda to heal himself when an angel troubles the water. Jesus comes and heals the man instantly. Telling him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk” (5:8). Jesus is greater than healing waters.
In John 6, again Jesus promises that those who come to him will never thirst (John 6:35). This time he compares the thirst quenching aspect of water to being nourished by his presence—eating his flesh and drinking his blood (6:53-58). The crowds desert Jesus preferring easier, more digestible fare, but here again Jesus is setting the supernatural over and against the merely natural. Just before this Jesus appears to his disciples walking on the waters (6:16-24).
In John 7:37-8, the passage that sent me on my quest, Jesus promises those who believe in him would be filled with rivers of living water and John interprets this for us, “By this he meant the Holy Spirit.” In a number of texts we see Jesus (and John the Baptist) poking at the significance and necessity of water: to signify repentance, to wash, to quench thirst, to heal. Yet as we see over and over again as significant water is for human flourishing, what Jesus brings is far richer and more meaningful than anything water brings us. Just as we thirst for water, we ought to thirst after the things of God.
So I sit in my church office, not a half mile away from the springs my city is founded on. While there is legend of the healing properties and significance of theses springs, I know this city needs something more. May the springs of the Holy Spirit flow through Safety Harbor. Springs greater than anything that occurs in the natural world. May this city encounter Jesus afresh and find freedom, healing, cleansing and satisfaction in him.