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What is the “living water” that Jesus offers the Samaritan woman in this passage?
Sometimes when we are reading a book, if we come to a new vocabulary word in the book, we will either look back through the pages we have already read to find the definition, or we expect the author to tell us right away.
But the Bible—especially the Gospel of John—doesn’t work that way at all.
In the case of “living water”, for example, Jesus first mentions the term in John 4. But he takes his time in telling us what he means. In fact, the definition of the term only appears several chapters later, in John 7, long after the Samaritan women has left the well and Jesus and his disciples have left Samaria. Long after everyone else has forgotten about living water (including many readers of the Gospel of John), Jesus is in Jerusalem during the Feast of Tabernacles. He suddenly stands up and cries to the crowd, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”
When Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that he can give her living water, unbeknownst to her, he is actually offering her the Holy Spirit.
Now that John has finally given us the definition of living water, we are left with a new mystery: Who is the Holy Spirit? What does he do?
The Nicene Creed tells us that the Holy Spirit is, with the Father and the Son, worshiped and glorified. The Creed also says he is the Lord and the giver of life. It says, further, that he has spoken through the prophets. That means that the Holy Spirit is a person and not a force, and that is exactly how Scripture presents him. We learn in Genesis 1:2 that the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters at the creation of the world. At Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit is again hovering over the waters as he descends upon the newly baptized Jesus.
As Christians, we believe in one God that is three persons, not three separate gods or one God appearing in three modes. We believe that all three persons within this Trinity are to be worshiped and glorified. The scriptures frequently show all three persons in the Trinity at work jointly.
Scripture also shows us that the persons of the Trinity are united in love. This is reflected in their speech. The Bible opens with the Father, and yet the Father does not only speak about the Father. The Father speaks about the Son, through the Holy Spirit who speaks through the prophets. Then in the New Testament, when the Son talks, he does not only speak about the Son but also about the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, as the Nicene Creed says, proceeds from the Father and the Son. It is the Holy Spirit who reveals Father and Son to us, guiding us into all truth.
When in our Bible study method we ask, “What is God’s action in this passage?”, we would reply that Jesus, who is God the Son, (1) talks about the Holy Spirit, who is God, and (2) offers the Holy Spirit to people through the Son’s glorification. Because the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God, we could say that God (1) talks about God, and (2) joyfully offers God to all.
So what does John 4 specifically command us to do in response? Nothing–yet. We must keep reading further into the gospel of John. Why? Because in John 7 we learn, “the Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” We should rightly ask: If Jesus was not yet glorified in John 7, then when was he glorified?
As with the “living water” of John 4 that we only come to understand in John 7, we must keep reading and awaiting God’s revelation, which comes later in John.
While I won’t give you a specific answer—as it is a golden opportunity to practice prayerfully seeking God through the scriptures—I will tell you that Jesus has most certainly been glorified, and in a way that only God could have imagined. Because he has been glorified, he can now offer us the “living water”—the Holy Spirit.
But this raises another question:
Is all of this just religious language, or does it really make any difference?
To understand what it means to receive the Holy Spirit, let’s look at verse 14.
“…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.”
Never being thirsty again sounds useful, but this examination of verse 14 has given us more questions than answers. And this is intentional. It is part of God’s character. He does not seek to quickly resolve our questions with clear and easy answers. He speaks always to increase our thirst—intellectually, spiritually, relationally. His speech leads us to ask: What is eternal life?
As you might have guessed, God calls us to keep reading, seeking, and thirsting for the answer.
As we keep reading in John—way ahead to John 17:3—we learn that eternal life means something far greater and more grand than living forever. Jesus says, “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” Eternal life, in other words, means being drawn up into the Trinity itself. It means sharing in the knowledge—the love-defining relationship—that is shared between the Father and the Son. That love is so real, so deep, so completely God that the love is a person: The Holy Spirit.
This is why Jesus says in John 4 that a time is coming when people will not worship on mountains or in temples, but in the Spirit.
The Nicene Creed says that the Holy Spirit is the Lord, the giver of life. When we are baptized and are born into the Spirit, we receive life—spiritual birth—from the Holy Spirit. Through that life, we are drawn up into the fellowship of the Trinity. It is a fellowship where the Father is always loving the Son and the Son is always loving the Father. Because in baptism we are born into the Spirit, we are located where the Spirit is: proceeding between the Father and the Son.
When we are first born into the world, we have our physical being in God—as Paul says in Acts 17:28, “For in him we live and move and have our being.” But because we are born as fallen beings into a fallen world due to the sin of our first parents, we are born physically alive but spiritually dead. Our spirits not only cannot fellowship with God, we cannot even understand him. Only through the gift of the Holy Spirit can we have the spiritual life that makes knowledge of God and fellowship with the Trinity possible.
But how do we know if we have the Holy Spirit?
Some say that speaking in tongues is the litmus test: If you can’t speak in tongues, they say, then you do not have the Holy Spirit. However, speaking in tongues is a gift that comes from the Holy Spirit, and it is one of many. We should not confuse gifts given by the Holy Spirit with the gift of the Holy Spirit himself.
Instead, the Bible is very clear that the Holy Spirit is received through baptism. When Christ was baptized, the Holy Spirit came to rest upon him. When we confess Christ as Lord and are baptized into the death of Christ and raised into the life of Christ, the Holy Spirit comes to live in us. More correctly, we come to live in the Spirit, and because we are in the Spirit we can come to know God and live within the personal love that is shared between the Father and the Son. You can’t get that no matter what church building or mountain you go to. You can only get the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son, as a result of the Son’s glorification.
So, when and how is the Son glorified?
Ask the Holy Spirit, and keep reading in John!