Spiritualism and the New Testament: John: Jn 4:10-15ff; 7:37-39

John 4:10-15ff (21-24); 7:37-39

In the recent notes on 3:31-36, I discussed how those verses form conclusion to chapters 1-3 as a division of the Gospel. At the same time, it is clear that there is a literary relationship between the Nicodemus discourse in chapter 3 (vv. 1-21, cf. the previous study) and the Samaritan Woman discourse in chapter 4 (vv. 1-42). Each discourse involves a specific individual who embodies one end of the spectrum spanning the entirety of Jewish/Palestinian society.

On the one hand there is Nicodemus, a learned and prominent Jewish man, a leading religious figure and member of the Jerusalem Council (3:1; cf. also 7:50; 19:39). On the other side, we have the Samaritan woman, an ordinary (and uneducated) person, who, because of her gender, ethnic-religious status (as a Samaritan), and her personal marital/sexual history (vv. 16-18), was a marginalized individual, at the outcast fringe of society.

Yet, despite the marked differences between these two figures, they each hold a comparable place within the Discourse-framework, and in the way that they interact with Jesus. Consider, for example, how Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman each identify Jesus in conventional religious terms, which reflect a certain measure of belief, and yet evince a fundamental lack of understanding regarding Jesus’ true identity.

In 3:2, Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus is an inspired/prophetic teacher sent by God, yet this does not prevent him from completely misunderstanding Jesus’ words (vv. 4, 9-10ff). After her initial exchange with Jesus, the humble Samaritan woman is able to proceed further than Nicodemus in the direction of understanding. She recognizes that Jesus is a genuine Prophet (4:19), and soon becomes aware that he is the Anointed (Messianic) Prophet of the end-time (vv. 25-26).

There are other points of similarity between the two discourses, both thematic and formal. Particularly notable for this study is how the misunderstanding in each discourse is based on a double-meaning. In the case of the Nicodemus discourse, the double-meaning involves the adverb a&wqen, “from above”, which can also be used a temporal sense, “from the beginning, again”. When Jesus refers to a person being born “from above” (a&wqen), Nicodemus hears born “again”, and thinks Jesus is talking about a person having a second physical/biological birth (v. 4). But, in fact, Jesus is speaking of a spiritual birth (“born of the Spirit,” vv. 5-8), with “above” (a&nw[qen]) denoting spatially the ‘place’ where God Himself dwells and is present (v. 31).

Something quite similar occurs in the Samaritan Woman discourse, and the misunderstanding, in this instance, involves the verbal adjective (participle) zw=n (“living”), from the verb za/w (“[to] live”). Here the adjective modifies the noun u%dwr, in the expression “living water” (u%dwr zw=n), which is central to the main saying by Jesus in verse 10:

“If you had seen [i.e. known] the gift of God, and who is the (one) saying to you, ‘Give me (water) to drink,’ you would (have) asked him, and he would (have) given to you living water.”

The woman’s response (vv. 11-12) reveals her misunderstanding. In Hebrew idiom, “living water” (<yY]j^ <y]m^) means flowing/running water, as in a river or fountain, rather than water that has collected in a pool or cistern—e.g., Lev 14:5-6, 50-52; 15:13; Num 19:17. The woman, like Nicodemus, understands Jesus’ words on this ordinary material level, while, in truth, he is speaking on the spiritual level. The question by Nicodemus and the Samaritan Woman, respectively, leads to an exposition by Jesus (3:5-8; 4:13-14), in which he begins to explain the true meaning of his words. That is, to the Samaritan Woman, he explains what he truly means by the expression “living water”:

“Every (one) drinking out of this water will thirst again; but who ever would drink out of the water which I give to him, he will not thirst (again) into the Age, but (rather) the water which I shall give to him shall come to be in him a fountain of water leaping up unto (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life].”

The water which Jesus gives leads to eternal life—this the true meaning of “living water”. And what is this water? For the Gospel writer, there can be no doubt that it refers to the Spirit. Compare the similar declaration by Jesus in 7:37-38:

“If any (one) should thirst, let him come toward me and drink. (For) the (one) trusting in me, (it is) just as the Writing said: ‘Streams out of his belly shall flow, of living water.'”

The motif of living/flowing water here is indicated by the image of river-streams (potamoi/), rather than a spring/fountain (phgh/), but the idea is essentially the same. An explanatory comment by the author (or editor) follows in verse 39:

“Now he said this about the Spirit, which the (one)s (hav)ing trusted in him were about to receive…”

This contrast between the material and the spiritual occurs repeatedly throughout the Johannine Discourses, and is a fundamental expression of Johannine spiritualism. Jesus refers to something from the material realm (such as flowing water) and uses it to symbolize the Spirit. Jesus “gives” the Spirit to the person who trusts in him, and this allows the believer to experience the eternal life of God.

In the Nicodemus discourse, there also was an association between water and the Spirit (vv. 5-8), along with a similar kind of contrast—between an ordinary physical/material birth (“out of water”) and a spiritual birth (“out of the Spirit” [= “from above”]). Here, in chapter 4, the water-motif has a different significance, emphasizing the presence of the Spirit within the believer. This is another important aspect of Johannine spiritualism. The Johannine writings, more than any other New Testament scripture, emphasize the internal presence and work of the Spirit within the individual believer.

The imagery in 4:14 and 7:38 reflects this internal aspect. The living water of the Spirit is located “in him” (e)n au)tw=|), or, more colorfully, “out of his belly” (e)k th=$ koili/a$ au)tou=). Some commentators (e.g., Brown, pp. 320-4) would identify Jesus as the subject of the latter phrase—that is, the living water of the Spirit comes out of Jesus‘ belly, alluding to the symbolic scene at the crucifixion (19:30, 34). This will be discussed in an upcoming note. For the moment, I will adhere to the parallelism between 4:14 and 7:38, understanding the Spirit to come forth out of the believer’s ‘belly’ —i.e., from down deep within.

There is also the additional motif of drinking the living water. The context of 4:13-14 and 7:37-38f makes clear that ‘drinking’ here is symbolic of trust in Jesus. According to the Johannine theological idiom, we may go a step further and declare that what the believer ‘drinks’ is the word which Jesus brings. Jesus’ words serve as a witness to his identity as the Son of God sent from heaven. By ‘drinking’ his word(s), through faith, the living Word himself comes to be present within the believer, releasing the living power and presence of the Spirit—the Divine/eternal Spirit which is shared by both the Son (the Word) and the Father. This Word-Spirit association will be discussed further in the next article.

It should be noted that the Spirit is not specifically mentioned in 4:13-14, even though there can be no doubt that the “living water” is to be identified with the Spirit, as in 7:39 (cf. above). Jesus does, however, mention the Spirit further on in his discourse with the Samaritan Woman. It is worth considering the outline of the discourse to see how the development takes place (for a more detailed outline of chapter 4 as whole, cf. my earlier note on vv. 10-14):

    • Central saying by Jesus (v. 10)
    • Reaction by the Woman (vv. 11-12)
    • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 13-14)
    • Reaction by the Woman (v. 15)
    • Exposition by Jesus—Messianic dialogue (vv. 16-26)

The Nicodemus discourse follows a similar outline-structure, with two reactions and corresponding expositions by Jesus. The woman’s second reaction (v. 15) shows that she is nearing a true faith/trust in Jesus, but still fails to understand the spiritual nature of his words. The dialogue-exposition by Jesus, in response, may be outlined as follows:

    • Miracle—demonstration of Jesus’ (divine) foreknowledge (vv. 16-18)
      • Declaration by the woman:
        “I look (on and perceive) that you are (the) Foreteller” (v. 19)
        and statement relating to the role of the Messiah (v. 20)
        • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 21-24)
      • Declaration by the woman:
        “I see [i.e. know] that the Mashiaµ {Messiah} comes” (v. 25a)
        and statement regarding the role of the Messiah (v. 25b)
    • I Am saying—identification of Jesus as the Anointed One of God (v. 26)

As with several other episodes (and discourses) in the Gospel, a miracle, demonstrating Jesus’ God-given power, leads to an “I am” statement by which Jesus effectively declares his special status (and nature) in relation to God the Father. This is the framework for the dialogue in vv. 16-26, within which the portion spanning vv. 19-25 is, as I have already indicated, a kind of “Messianic dialogue” —with a central exposition by Jesus (vv. 21-24) flanked by two declarations by the woman. Each of these declarations has a Messianic significance; for more detail on this, cf. my earlier note on vv. 21-24.

Let us now turn to the central exposition by Jesus, examining briefly, but carefully, the main statements. His initial statement in verse 21 is a direct response to the religious differences (between Samaritans and Jews) mentioned by the woman. I noted above how Nicodemus and the Samaritan Woman, respectively, represent the two ends of the societal spectrum—from prominent (religious) Jew to lowly (non-religious) Samaritan woman. Yet these two figures share a similar position in relation to Jesus. This is significant, as the declaration by Jesus in verse 21 essentially abrogates and removes the religious-cultural differences between Samaritans and Jews:

“Trust me, (my dear) woman, that an hour comes when (it will) not (be) in/on this mountain, and not in Yerushalaim {Jerusalem} (either), that you will worship* the Father.”
* Lit. “kiss toward” (vb proskune/w), as a gesture of homage and adoration; so also in vv. 23-24.

In the New Age, religious expression (and experience) will no longer be realized through a specific physical location—represented here by the central difference (between Jews and Samaritans) regarding the place for worship. Jesus’ statement is given from an eschatological point of view— “an hour comes”. At that time, worship will transcend specific (sacred) places, etc, rooted in ancient ethnic and religious traditions. For the present—that is, at the moment when he is speaking with the woman—it would seem that Jesus recognizes (and even affirms!) the religious differences (v. 22). He appears to speak from the Israelite/Jewish standpoint, which represents the “correct” religious tradition; yet, if Jesus seems to confirm the religious-cultural distinctions in v. 22, he eliminates them again, repeating (even more forcefully) his statement in v. 21:

“But an hour comes, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in (the) Spirit and (the) Truth—for (it is) even (that) the Father seeks these (very sorts of people) worshiping him.” (v. 23)

What Jesus characterizes as true (a)lh/qino$) worship is said to occur, not in a specific place, but, rather, “in (the) Spirit and Truth” (e)n pneu/mati kai\ a)lhqei/a|).

Yet when and how will this true worship occur? Jesus has modified the eschatological orientation of v. 21; instead of saying “an hour comes”, he states: “an hour comes, and now is [kai\ nu=n e)stin]” —that is to say, it is here now, in the present. Believers experience now, in the present, what traditionally would be experienced by the righteous at the end time (in the Age to Come). The basis for this ‘realized’ eschatology is trust in the person and work of Jesus.

The Johannine Christological theme of Jesus (the Son) making God the Father known to believers is very much central to this passage. Worship in the Spirit, which is the only true worship (“in the Spirit and Truth”), can only be realized through the gift of the Spirit (the “living water,” cf. above). Jesus (the Son) gives the Spirit, which is given to him by the Father (3:34-35)—the ultimate source of the Spirit is God the Father. Jesus expresses this clearly enough in the concluding verse 24:

“God (is) Spirit, and the (one)s worshiping Him, it is necessary (for them) to worship (Him) in (the) Spirit and Truth.”

We cannot truly worship God, who is Spirit, unless we are in the Spirit. This is not a temporary, charismatic phenomenon, but an essential and permanent condition—it is the very Life (eternal, divine Life) given to us by Jesus (the Son) from the Father.

Jesus’ words in vv. 21-24 would seem to be among the most explicitly spiritualistic statements in the New Testament. Yet there are legitimate questions as to the extent of this spiritualism. I will be discussing this sensitive subject in a supplemental note, addressing both vv. 21-24 and the famous saying in 6:63 (within the apparent eucharistic context of vv. 51-58). First, however, it will be necessary to devote an article to 6:63 and the setting of the chapter 6 “Bread of Life” discourse.

References above marked “Brown” are to Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Gospel According to John I-XII, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 29 (1966).


“…Spirit and Life”: John 4:10-14

John 4:10-14

Having discussed the use of zwh/ (“life”) in the discourses of chapter 3, we now turn to the discourse of Jesus with the Samaritan woman in chapter 4. This draws upon an encounter episode (or tradition), like that involving Nicodemus in 3:1-21. The dialogue format of the chapter 4 discourse is more complex, with considerably more interaction between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. We may outline the passage as follows:

    • Narrative setting (vv. 1-6a, with vv. 1-3 providing the transition from 3:22-36)
    • Historical tradition—encounter episode (vv. 6b-9) established between Jesus and the Samaritans (esp. the Samaritan woman at the well)
    • Discourse #1—Jesus and the Woman
      • Central saying by Jesus (v. 10)
      • Reaction by the Woman (vv. 11-12)
      • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 13-14)
      • Reaction by the Woman (v. 15)
      • Exposition by Jesus—Messianic dialogue (vv. 16-26)
    • Historical tradition (continued)—encounter episode developed between Jesus and the Samaritans (vv. 27-30)
    • Discourse #2—Jesus and the Disciples
      • Central saying by Jesus (v. 32)
      • Reaction by the Disciples (v. 33)
      • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 34-38)
    • Narrative conclusion (vv. 39-42)

Thus we may say that there are two (parallel) mini-discourses which comprise the larger narrative. The parallelism is obvious enough from the opening verses:

    • Jesus asks the woman for something to drink (v. 7)
      • He states that he has “living water” (v. 10)
    • The disciples ask Jesus to eat something (v. 31)
      • He states that he has “food to eat which you have not seen” (v. 32)

Today, we are interested in the first discourse (with the Samaritan woman)—the main saying by Jesus (v. 10), the woman’s reaction (vv. 11-12), and exposition by Jesus (vv. 13-14). Here is the central saying, following upon Jesus’ initial request for something to drink (“Give me to drink”, v. 7):

“If you had seen [i.e. known] the gift of God, and who is the (one) saying to you, ‘Give me to drink’, you would (have) asked him, and he would (have) given to you living water [u%dwr zw=n].” (v. 10)

Twice the verb di/dwmi (“give”) is used, along with the related noun dwrea/[n] (“gift”). This is important to keep in mind, with reference to the repeated use of the same verb (di/dwmi) in chapter 3 (vv. 16, 27, 34-35, cf. the previous note). Comparison with 3:34-35 is helpful for an understanding of the saying in v. 10:

    • (God) the Father “has given” into the Son’s hand (3:35)
      — “the gift of God” (4:10a)
    • The Son “gives the Spirit” (3:34)
      — “he would give you living water” (4:10b)

This strongly indicates an association between the Spirit and “living water”. However, the reaction of the woman in vv. 11-12 makes it clear that she has not understood this, but rather takes the idiom “living water” in its traditional sense—i.e. as running water (from a river or spring), contrasted to the water stored in a well or pond (Hebrew <yY]j^ <y]m^, Lev 14:5-6, 50-52; 15:13; Num 19:17; Song 4:15). Already in Jer 17:13, this idiom has been applied in a symbolic sense, referring to the life which comes from God, who is the source of life. Moreover, flowing (i.e. “living”) water was used frequently, in an ethical (and spiritual) sense, in Wisdom literature, and/or in relation to the Torah within Jewish tradition—cf. Prov 13:14; 18:4; Sirach 24:21-29; CD 19:34, etc. There are reasonably close parallels to Jesus’ language and imagery e.g., in Isa 55:3 and Sir 24:21.

The Samaritan woman’s reaction, and the misunderstanding which marks it (a typical element of the Johannine discourses), is expressed in verse 11:

“(My) lord, you hold no (pail for) taking up (water), and the well is deep—(from) where, then, (would) you hold this ‘living water’?”

In verse 6a, the word phgh/ was used, referring to a (flowing) spring or fountain of water; by contrast, here in verse 11, the word is fre/ar, a pit or cistern dug into the ground. The idea is certainly that of a well dug deep into the ground which taps into the spring/fountain of water. From the woman’s standpoint, she knows only of the well (fre/ar); if there is a spring of flowing (i.e. “living”) water, it lies deep below, and she has no way of accessing it. This is the basis of her question to Jesus, wondering how he, from were he is sitting (at the well), could possibly have access to “living water”. The question in verse 12 may have been intended in a light-hearted or joking manner, asking whether Jesus was “greater than our father Ya’qob {Jacob} who gave us th(is) well”. For the Gospel writer, however, it is a prescient question, forshadowing the exposition of Jesus which follows, beginning with verses 13-14:

“Every one drinking out of this water [i.e. from the well] will thirst again; but whoever should drink out of the water which I will give him will not (ever) thirst into the Age, but (rather) the water which I will give him will come to be in him a spring/fountain [phgh/] of water leaping (up) into (the) Life of the Age.”

We find again the use of the word phgh/ (also in v. 6, cf. above), referring to a spring/fountain which is the source of flowing (i.e. “living”) water. Only now it has been internalized, given a spiritual interpretation (and application). For the person (believer) to whom Jesus gives this water, it comes to be in [e)n] him—that is, inside or within—as a perennial spring (phgh/) constantly providing water. It is no longer a question of drinking water to quench thirst, but of having no thirst at all, because of the living water coming up from within. This “leaping” up (vb. a%llomai) of the living water begins now, in the present, and continues on into the Age to Come (ei)$ to\n ai)w=na); moreover, it is identified with the expression “Life of the Age” (ei)$ zwh\n ai)w/nion) which we encountered in chapter 3 (cf. the previous note), and which is typically translated as “eternal life”.

As discussed above, the “living water” which Jesus gives is to be identified with the Spirit. The statement in 3:34, along with other passages in the Gospel, allows us to assume this. But it also is confirmed by what follows in this very discourse, within the dialogue-exposition of vv. 16-26—especially the central exposition by Jesus in vv. 21-24. I will be discussing this in the next note.