There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give Me a drink.” For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. Therefore the Samaritan woman said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” She said to Him, “Sir, You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do You get that living water? “You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself and his sons and his cattle?” Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.”
The woman said to Him, “Sir, give me this water, so I will not be thirsty nor come all the way here to draw.”
– John 4:7-15, NAU
Jesus left Judea and journeyed through Samaria to Galilee. In John 4:1-42 John narrates the story of Christ’s witness in Samaria. At Sychar, a city in Samaria, Jesus stopped at Jacob’s well. While resting there, a woman of Samaria came to draw water. The disciples had gone into the city to buy food.
The story includes the conversation between Jesus and the woman of Samaria, the return of the disciples from the city, and the witnessing of the Samaritan woman who went into the city, Christ’s harvest exhortation, the conversion of many Samaritans. As Erdman (p. 44) says, “It would be difficult to find a finer piece of dramatic writing than is contained in the dialogue between Jesus and the woman at Jacob’s well, and in the subsequent narrative of her testimony to her fellow townsmen.”
Our purpose is to comment on the role of the Holy Spirit in the story. According to Keener (Gospel, p. 585), “The heart of the story appears in 4:23-24: the Father has been seeking true worshippers who will worship him in Spirit and truth, and that was why the Father sent Jesus (4:4) to this particular woman.” Thus, the Holy Spirit has a central role in the story.
The main subject of the story is eternal life. Indeed, in the entire Gospel of John eternal life is the dominant theme. John is talking about God’s offer of eternal life and how people may have it. He wrote so that men (John 20:31) might believe in Christ and have eternal life. The heart of the matter is that to have eternal life, people must believe in Jesus. Jesus said (John 14:16): “‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.'” (Compare I John 5:12)
All three Persons of the Trinity have a role in giving eternal life to believers. John tells us that: (1) both the Father and the Son (John 5:26) have life in themselves; (2) the Father gave His Son (John 3:16) that we might have eternal life; (3) the Son (John 5:21) gives life to whom He chooses, (4) the Spirit quickens (John 6:63) and gives life; and (4) those who hear Christ’s word and believe in God have eternal life. Thus, the Word also has a role in providing eternal life.
The words of Jesus in verses 10 and 13-14 are central to verses 7-15. Jesus does not use the word Spirit, but He does use the terms “gift of God” and “living water.” In addition He uses the term “drink.” An understanding of Jesus’ comments in verses 10 and 13-14, and thus the entire story, depends on what He means by these terms.
The Gift of God
To whom or to what does the term “gift of God” refer? The main options are: (1) spiritual life, (2) the Holy Spirit, or (3) Jesus.
First, let us consider the option of spiritual life. According to Lenski (pp. 305-306), the “gift of God” is “living water,” and “living water” is simply “spiritual life.” He says, further, that Jesus implies that He Himself is the giver of the gift. The text says the “gift of God.” Therefore, the thought that Jesus is God has to be supplied. The objection is not fatal to the view because Jesus is God!
Second, some hold that the “gift of God” refers to the Holy Spirit. Dunn (p. 187) maintains that (1) Luke uses the term “gift of God” to refer to the Spirit and (2) this term was a “more or less” standard expression for the Spirit in early Christianity. Agreeing with Dunn, Burge (p. 99) says that “gift of God” was a “technical term” for the Holy Spirit. John himself does not use the term anywhere else. Here, he may well have used the term with his own meaning.
Third, the best alternative is that “gift of God” refers to Jesus Himself. God “gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16). Moreover, God (John 3:35) “has given all things into His hand.” The Son, in turn, gives to us. According to Wescott (p. 69), the gift of God is the “gift of the His Son (iii.16) in which was included all that man could want.” Thus, Wescott (p. 69) can also say, “‘The gift of God’ is all that is freely offered in the Son.” It appears that Jesus talks about His own gift of living water to us in verse 10.
John’s own language points to the Son as the gift of God. Using this alternative, the word “and” [kai] explains what goes before. According to Arndt and Gingrich (Lexicon, p. 393), kai can be interpreted as “and so, that is, namely.” The resulting paraphrased interpretation is: “If you knew the gift of God, even (namely) the one (who it is) who says to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.”
In verse 10 Jesus refers to living water (hudor zon). Then, in verse 14, He speaks about “‘a well of water springing up to eternal life.”‘ Living water abundantly gives and sustains life.
When “living” applies to literal water, it means flowing water as opposed to stagnant water. Moreover, the flowing water is spring water. According to Wescott (p. 70), springing up describes “the ‘leaping’ of a thing of life, and not the more ‘gushing up’ of a fountain.”
To whom or to what does the metaphor “living water” refer? These alternatives have been suggested: (1) spiritual life, (2) Jesus Himself, (3) Jesus’ teaching, (4) the Holy Spirit, or (5) multiple meanings.
First, an option is spiritual life. The ultimate point of the passage is that the woman will receive eternal life. However, if we read verse 14 with precision, the gift that Jesus gives is not life, but that which springs up into eternal life. Even so, we cannot preclude spiritual life as one of the meanings of this figure of speech.
Second, does “living water” refer to Jesus Himself? Many answer in the affirmative. Ladd holds this view in his comment on eternal life. He writes (p. 257):
This life is not only mediated through Jesus and his word; it is resident in his very person (5:26). He is the living bread who gives life (6:51ff.) and the living water (4:10, 14). God is the ultimate source of life; but the Father has granted the Son to have life in himself (5:26). Therefore Jesus could say, “I am the life” (11:25; 14:6).
In some ways this alternative is attractive. Certainly, it is possible. Perhaps the strongest argument against it is that Jesus seems to be referring to a gift that is “other than” Himself. His language does not seem to suggest a gift of Himself to the woman. Yet, there is a close relationship between the Spirit and Christ.
Third, some hold that “living water” refers to the teaching of Jesus. This, too, is in some ways attractive. In John 6:63 Jesus said, “‘the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.'” Then, in John 12:50 Jesus said: “‘I know that His commandment is eternal life; therefore the things I speak, I speak just as the Father has told Me.'” Thus, life is mediated by the words of Jesus.
Fourth, some hold that “living water” refers to the Holy Spirit. Jesus says in John 6:63, “‘It is the Spirit who give life; the flesh profits nothing.” Moreover, in John 7:38 Jesus talks about rivers of “living water.” John immediately makes it clear (John 7:39) that Jesus was referring to the Spirit who those who believed in Him were about to receive. The term “living water” at least includes the Spirit. If we narrow the meaning to only one referent, then the Holy Spirit is the best solution.
Jesus, His words, and the Holy Spirit all issue forth in life. On one occasion Ladd (p. 257) writes that Jesus is the living water, giving John 4:10 and 14 to support his view. Elsewhere (p. 284), he writes that water is a symbol of the life giving operation of the Spirit. He supports this with John 4:14 and 7:38.
Fifth, perhaps the answer lies in John’s use of double entendre. Figures of speech may have double or multiple meanings. Morris (p. 257) states, “It seems likely that the primary meaning here is the Holy Spirit. But, in a manner so typical of this Gospel, there may also be a reference to Jesus’ teaching. If so, it will be to His teaching as issuing forth into spiritual life.” Taking an even more flexible stance, Westcott (p. 69) states:
This [living water] under various aspects my be regarded as the Revelation of the Truth, or the gift of the Holy Spirit, individually or socially, or whatever, according to varying circumstances, lead to that eternal life (v. 14) which consists in the knowledge of God and His Son Jesus Christ (xvii.3).
Drinks and Never Thirst
Jesus said (verse 14), “but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” What does he mean by “drinks” and never “thirst?” Here, we will examine these figures of speech as well as the verbs “shall give” and “shall become.”
First, let us examine the term “drinks.” Jesus offers the woman of Samaria and all others water. His gift is “living water.” The water can be interpreted as (1) spiritual life, (2) the Holy Spirit, (3) Jesus, or (4) can refer broadly to all that leads to life.
Several points are important to our discussion. One, the term “drinks” means “believes” in Christ and “receives” His gift. Jesus is using a figure of speech. Like the term “living water,” the figurative term “drinks” can be flexibly interpreted. The element of faith is involved. The one who believes in Christ receives His gift.
Two, the verb “drinks” in the context of this verse puts the emphasis on the initial act of believing and receiving, but it does not limit us to the initial act. We must keep on believing and receiving.
The Greek verb for “drinks” is the subjunctive aorist piei. According to Lenski (p. 310), this verb “expresses one act of drinking, which is never repeated.” The aorist tense, however, does not demand a single, unrepeated act. As Shank (p. 80) does, we might regard piei here as a constative aorist. Concerning the constative aorist, Wallace (p. 557) writes, “The event might be iterative in nature, or durative, or momentary, but the aorist says none of this. It places the stress on the act of the occurrence, not its nature.”
According to the NAU, Jesus said (John 7:37-38), “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.'” NAU With regard to these verses, Stott (pp. 53-54) writes:
Now the verbs (thirsting, coming, drinking, believing) are all in the present tense. So we are not only to come to Jesus once, in penitence and faith, but also thereafter to keep coming and to keep drinking, because we keep thirsting.
Three, the promise of Jesus had both a present and future fulfillment. As far as the present was concerned, the woman of Samaria was eligible immediately to drink the living water. Just as Jesus told Nicodemus he must be born again, so Jesus promised her this special gift. Apparently, she believed in Christ because she went into the city witnessing. Many were converted that very day. Nevertheless, there would be a greater fulfillment of Christ’s offer. The Spirit who was to come would not be given until after Jesus was glorified (John 7:38-39; 14:17).
Throughout the gospel of John, there is tension between the present fulfillment of Christ’s ministry and the future consummation after His death, burial, and resurrection. Moreover, when Christ returns, there will be an even greater fulfillment!
Second, in verse 14, Jesus says, “that I shall give.” The future tense allows for a drink of “water” anytime from the moment He spoke on. As with the act of drinking, the full realization of His gift will come later, but the gift was given in a measure that very day. The testimony of the woman of Samaria to the people of the city was powerful. Later, they heard Christ Himself, and this greatly strengthened their faith.
Third, Jesus said that whoever drinks of the water He offers “shall never thirst.” Here, the word “thirst” is used figuratively of spiritual thirst. Wescott (p. 70) holds that thirst should be interpreted “in the sense of feeling the pain or an unsatisfied want, Rev. vii.16.” The believer no longer thirsts in this sense because he has a well of living water springing up within him. This does not mean, however, that the believer never in any way thirsts again. In another sense we keep on thirsting for the living water. The living water is readily available for us to keep on drinking.
Fourth, Jesus (verse 14) says that the living water “shall become” a well of water springing up to eternal life. Here, as in “I shall give,” the future tense allows for an immediate application. The woman of Samaria can participate right way. Nevertheless, the gift will not be fully realized until after the glorification of Jesus.
The central truth of the passage is that Jesus offers the woman of Samaria eternal life. Within the passage, to whom or to what do the terms “gift of God” and “living water” refer? John’s language leaves open the possibility of several options. It may be that John meant for several meanings to be possible. We are not forced to an “either-or” position. These verses are enriched by allowing multiple meanings. We should not impoverish our understanding by closing off what John leaves open.
Nevertheless, in my view, the primary emphasis is that the “gift of God” refers to Jesus. Because of John 3:16, this seems to be the best option. With regard to “living water,” John 7;38-39 supports the view that Jesus was referring to the Holy Spirit. Thus, the main meaning of John 4:10 and 14 is that God gives Jesus; Jesus gives the Spirit; and the presence of the Spirit issues forth into eternal life. When we drink what Jesus offers, we believe in Jesus and receive His gift.
For Further Study
Burge, Gary M. The Anointed Community: The Holy Spirit in the Johannine Tradition. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987.
Clarke, Adam. The New Testament, Vol. I.–Matthew to the Acts. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, n.d.
Dunn, James D. G. Baptism in the Holy Spirit. London: SCM Press Ltd. 1970.
Hull, William E. The Broadman Bible Commentary: Commentary on John. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1970.
Keener, Craig. S. The Gospel of John, Vol. 1. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003.
Ladd, George Eldon. A Theology of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974.
Lenski, R. C. H. St. John’s Gospel. Columbus: The Wartburg Press, 1942.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1971.
Swete, Henry Barclay. The Holy Spirit in the New Testament. London: Macmillan and Company, 1910.
Wescott, B. F. The Gospel According to St. John. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971.
Copyright © 2004 By George M. Flattery