Throughout human history, the quest for God has often been connected with a quest for freshwater. Just off the road in the Scottish village of Invermoriston is an ancient well fed by a spring that has existed since pre-Christian times. According to local legend, the spring was once toxic and people feared the water, believing it was possessed by evil spirits. When people drank from it, they sickened and developed ulcers. The bad water killed many. Around the year 565, Columba, the missionary abbot from the Isle of Iona, arrived in the village and prayed over the spring. The evil spirits fled, the spring ran clear, and the water became fit to drink and acquired healing powers. Columba’s ancient biographer wrote: “Since that day the demons have kept away from the well. Instead, far from harming anyone, after the saint had blessed it and washed in it, many elements among the local people were cured by that well.” The missionary’s fame spread through the Scottish highlands, where he performed many miracles with water – not least when he encountered a great sea monster and chased it into the deep waters of Loch Ness.
Columba’s story is only one of many such tales recounted in Christian legends and church history. Many stories of Biblical figures, prophets, saints, and healers involve water. Shrines, temples, and cathedrals were built over spring and ancient healing wells, including famous Christian sites like Chartres Cathedral and the shrine at Lourdes in France. At the entrance to the church founded by Columba on the Isle of Iona stands a holy well, a place of baptism and cleansing for converts and pilgrims. Celtic Christianity is replete with legends of heroes and shamans who journeyed over water, of sea monsters, river goddesses, well-dwelling wizards, musical waterfalls, and healing dews. Indeed, every saint in Irish and Scottish lore performed miracles having to do with water, including Patrick, who, like Columba, drove malevolent spirits from springs and wells and then used the blessed water to baptize converts.
And the quest for sacred water is not limited to Christianity. From the Ganges to Lourdes, from the Jordan to Japan’s sacred waterfalls, and around the globe, faithful pilgrims make their way to places where they believe holy water will cleanse or cure them. The Hebrew creation story in Genesis begins with water; it is the only thing that exists with God before the rest of the world is made. Jewish spiritual texts are replete with water stories, whether of the great drought of Joseph’s time, Moses parting the Red Sea, or the Jews’ ancestors crossing the Jordan River into the promised land. Indeed, water is such a powerful force in the Hebrew scriptures that the same word, ayin, signifies both “spring” and “eye,” especially the eye of God. Ancient Biblical tradition suggests that waters – wells, springs, oases – are also places of renewal, hospitality, and spiritual vision, where human beings see God and receive God’s blessing. Muslims depict God as the One who sat upon the waters and also believe that water existed before creation began. In the story of Hagar, when Ishmael’s banished mother desperately seeks water in the desert, an angel appears to her, miraculously revealing a spring that saves her and her young son from certain death. For Muslims, water is thus associated with creation, motherhood, and God’s provision, and the faithful imitate Hagar’s frantic search as part of their pilgrimage to Mecca.
Hindus revere all water as sacred, but especially rivers. Most Hindu holy sites are located near water; the most important pilgrimages are to the Ganges River, where one is made pure, sins are forgiven, ancestors are honored, and the dying are ushered to Heaven. Buddhists offer water at shrines to achieve serenity, clarity, and purity, virtues on the path to enlightenment. In some Buddhist traditions, water represents prayers and a bowl of water is a ritual element at funerals. Taoism uses water as its primary metaphor, emphasizing it as the female source of all life, but it also sees water as the image for an entire way of life, leading to its nickname, the “Watercourse Way.” In the native traditions of many cultures, water represents fertility and renewal, the feminine aspect of divinity, and often symbolizing birth and spiritual rebirth. Ancient pagan religions used baths and bathing for ritual cleansing and healing, to seek spiritual wisdom, and to make offerings to the gods.
Water is so ubiquitous in spiritual traditions that Ian Bradley, a professor at St. Andrews University in Scotland, discerned eighteen different metaphors for it common to most world religions – including water as an image for Heaven or paradise, the location of human encounters with God, and the source of life. It functions as a metaphor for death and the journey to the next world, union with the divine, wisdom, and the sacred feminine. It may signal hospitality and generosity, it possesses holiness or blessing, and it is used in the practice of healing.
In the Christian Bible, water plays a central role. Beginning with the Old Testament’s first book, Genesis, water is present with the Spirit before creation; in the last book of the New Testament, Revelation, life-giving water flows from the being of God’s own self. Throughout the Old Testament, watery images serve both as signs of God’s power (for example, the flood, which Noah and his family survive on the ark, and the closing of the Red Sea, which drowns Pharaoh’s army) and the promise of God’s restorative justice (when the desert shall run with streams and fountains spring forth). Indeed, the power of water as a fertility symbol and the spiritual feminine is evident also in these ancient stories. Three of Israel’s patriarchs – Isaac, Jacob, and Moses – meet their wives at a well, signaling to keen readers that their unions will be fertile. A later Biblical story makes the same connection in an overtly sexual way; when King David spies Bathsheba bathing, he takes his beautiful married neighbor to be his mistress, a relationship that results in the birth of Solomon, Israel’s wisest ruler. From water comes life.
The New Testament, written in the first century CE, is set in what is now Israel, ancient home to the Hebrew people, but then it was occupied by the Roman Empire. This is the place God had promised them would be a land of milk and honey. In ancient geography, Israel was part of the Fertile Crescent, home to the watersheds of some of the greatest and most storied rivers of human history. It was in these watersheds that humans first invented and practiced irrigation, making possible the development of agriculture and the growth of cities. But they were also susceptible to drought, and the idea of water management was almost unknown.
The Jordan River was the major source of water in Israel (and remains so until this day); it was the place where John the Baptist baptized hundreds of people, including his cousin Jesus. The Sea of Galilee, a freshwater lake fed by the Jordan, was where Jesus preached his most important sermon and performed his most dramatic miracles. But of equal importance for human habitation in Israel is the underground water supply, the springs hidden from view: the freshwater of aquifers accessible for much of history only by deep wells.
At the very beginning of his teaching ministry, Jesus meets a woman at one of those wells, called Jacob’s Well, and strikes up a conversation with her:
“Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” (John 4:7-15)
I have heard many sermons on this passage; indeed, I have preached a few. Typically Christians cite this passage to prove a unique claim of Jesus – that Jesus is “living water,” a moniker that identifies Jesus as divine. In the story, Jesus does more than Jacob, the Hebrew patriarch who provided the drinking well, a spot most likely deemed sacred by local villagers. Instead, Jesus implies that he is water, not just a well. As he and the woman talk throughout the rest of John’s chapter, Jesus layers on spiritual metaphors for water: liberation, yearning for salvation, hospitality, healing, and as a source of life. With each poetic turn, his invitation to these waters becomes more compelling. Wisdom, like a spring, bubbles up through his insights. He gives water, and he is water. Just as John had indicated earlier, the kingdom comes through water and spirit.
The encounter is an interesting parallel to the story of Eve. In Genesis, the devil tempts the woman to eat forbidden fruit to gain divine knowledge. At the well, Jesus invites this Samaritan woman to drink God’s water to gain spiritual wisdom. The entire story is a reversal of the one recounting the origin of sin; here, Jesus and the woman reenact Eden with a different result. The woman’s eyes are opened; she understands. Yet instead of being run out of the garden by an angry god, she runs and tells her friends that she has met the One who is Living Water. She is not cursed. Rather, the woman is blessed and offers blessing. Water is present at creation, and it is here also, at the world’s recreation through Jesus.
This story, with its multiple meanings, frames the Christian imagination regarding water. Oddly enough, in the spiritual history of water, it is not really unique. (Its most unique feature is how ordinary it is; unlike many other ancient water stories, there are no supernatural elements present, no demons, no monsters. There is only Jesus’s insight to the woman’s spiritual needs.) The story of Jesus and the woman at the well echoes shared human experience, perhaps even a universal one. God provides – or the gods provide – water and the water is (in some way or another) divine. Although later Christian theology will carefully draw a distinction between water-as-symbol and water-as-God, one must admit that even for the staunchest monotheist the metaphorical territory here is pretty thin. Water is life; life is water. Living water is God; God is living water.
In the not too distant future, however, living water might be mere theological memory – a spiritual element increasingly lost to rising generations. If nothing else, our descendants will surely interpret the spirituality of water in starkly different ways than we do now. Water is under siege all over the planet, watersheds are collapsing, streams and rivers dying, even once safe water systems face toxic threats. The story of Jesus and the woman at the well – the search for both safe water to drink and the water of salvation – may be more urgent than ever. Much depends on how we navigate these rivers of change.