The Wellspring of Living Waters Indwelling

Reading Time: 13 minutes

By Daniel Henriquez, University of Dallas

Throughout the course of his earthly ministry in the Fourth Gospel, Jesus develops the theme of water and the Spirit. The encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well draws out the theological significance of this theme. After asking for a drink of water from the Samaritan woman and after being denied one, Jesus claims that if she knew τὴν δωρεὰν τοῦ θεοῦ and who he is, she would have asked him for a drink, and he would have given her ὕδωρ ζῶν (4:7-10). Confused, the woman asks him how he will draw this living water and if he is greater than Jacob who gave them this well (4:11-12). Then, the evangelist writes:

13 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῇ· Πᾶς ὁ πίνων ἐκ τοῦ ὕδατος τούτου διψήσει πάλιν· 14 ὃς δ’ ἂν πίῃ ἐκ τοῦ ὕδατος οὗ ἐγὼ δώσω αὐτῷ, οὐ μὴ διψήσει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα, ἀλλὰ τὸ ὕδωρ ὃ δώσω αὐτῷ γενήσεται ἐν αὐτῷ πηγὴ ὕδατος ἁλλομένου εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον. 15 λέγει πρὸς αὐτὸν ἡ γυνή· Κύριε, δός μοι τοῦτο τὸ ὕδωρ, ἵνα μὴ διψῶ μηδὲ διέρχωμαι ἐνθάδε ἀντλεῖν.

In the subsequent development of this episode, Jesus does not expand on what his gift means. However, throughout the thematic development of water and Spirit, John signifies to the reader that the ὕδωρ ζῶν which Jesus shall give to those who thirst for it symbolizes the gift of the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit by which the believer receives ζωὴν αἰώνιον.

Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at a well alludes to many betrothal scenes which took place at wells throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. These betrothal scenes generally follow the same pattern: “a future bridegroom travels to a foreign land, he encounters a woman at a well, water is offered, the woman hurries home to report the stranger’s arrival, and the bridegroom is then invited to the future father-in-law’s home, sealing the betrothal.”[1] The betrothal scenes of Isaac, Jacob, and Moses at wells are particularly similar to verses 4-42. The Scriptures recount that Abraham sent his servant back to his own land to find a wife for his son Isaac. The servant then prays that if he says to a young woman, “Please lower your jug, that I may drink,” and she responds, “Drink, and I will water your camels, too,” then he will know that she will be Isaac’s bride (Gen 24:14). Rebekah then came and drew water for him and his camels. Isaac also sent his son Jacob to the home of Rebekah’s father to find a wife for himself. Jacob went and found shepherds gathered around a well that was covered by a large stone which they would remove once all the shepherds were gathered. As soon as Jacob saw Rachel draw near to the well with her sheep, “he went up, rolled away the stone away from the mouth of the well,” and watered Rachel’s sheep (Gen 29:10). In a similar way, Moses, while fleeing Egypt, went up into the land of Midian. Upon seeing young women and their flock of sheep being driven away from a well by some shepherds, “Moses rose up in their defense and watered their flock” (Ex 2:17). In each of these biblical scenes, the man receives a wife whom he encounters at a well; in John’s Gospel, Jesus encounters a young woman and offers her and all who would believe in him a gift of ὕδωρ ζῶν, a gift which is symbolized by marriage yet far surpasses it.               

Furthermore, the symbol of the water of Jacob’s well, of which the nation of Israel drank, has deep roots in Jewish thought. In the first place, the water of Jacob’s well reminds the reader of the water which filled the ἓξ λίθιναι ὐδρίαι that were used κατὰ τὸν καθαρισμὸν τῶν Ἰουδαίων at the Wedding-Feast at Cana (2:6). These water jars which hold the waters of purification symbolize “the entire system of Jewish ceremonial observance—and by implication for religion upon that level.”[2] Likewise, the rabbinic tradition frequently understood both τὴν δωρεὰν τοῦ θεοῦ and ὕδωρ as symbols of the Torah itself. For both Jews and Samaritans, the supreme gift of God was the Torah, given to them through Moses in the desert.[3] As the gift of God, the Torah became the source of water for Israel that offered purification, satisfaction of thirst, and promotion of life.[4] Moreover, in Hellenistic thought, water sometimes symbolized the Λόγος. When commenting on Genesis 2:6, Philo of Alexandria says, “thus,…the Logos of God waters the virtues, for it is the beginning and fountain of noble deeds;”[5] and again, when commenting on Deuteronomy 8:15, he states that the flinty rock which brought forth water symbolizes “the Wisdom of God, from which He waters God-loving souls.”[6] John, drawing on both Jewish and Hellenistic traditions, reveals Jesus as ὁ λόγος who is the source of ὕδωρ ζῶν welling up to ζωὴν αἰώνιον.                

The Greek words ζωὴ and αἰώνιος, and the significance they bear in John,rarely appear together in the Old Testament. In Scripture, the word ζωὴ is generally confined to earthly life, rather than a life of immortality.[7] However, ζωὴ αἰώνιος, which only appears in the Septuagint version of Daniel 12:2, refers to the future life man shall have after the Resurrection: “Many of those who sleep in the dust shall awake; Some to [ζωὴν αἰώνιον], others to reproach and everlasting disgrace” (Dan 12:2).[8] Although a future life is not mentioned explicitly in the Old Testament apart from the Book of Daniel, Jewish tradition often uses three expressions of ζωὴ αἰώνιος which may aid its interpretation: “(a) ‘life’ as contrasted with death; (b) ‘life of the age’, as contrasted with life of the time; and (c) ‘life of the Age to Come’, as contrasted with the life of This Age.”[9] Thus, the Jewish concept of ζωὴ αἰώνιος particularly expresses the notion of man’s life after death that is ‘everlasting’. However, the Platonic and Hellenistic concepts of αἰώνιος signify the notion of “‘eternal’, in the strict sense of timelessness.”[10] Philo takes up this Platonic concept and claims that “the life of God…is not time, but eternity, which is the archetype of time, and in eternity nothing is past or future, but only present.”[11] When Jesus mentions ζωὴ αἰώνιος in John’s Gospel, the term harmonizes both of its Jewish and Hellenistic aspects; Christ gives to those who believe an everlasting participation in his eternal life.

The symbol of water that satisfied temporarily in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition takes on a new and eternal significance in the Gospel of John. The first stage of this transition appears in the prologue of John’s Gospel: ὁ νόμος διὰ Μωϋσέως ἐδόθη, ἡ χάρις καὶ ἡ ἀλήθεια διὰ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ἐγένετο (1:14). The water which symbolized the gift of the Torah through Moses now symbolizes the gift of grace and truth through Jesus. At the Baptism in the Jordan, John, referring to himself and to Christ respectively, proclaims: Ἐγὼ βαπτίζω ἐν ὕδατι…οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ βαπτίζων ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ (1:26, 33). Although John’s baptism uses water merely “as a means of washing or external cleansing [which] points to the inner cleansing” of repentance, his baptism “is given temporary or secondary status by the promise of the cleansing of the Spirit.”[12] By these few verses, the evangelist introduces the symbol of water to stand primarily for the Holy Spirit who is grace and truth given through Jesus Christ. Additionally, at the Wedding-Feast at Cana, when Jesus transforms the water into wine, he signifies the beginning of a new age in which he fulfills of the Law and the Prophets and replaces a religion founded on the law with the religion founded on grace and truth.[13] Furthermore, Christ develops this symbol of water and the beginning of a new age when he says to Nicodemus: Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος, οὐ δύναται εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ (3:5). By this present general condition, Jesus stresses that anyone can enter into God’s Kingdom only if he is born again, not in the flesh, but in the baptism of the Holy Spirit.[14]

The eternal significance of this Johannine symbol comes to light in the episode of the Woman at the Well. ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῇ· Εἰ ᾔδεις τὴν δωρεὰν τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ τίς ἐστιν ὁ λέγων σοι· Δός μοι πεῖν, σὺ ἂν ᾔτησας αὐτὸν καὶ ἔδωκεν ἄν σοι ὕδωρ ζῶν (4:10). Jesus’ use of the subjective genitive in the phrase τὴν δωρεὰν τοῦ θεοῦ indicates that his gift comes from God. While some exegetes think that the gift of God is Jesus himself, others think it is either his revelation or the Holy Spirit.[15] When reading the text allegorically, the gift of God certainly does include Jesus who was given by the Father so that anyone who believes in him might have eternal life.[16] However, when reading the text literally, Jesus makes a clear distinction between τὴν δωρεὰν τοῦ θεοῦ which he shall give and τίς ἐστιν ὁ λέγων σοι, that is, himself.[17] Moreover, the main dialogue between Jesus and the woman (vv. 7-27) is divided into two parts at v. 15. The first half of the dialogue (vv. 7-15) is dominated by the theme of ὕδωρ ζῶν and second half (vv. 16-27) culminates with the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah. Thus, while both interpretations bear great theological significance, the literal interpretation clearly demonstrates that the gift of God which Christ gives is the ὕδωρ ζῶν as distinct from himself.                   

In classic Johannine misunderstanding, the woman responds to Jesus saying: Κύριε, οὔτε ἄντλημα ἔχεις καὶ τὸ φρέαρ ἐστὶν βαθύ· πόθεν οὖν ἔχεις τὸ ὕδωρ τὸ ζῶν; (4:11). By asking him this question, the Samaritan woman confuses the spiritual meaning of the living water of which Jesus speaks with the flowing water that is literally found in wells.[18] Furthermore, she uses the term φρέαρ for Jacob’s well in verses 11 and 12 instead of the term πηγὴ as used in verses 6 and 14. This distinction between the two Greek words for well draws out another beneficial interpretation of her misunderstanding. The term φρέαρ is more closely associated with ‘cisterns’ containing flat and dead water whereas the term πηγὴ is more closely associated with ‘fountains’ of flowing water. Although the Samaritan misinterprets ὕδωρ ζῶν as flowing water, the evangelist might also be indicating that Jacob’s πηγὴ of waterbecomes a mere φρέαρ of dead water when compared to the πηγὴ of living water which Jesus gives.[19] If this distinction is intentional, it mirrors the distinction between πηγὴ and λάκκος which Jeremiah made when he prophesied: “Two evils my people have done: / they have forsaken me, the source of living waters; / They have dug themselves cisterns, / broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jer 2:13).[20] Whether intentional or not, John’s words significantly reflect Jeremiah’s prophecy and directly present Jesus as the source of living water in verses 10 and 14.    

Responding to the woman’s confusion, Jesus begins to clarify the irony of his previous statement in verse 10: πᾶς ὁ πίνων ἐκ τοῦ ὕδατος τούτου διψήσει πάλιν· (4:13). Here, the context clearly indicates that in this verse Jesus literally refers to the water drawn from Jacob’s well for the purpose of explaining to the woman that the living water of which he speaks is not this water. In strict opposition to this water, Jesus clarifies the meaning of his gift. ὃς δ’ ἂν πίῃ ἐκ τοῦ ὕδατος οὗ ἐγὼ δώσω αὐτῷ, οὐ μὴ διψήσει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα, ἀλλὰ τὸ ὕδωρ ὃ δώσω αὐτῷ γενήσεται ἐν αὐτῷ πηγὴ ὕδατος ἁλλομένου εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον (4:14). The relative pronoun, generally translated as ‘whoever’, refers back to the substantive adjective πᾶς in the previous sentence. For this reason, “not only is this water from this well surpassed by the gift of Jesus, but,” when the relative ‘whoever’ is understood universally as ‘anyone who’, “this gift will be for all who would choose to take from it.”[21] Thus, Jesus indicates that if anyone, including the Samaritan woman, drinks of the water which he will give, he will not thirst for ever, but the water will become in him a wellspring of water leaping up to eternal life.     

By introducing the notion of ζωὴ αἰώνιος into the notion of ὕδωρ ζῶν, Christ reveals to the Samaritan woman and to anyone who reads John’s Gospel that his gift bears not merely temporal but also eternal significance. After Jesus reveals this, the woman responds: κύριε, δός μοι τοῦτο τὸ ὕδωρ, ἵνα μὴ διψῶ μηδὲ διέρχωμαι ἐνθάδε ἀντλεῖν (4:15). Although she does ask for this gift, the purpose she intends for it indicates that she still misunderstands its eternal significance, and the dialogue immediately transitions to the revelation of Jesus’ person.[22] The reader is left to interpret the implicit meaning of verse 14 in continuity with both the Old Testament and the Gospel of John. Within the context of the Old Testament, ὕδωρ symbolized the Torah and ζωὴ αἰώνιος referred specifically to man’s resurrected life after death. Additionally, Isaiah once prophesied: “then the LORD will guide you always and satisfy your thirst in parched places, will give strength to your bones and you shall be like a watered garden, like a flowing spring whose waters never fail” (Is 58:11).[23] Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy in verse 14 when he reveals to the woman that he gives the water that eternally satisfies thirst and becomes a spring whose waters never fail. 

Although Christ refrains to connect water to the Spirit in his dialogue with the Samaritan woman, John reveals the significance of this symbol throughout the rest of his Gospel. Before the pericope of the Woman at the Well, John revealed that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law of Moses. As such, John appropriates and transforms the symbol of water, which symbolized the gift of the Torah in the Old Covenant, to signify the gift that Jesus shall give in the New Covenant. In the dialogue with Nicodemus, Jesus introduces the connection between water and Spirit and in the dialogue with the Samaritan woman, he reveals that his gift of living waters leads to eternal life. However, the most explicit connection between ὕδωρ ζῶν and πνεῦμα occurs in John 7 at the last day of the Feast of the Tabernacles when Jesus cried out saying:

37b  ἐάν τις διψᾷ ἐρχέσθω πρός με καὶ πινέτω. 38 ὁ πιστεύων εἰς ἐμέ, καθὼς εἶπεν ἡ γραφή, ποταμοὶ ἐκ τῆς κοιλίας αὐτοῦ ῥεύσουσιν ὕδατος ζῶντος. 39 τοῦτο δὲ εἶπεν περὶ τοῦ πνεύματος οὗ ἔμελλον λαμβάνειν οἱ πιστεύσαντες εἰς αὐτόν· οὔπω γὰρ ἦν πνεῦμα, ὅτι Ἰησοῦς οὐδέπω ἐδοξάσθη.[24]

Christ reveals that the one who believes in him shall have rivers of living water flow out from deep inside of him; John reveals that he said this in reference to the Spirit who would be given to those who believe in him. Thus, the genitive in the phrase τὴν δωρεὰν τοῦ θεοῦ also contains an objective meaning; the gift of God, symbolized by the living waters, is the Spirit.  

But John also reveals that there was no Spirit yet, since Jesus had not yet been glorified. At the Last Supper, Jesus confirms this: κἀγὼ ἐρωτήσω τὸν πατέρα καὶ ἄλλον παράκλητον δώσει ὑμῖν ἵνα ᾖ μεθ’ ὑμῶν εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα, τὸ πνεῦμα τῆς ἀληθείας…ὑμεῖς γινώσκετε αὐτό, ὅτι παρ’ ὑμῖν μένει καὶ ἐν ὑμῖν ἔσται (14:16-17). Since he has not gone to his Father and has not been glorified, he has not yet sent the Spirit to be within those who believe. Moreover, in reference to his departure from the world, Jesus tells his disciples: ἐὰν γὰρ μὴ ἀπέλθω, ὁ παράκλητος οὐ μὴ ἔλθῃ πρὸς ὑμᾶς· ἐὰν δὲ πορευθῶ, πέμψω αὐτὸν πρὸς ὑμᾶς (16:7). After his death on the Cross, εἷς τῶν στρατιωτῶν λόγχῃ αὐτοῦ τὴν πλευρὰν ἔνυξεν, καὶ ἐξῆλθεν εὐθὺς αἷμα καὶ ὕδωρ (19:34). Some scholars claim that the water which gushed forth from his side alludes to the gift of Baptism.[25] While the allusion to the sacrament can be drawn out of the implications this passage, John’s symbolism of water explicitly suggests that the water more directly signifies the gift of the Spirit flowing from his heart.[26] As one exegete writes, “from the crucified body of Christ flows the life-giving stream: the water which is the Spirit given to believers in him (vii. 38-9), the water which if a man drink he will never thirst again (iv. 14).”[27] Finally, after his Resurrection, Jesus in his glorified body visited the disciples, ἐνεφύσησεν καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς· Λάβετε πνεῦμα ἅγιον (20:22).          

The wellspring of living water flowing within the believer symbolizes Christ’s gift of the Holy Spirit to dwell within those who believe. While the gift of God most properly signifies the mission of the Holy Spirit, Jesus also tells his disciples that ἐάν τις ἀγαπᾷ με τὸν λόγον μου τηρήσει, καὶ ὁ πατήρ μου ἀγαπήσει αὐτόν, καὶ πρὸς αὐτὸν ἐλευσόμεθα καὶ μονὴν παρ’ αὐτῷ ποιησόμεθα (14:23). Inasmuch as one Person of the Holy Trinity dwells within those who believe by God’s divine grace the other two Persons make their abode there as well.[28] Thus, by divine concomitance, it is fitting to say that Jesus and his Father are also τὴν δωρεὰν τοῦ θεοῦ, since the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and from the Son yet remains in God. Furthermore, Christ does not mince words when he proclaims to the Samaritan woman that πνεῦμα ὁ θεός, καὶ τοὺς προσκυνοῦντας αὐτὸν ἐν πνεύματι καὶ ἀληθείᾳ δεῖ προσκυνεῖν (4:24).As the prophet Zechariah said, “fresh water will flow from Jerusalem; the Lord shall be king over heaven and earth” (Zch 14:8). In the New Covenant, worship is possible only if the divine wellspring dwells as king within the temple of the believer. After Jesus revealed the gift of God and that he was the Messiah, ἀφῆκεν οὖν τὴν ὑδρίαν αὐτῆς ἡ γυνὴ (4:28). These words symbolize that the woman, filled with faith in Christ, received the ὕδωρ ζῶν and no longer needed Jacob’s water and all that it symbolized.[29] Upon receiving Christ into her home, she sealed her betrothal to him. Likewise, the believer, upon being reborn in water and Spirit, seals his betrothal to Christ. However, Christ promises much more in this betrothal than any husband can ever promise in marriage. If the believer should faithfully drink from the wellspring of ὕδωρ ζῶν indwelling, then at Christ’s Wedding-Feast he will abide within God unto ζωὴν αἰώνιον


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Aquinas, St. Thomas. Summa Theologica Volume I – Part I. Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Cosimo Classics, 2001.

Brown, Raymond E. The Gospel according to John. Garden City: Doubleday, 1966.

Catechism of the Catholic Church. Second Edition. Citta del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997.  

Chrysostom, St. John. “Homilies on the Gospel of John.” In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Edited by Phillip Schaff. Translated by Oxford. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995.

Corbon, Jean. The Wellspring of Worship. Translated by Matthew J. O’Connell. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005.

Culpepper, R. Alan. Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.

Dodd, C.H. The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Moloney, Francis J. Belief in the Word: Reading the Fourth Gospel: John 1-4. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993.

Moloney, Francis J. The Gospel of John. Edited by Daniel J. Harrington. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1998.

Novum Testamentum Graece 28. Edited by Nestle-Aland. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2020.

Quast, Kevin. Reading the Gospel of John: An Introduction. New York: Paulist Press, 1991.

Saint Augustine. “Tractates on the Gospel of John 11-27.” In The Fathers of the Church. Edited by Thomas P. Halton. Translated John W. Rettig. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1988.

Septuagint. Second Revised Edition. Edited by Alfred Rahlfs and Robert Hanhart. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2006.

Smyth, Herbert Weir. Greek Grammar. Revised by Gordon M. Messing. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.

[1] Kevin Quast, Reading the Gospel of John: An Introduction, (New York: Paulist Press, 1991), 29.

[2] C.H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 299.

[3] Quast, 33.

[4] Dodd, 312; c.f. Quast, 33.

[5] Philo of Alexandria, De Posteritate Caini, 127 sqq., quoted in Dodd, 312.

[6] Philo of Alexandria, Legum Allegoria II, 86, quoted in Dodd, 312.

[7] Dodd, 144.

[8] Dodd, 144, c.f. 147. 

[9] Dodd, 146.

[10] Dodd, 149.

[11] Dodd, 150.

[12] R. Alan Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 193.

[13] Culpepper, 193; c.f. Dodd 299.

[14] Culpepper, 193.

[15] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John, (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966), 170.

[16] Francis J. Moloney, Belief in the Word: Reading the Fourth Gospel: John 1-4, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993), 140-141; c.f. Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1998), 117; c.f. Quast, 33.

[17] Brown, 178; c.f. Dodd, 313.

[18] Brown, 170.

[19] Brown, 170.

[20] Nestle-Aland apparatus. For reference to the Greek, here is the Septuagint text: ὅτι δύο πονηρὰ ἐποίησεν ὁ λαός μου· ἐμὲ ἐγκατέλιπον, πηγὴν ὕδατος ζωῆς, καὶ ὤρυξαν ἑαυτοῖς λάκκους συντετριμμένους, οἳ οὐ δυνήσονται ὕδωρ συνέχειν.

[21] Moloney, The Gospel of John, 118, 122.

[22] Dodd, 313; c.f. Moloney, The Gospel of John, 118.

[23] See Nestle-Aland apparatus.

[24] Quast, 33.

[25] Quast, 127.

[26] Quast, 127.

[27] Dodd, 428.

[28] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica Volume I – Part I, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2001), q. 43, a. 5, c.

[29] Culpepper, 194.