“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.” (John 4:10)
This quote comes from the familiar story of Jesus and the Samaritan women at the well. Jesus uses their encounter at the well as an opportunity to explain that God is able to provide not just normal well water, but living water. Think about that phrase “living water” for a moment. That’s a rather curious phrase to us as English speakers. How often do we say “living water” outside of referencing scripture? It’s not something we would say, because it doesn’t actually mean anything to us.
Of course, if we have studied our Bible, we immediately know what Jesus is referring to here. He is speaking of the Holy Spirit. The living water symbolizes the Holy Spirit which springs up within us to eternal life (verse 14). As Jesus says in John 7:38, “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” We immediately associated “living water” with its spiritual connotations.
Interestingly enough, this phrase in the Greek actually carries a specific non-spiritual meaning. The phrase “living water” was the way of describing water that had a source, generally a spring or a river. This was not stagnant water, but flowing water.
When Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away, they wandered into the Desert of Beersheba and eventually ran out of water. Hager couldn’t bear to watch her son die, so she went a good distance away from her son and began to weep. An angel of God comforted her, and opened her eyes to see a water source. We read in Genesis 21:19, “Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.” The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, uses the wording “living water” here to refer to a spring water source. Later in Genesis 26:19, we read that “Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of flowing water.” Again in this verse, the Septuagint uses the phrase “living water” to describe a well of spring water. And I could go on. There are a number of Old Testament references where this phrase is used of flowing water, including verses in the books of Leviticus, Numbers, Songs of Solomon, and Zechariah.
As we’ve seen, this phrase was commonly used to refer to fresh flowing water. So when Jesus begins to speak to her about living water, she doesn’t find it strange. She’s not confused, wondering what type of strange spiritual talk this was. Jesus was using wording that had a common usage, but used it to point to a greater spiritual reality. He was not referring simply to fresh spring water, but the provision of the Holy Spirit that quenches our spiritual thirst and wells up into eternal life. A gift only God could give.