The Gospel of John
The aim of this reflection is to present two themes of John’s Gospel: water and spirit. Reading the Gospel of John one immediately notices that it is different than Synoptic Gospels. Jesus uses different language in the Gospel of John, the chronology of events is different as well as some theological aspects, like Christology.
In the second century, Clement of Alexandria, considered John’s Gospel to be the most spiritual, mystical and pneumatical of all the Gospels (Grün 7). It is indeed a mystical Gospel. Thus it was not written for the inquirers of Christian faith or beginners. On the contrary, it was addressed to already formed and mature Christians, those, who have already came the long way of spiritual and ascetic development, and those who were interested not in repetition of some already internalized topics, but rather in their further development and internalization. The Gospel of John is addressed to Christian Gnostics, who were able to understand the rich symbolism and theology of the Gospel (Martini 12). The goal of Saint John was to describe the internal life of God as revealed by his eternal Son, Jesus Christ. We have an access to this life only through Jesus who is “the way, the truth and the life”.
Water in the Old Testament and in John
The two symbols widely used in the Gospel of John are water and spirit. In the Old Testament water played an important role. Water is first and foremost the source of life. Without water the earth remains a dry, lifeless desert, the land of suffering, famine and hunger. In addition, water has a cleansing character and is used to clean people and things of dirt and dust making them anew. Therefore, water brings life, cleanses people and makes them pure (Ezekiel 16:4-9; 23:40). One of the basic elements of Eastern hospitality is to wash the feet of the guest (Genesis 18:4; 19:2). Water not only brings about physical cleanness, but also symbolizes moral and spiritual purity (Psalm 26:6). God washes the sinner when sins are forgiven (Psalm 51:4). Moreover, water in the prophetic writings plays an important role in the restoration of Israel (Ezekiel 36:24-27). Earlier, in the Exodus event, water came out of the rock giving life to the people (Exodus 17:1-7; Numbers 20:1-13). The prophets proclaimed that this miracle shall be repeated (Isaiah 43:20) and Israel will be renewed. Therefore water has the symbolic dimension. In many places in the Old Testament water is a symbol of the Spirit of God, who comes and makes all things new by giving life to the people.
All these elements are present in the Gospel of John. In baptism, to which Saint John refers many times in his Gospel, a person is being cleansed and renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit. “No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit”, Jesus tells Nicodemus. To be born of water means to go through the rite of baptism. But unlike the baptism of John that was by water only, this new baptism is to happen in the Spirit. But how does Saint John view this Spirit?
As Kysar attests, the word pneuma is used twenty four times in the Gospel, referring most to the Spirit of God but occasionally to the human spirit too (Kysar 107). In the account with Nicodemus, Jesus teaches that in baptism Spirit is given to the baptized and spiritual awakening can occur. Saint John attests that through this gift of the Spirit, Christian is able to see the eternity in time, the end of history in the present and the divine reality in the human body of Jesus Christ. Without the gift of the Spirit, it is impossible for a man to recognize Jesus Christ as the Son of God. A man who is born of the Spirit sees himself as a creature that has his deepest roots in God. But how are we to understand this rebirth?
Jesus answers this question pointing toward the mystery of the Spirit. In the Greek language, pneuma means spirit as well as wind. “The wind blows where it pleases; you can hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from and where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Being born again in the Spirit is a mystery. Just as wind cannot be stopped or controlled, also the action of the Spirit depends of God only. To be born in the Spirit means first and foremost to discover and embrace the meaning of life as intended by God.
Water and Spirit
In his meeting with Samaritan woman, Jesus points out the same mystery using the image of water. “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:13). Like in the Old Testament also here water is a symbol of life. This new life that Jesus offers to everybody will be realized when “the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23). Christians cleansed by the living water of baptism are able to worship God in truth and in spirit. It is indeed the Holy Spirit that enables the one who worships to be identified with Christ who is the fullness of truth and only adequate word of revelation (Dumm 109).
In the seventh chapter of his Gospel, Saint John speaks of water and the Spirit in close connection. “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me! Let anyone who believes in me come and drink! As Scripture says, ‘from his heart shall flow streams of living water” (John 7:38). Raymond Brown points out that it is the reference to the Exodus story about Moses who produced water in the desert (Ex 17:6). Later Jesus explains that he was speaking openly about the gift of the Holy Spirit, which believers in him were to receive (John 7:39). The same was promised earlier to Samaritan woman in the imagery of “living water”. In his last discourse with his disciples Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to his Church so that she may be led to the entire truth. Jesus says to his disciples that the Spirit will be their teacher and guide (14:26; 16:13), and further witness and defender (15:26; 16:8-10). Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ is still present in his Church, especially in the sacraments.
Jesus Christ promised his disciples that the Holy Spirit will lead them to the whole truth (16:13) and help them to remember everything that he had taught them. One can say that the Holy Spirit is like the living water for the Church. Church receives life of God through the sacraments. All the sacraments happen only through the action of the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit also unites and builds up the body of Christ. As Cardinal Martini pointed out, the Holy Spirit constantly renews the Church and helps her to find solutions of the most difficult problems in any time of history (Martini 91). More to the point, the Holy Spirit is also the source of joy for all believers. The joy given by the Holy Spirit is so profound that it cannot be overpowered by the persecutions and sufferings that Christians have to endure in history. The Holy Spirit constantly reminds us that even in times of troubles and persecutions Jesus Christ is constantly present in his Church. It is through the invocation of the Holy Spirit (epiclesis) that the gifts of bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ on the Eucharistic table.
Dumm, Demetrius. A Mystical Portrait of Jesus. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2001.
Grün, Anselm. Jesus brama do życia. Kraków: Znak, 2002.
Harrington, Wilfrid. John: Spiritual Theologian. Dublin: Columba, 1999.
Kysar, Robert. John, the Maverick Gospel. Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox, 1993.
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Martini, Carlo M. Kochać Jezusa: Medytacje nad Ewangelią Świętego Jana. Krakow: WAM, 2003.
Świerzawski, Wacław. Pierwszy Umiłował. Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Archidiecezjalne, 1982.