Jesus’ promise of rivers of living water in John 7:37-38, referring to the coming of the Holy Spirit (7:39), is exciting in any case. But it is especially exciting if one traces through the rest of the Gospel the contrast between the true water of the Spirit and merely ritual uses of water by Jesus’ contemporaries.
John’s baptism in water was good, but Jesus’ baptism in the Spirit was better (1:26, 33). Strict Jewish ritual required the waterpots in Cana to be used only for ritual waters to purify, but when Jesus turned the water into wine he showed that he valued his friend’s honor more than ritual and tradition (2:6). A Samaritan woman abandons her waterpot used to draw water from the sacred ancestral well when she realizes that Jesus offers new water that brings eternal life (4:13-14). A sick man unable to be healed by water that supposedly brought healing (5:7) finds healing instead in Jesus (5:8-9); a blind man is healed by water in some sense but only because Jesus “sends” him there (9:7).
The function of this water is suggested more fully in John 3:5. Here Jesus explains that Nicodemus cannot understand God’s kingdom without being born “from above” (3:3, literally), i.e., from God. Some Jewish teachers spoke of Gentiles being “reborn” in a sense when they converted to Judaism, but Nicodemus cannot conceive of himself as a Gentile, a pagan, so he assumes Jesus speaks instead of reentering his mother’s womb (3:4). So Jesus clarifies his statement. Jewish people believed that Gentiles converted to Judaism through circumcision and baptism, so Jesus explains to Nicodemus that he must be reborn “from water.” In other words, Nicodemus must come to God on the same terms that Gentiles do!
But if Jesus means by “water” here what he means in 7:37-38, he may mean water as a symbol for the Spirit, in which case he is saying, “You must be born of water, i.e., the Spirit” (a legitimate way to read the Greek). If so, Jesus may be using Jewish conversion baptism merely to symbolize the greater baptism in the Spirit that he brings to those who trust in him. The water may also symbolize Jesus’ sacrificial servanthood for his disciples (13:5).
So what does Jesus mean by the rivers of living water in John 7:37-38? Even though we will deal with background and translations more fully later, we need to use them at least briefly here to catch the full impact of this passage. First, in most current translations, at least a footnote points out an alternate way to punctuate 7:37-38 (the earliest Greek texts lacked punctuation, and the early church fathers divided over which interpretation to take). In this other way to read the verses, it is not clear that the water flows from the believer; it may flow instead from Christ. Since believers “receive” rather than give the water (7:39), and since they elsewhere have a “well” rather than a “river” (4:14), Christ may well be the source of water in these verses. (This is not to deny the possibility that believers may experience deeper empowerments of the Spirit after their conversion.)
Jewish tradition suggests that on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, priests read to the people from Zechariah 14 and Ezekiel 47, which talk of rivers of living water flowing forth from the Temple in the end time. Jesus is now speaking on the last day of that feast (7:2, 37), probably alluding to the very Scriptures from which they had read (“as the Scripture said,” 7:38). Jewish people thought of the Temple as the “navel” or “belly” of the earth. So Jesus may be declaring, “I am the foundation stone of the new temple of God. From me flows the water of the river of life; let the one who wills come and drink freely!”
Normally (as we will point out below) one should not read symbolism into biblical narratives, but the end of John’s Gospel may be an exception, a symbol God provided those who watched the crucifixion. (John uses symbolism a little more than narratives normally do.) When a soldier pierced Jesus’ side, water as well as blood flowed forth (19:34). Literally, a spear thrust near the heart could release a watery fluid around the heart as well as blood. But John is the only writer among the four Gospel writers to emphasize the water, and he probably mentions it to make a point: once Jesus was lifted up on the cross and glorified (7:39), the new life of the Spirit became available to his people. Let us come and drink freely.