Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
There was no air conditioning in 1st-century Judea, which might be why the writers of the gospels talk about water a whole lot. It figures that a group of people living through hundred-degree summers in the desert would appreciate a nice, cool drink every now and then. Water was not only vital to staying cool and hydrated, but to staying clean, producing crops, and raising livestock. Basically, water was life.
In the Gospel of John, water has three main functions:
Baptizing. John the Baptist does his baptizing in the Jordan River (1:31) and Jesus tells his followers that no one can have a life with God "without being born of water and Spirit" (3:5). In other words, the authors are telling us that we have to be physically baptized in water and metaphorically immersed in the "living water" that is Christ (4:10).
Drinking. Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well that anyone who drinks the water he has to offer will never be thirsty again (4:13)—a pretty amazing promise, given the fact that they were standing in the middle of a desert at the time. For the authors of John's Gospel, this is how belief in Jesus is supposed to feel—refreshing, satisfying, and full.
Washing. Water is also used for cleaning—fancy that. Jesus washes the feet of the disciples with water as a gesture of friendship and humility before he's crucified (13:5).
It doesn't stop there. Jesus also uses water in some of his miracles. He turns water into wine at the wedding (2:9), walks on the stormy sea (6:19), and heals the man born blind with just a little bit of spit and mud (9:6). After his death, blood and water pour out of the wound in his side (19:34).
Why so much talk about water?
Well, it is pretty crucial to our lives. Babies grow and develop in the water-like amniotic fluid in their mother's womb (sorry, bear with us), which is why baptism by water is seen as a way to be "reborn" into a new life. Effective cleaning with water helps kill germs and bacteria (meaning your mom was right all those times she told you to wash your hands before dinner). And anyone who's ever run a mile knows how appealing the idea of never thirsting again is.
If you want to get people to dunk their heads in a liquid and feel spiritually cleansed, you might as well choose something they already know, need, and love. Chocolate milk, anyone?
Where else do we see images of baptismal, drinking, and cleansing water? Just about everywhere.
- In The Awakening, Edna allows herself to drown in the sea, effectively "freeing" herself from the constraints of society.
- Huck Finn and Jim escape North to freedom on a raft along the Mississippi River.
- The Wicked Witch of the West is killed when a bucket of pure, sweet, life-giving water is thrown on her.
- And every time a couple stands out in the rain and kisses at the end of a romantic comedy, we're supposed to understand they they've entered into a "new life" together and that all the zany misunderstanding of the past two hours are being washed away down some New York City drain.
Anyone else feeling a little thirsty?