The Water from His Side

An exegetical analysis of John 19:31–37

Editor’s note: This article first appeared during Holy Week, 2008. 


On Good Friday, millions gather together to read — or if they are lucky, to sing — John the Evangelist’s account of the Passion of Jesus Christ. It is a remarkable story, even to non-believers. And for Christians, John’s version of the Jesus story has dominated the doctrinal and liturgical life of their churches for two millennia. Other gospels take the lead at Christmas, but during the Triduum — the climax of the Christian liturgical year — John’s gospel, so unique among the four, takes center stage.

The Good Friday reading is dramatic — and not simply because different people may read the distinct parts: Jesus, the narrator, Simon Peter, Pontius Pilate, the Jews, the mocking Roman soldiers, and others. No mere play commands the attention of Christians like this story, reenacting as it does Jesus’s arrest, trial, crucifixion, death, and burial.

But even for Christians riveted by the story and long familiar with the fourth gospel, one passage often puzzles: the piercing of the Jesus’s side and the flow of blood and water from the wound (Jn 19:31–37):

Since it was the day of Preparation, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. [31]

So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him; [32]

but when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. [33]

But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. [34]

He who saw it has borne witness — his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth — that you also may believe. [35]

For these things took place that the scripture might be fulfilled, “Not a bone of him shall be broken.” [36]

And again another scripture says, “They shall look on him whom they have pierced.” [37]

[The RSV is used throughout]

The witnesses at the foot of the cross — two of whom Jesus addressed just before his death — remain there as Roman soldiers come to perform the crurifragium. (As horrible as being nailed to a cross is, the crucified could live on for days — breaking their legs sped death by asphyxiation.) Seeing that Jesus is dead, instead of breaking his legs, a soldier thrusts a spear into his side. We expect blood, but there is also water.

The evangelist provides an explanation — adducing two fulfillments of Jewish scripture in vv. 36–37. The non-breaking of Jesus’s limbs fulfills Exodus 12:46, identifying Jesus with the Passover Lamb: John, unique among the gospels, twice calls Jesus the “lamb of God.” And the piercing fulfills Zechariah 12:10:

And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of compassion and supplication, so that, when they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a first-born.

Five verses after the description of this slaughtered innocent, Zechariah continues:

On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.

Since it is natural that the liturgical life of the church should influence our understanding of John’s passage, it is easy to see how St. Augustine — and a vast majority of Johannine commentators following him — should see the blood signifying the Eucharist, and the water, the sacrament of Baptism.

But consider again the unusual stress given to the witness of the unusual fact of the water: “He who saw it has borne witness — his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth — that you also may believe.” As gifted an exegete as Richard John Neuhaus, in a conversation some time ago about his Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross, expressed his dissatisfaction with his own treatment of the passage in that fine book. Father Neuhaus was sure that there was more going on here than the commentaries let on.

Indeed so. The scene of Jesus dead on the cross is a nexus of testimonies to Jesus’s identity and purpose. John’s gospel argues that Jesus accomplishes, once and for all, a host of Jewish cultic expectations, including those associated with Jewish baptism, the Sabbath, Passover, and the Feasts of Tabernacles and the Dedication. The crucified Christ is the fulfillment not only of the institutions of the Jerusalem Temple, but of all God’s promises to his chosen people. Those threads come together here, at his death, in the presentation of Jesus as the new eschatological Temple, the source of the river of life, the giver of the Spirit that renews God’s creation.

To unpack the passage, it’s necessary to look outside the Passion to scenes in Jesus’s early public ministry, to his interactions with the full-throated Jewish believer John the Baptist and with the Samaritan woman whose faith he draws out at Jacob’s well. Then to examine Jesus’s proclamation in the Temple at the conclusion of the Feast of Tabernacles, and some of the late prophetic writings that bear on it.



“I Baptize with water”

John the Baptist’s testimony in the gospel’s first chapter confirms the sense of Augustine’s reading of chapter 19: “I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God” (1:33–34).

When we see the Baptist again in chapter 3, his followers are involved in a “discussion” with a Jew “over purifying” (3:25): they are arguing over the rules of ritual baptism — though as yet we have no clue as to the nature of the dispute. But John’s followers are also jealous of the new upstart whose followers are now baptizing: “Rabbi, he who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you bore witness, here he is, baptizing, and all are going to him” (3:26).

The Baptist quiets their concern for his diminishing stature, and reflects on the resistance to Jesus (even among his own followers): “He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony; he who receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true.” Belief in Jesus (however rare) confirms that God’s promises to Israel will be fulfilled. John the Baptist himself confirms that the baptism that comes with Jesus is of a different order from his baptism — and from the purification rites of the Jew with whom his followers contend: “For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for it is not by measure that he gives the Spirit” (3:32–34).

A difficult phrase, that “for it is not by measure.” The Greek is ou gar ek metrou, the noun, metron, meaning quantity, degree, measure (with both senses of that English word: a measured amount, and the tool for measuring it).” Many commentators rush to the most abstract reading, “without measure,” even “boundlessly.” My friend and mentor, the late Charles Homer Giblin, preferred a far more mundane rendering, which has the benefit of explaining other difficulties in the passage: “not from a measuring cup.”

The dispute between the Jew and the Baptist’s disciples, this would suggest, was about the amount of water required for a valid ritual baptism. John the Baptist brushes away the controversy. It doesn’t matter how much water is used, now that Jesus brings baptism in the Spirit (as Jesus himself told the reluctant Jewish believer Nicodemus at the beginning of chapter 3). Recall Jesus’s first public action — the miracle at Cana in chapter 2. There, Jesus turns water into a vivifying spirit — using masonry jars normally used for the Jewish mikvah, which were sitting there empty, inefficacious. Baptisms in water mean little now that Jesus has brought the gift of the Spirit.

These threads are important to note, because the Spirit which is given at Jesus death is not simply a spirit of prophecy. Just as God’s spirit had a formative role in the creation (Gen 1:2), the late prophetic and early Jewish literature makes increasingly explicit the Spirit’s role in new creation — in the redemption of the world after the fall.

“Neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem”

The scene with the Samaritan woman confirms the association of water with the gift of the Spirit, and introduces the idea that believers in Jesus themselves become a source of that Spirit.

On their way back to Galilee from Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples pause in Samaria, in Sychar. As a Samaritan woman goes about the daily chore of filling her water jar, Jesus asks for a drink. She is startled by this breach of Jewish custom — “For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” Jesus replies, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (4:9–10).

The woman doesn’t understand what Jesus means by “living water” — and what’s more, she’s sassy. She teases Jesus that he is unable to draw from Jacob’s well. “[W]here do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this well?”

Jesus said to her, “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” [emphasis added]

This is the theological heart of the passage, but the woman is slow in coming to understand what the gospel’s readers already know. In fact, she makes another sly joke about it: “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.” (“Sounds good — I’m tired of hauling this jar here every day.”)

Jesus goes on to reveal his knowledge of the woman’s rather messy personal life, which finally persuades her that he is a “prophet.” He reveals to her also that, in him, the sectarian differences between Samaritan and Jew will pass away; that the Samaritans’ temple on Mt. Gerazim and the Jerusalem Temple are obsolete, and that God is to be worshipped not in any given place, but “in spirit and truth.” Finally, he reveals that he is the Messiah the Samaritans have been waiting for. While she comes to believe, the woman’s knowledge of Jesus remains imperfect. When she goes to tell the good news to the Samaritans, to urge them to come and see this man — a missionary to her own people — her testimony is still only a question, “Can this be the Christ?”

This scene is not the first in which Jesus identifies himself with the eschatological Temple. One of John’s major differences with the Synoptic gospels is in the Temple Act — when Jesus drives the moneychangers from the Temple. In the Synoptic gospels, the provocation helps provide the Jewish leadership’s motive to seek Jesus’s death. In John, the Temple Act happens very early in his public career (2:13–22), and is met with almost amused befuddlement — despite the fact that in John, alone among the gospels, Jesus goes so far as to use a whip. More significant, though, is the use to which John puts the Synoptic prediction of the destruction of the Temple. Mark’s trial of Jesus has false accusers claim, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’ ” John’s Jesus says instead, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” A prediction about the Temple’s destruction and the formation of the Christian community of faith becomes a prediction of the resurrection — with Jesus as the Temple.

Jesus remains among the Samaritans for two days. Many Samaritans had come to believe in Jesus based on the testimony of the woman at the well, and now they have experienced Jesus’s presence themselves. “They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.’ The water that Jesus gives — not simple water, but Spirit — becomes a spring of living water welling up within the recipient, that can bring others to the knowledge of Jesus, and the experience of faith in him.



The River of Life

The final Johannine piece to our puzzle comes from chapter 7. Jesus goes down to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles — Sukkoth — when Israelites would make pilgrimage to Jerusalem to pray for rain to renew and sustain the land’s vegetation. Each morning during the week-long festival, water would be drawn from the spring of Shiloah (Siloam in Jn 9:11) in the City of David. The water would be carried in exuberant procession up the hill, through the Water Gate, into the Temple, and finally poured on the altar after the morning sacrifice. This, in fact, is the ritual background to the responsorial psalm from the book of Isaiah sung during the Easter Vigil, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Is 12:3).

On the last, great day of the feast — and perhaps John means here the eighth day: the Shemini Atzereth – Jesus boldly proclaims in the Temple:

“If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ ” Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

The passage confirms the believer’s role as a secondary source for those “living waters” — textual variants notwithstanding — and in a rare explanatory note, John identifies Jesus’s death as the time after which that Spirit would be given. As Jesus tells his disciples in 14:16-17, “I will pray to the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him or knows him; you will know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.”

That so many of these threads should be tied together on the Feast of Tabernacles is particularly interesting. The final oracle in Zechariah — the one cited in the crucifixion scene — describes the Day of the Lord, and a climactic battle where all nations gather against Jerusalem. On that day, the Lord takes his stand on the Mount of Olives and fights against the nations.

On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea; it shall continue in summer as in winter.

And the Lord will become king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one.

After this victory, the survivors among the nations will every year go up to Jerusalem for a universal Sukkoth. Interestingly, the final oracle and the book of Zechariah ends with the observation that “there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.” Despite the fact that the Feast of Booths has become a fully international affair, there are no moneychangers in the Temple.

Zechariah’s river of living water is influenced by the prophet Ezekiel’s far grander vision in Ez 47:1–12 — just as the Apocalypse of John would later be (Rev 22:1–2). In that prophecy of the messianic times to come, an angel shows Ezekiel a trickle of water issuing from under the Jerusalem Temple. The angel leads Ezekiel east for 1,000 cubits, and the trickle has become an ankle-deep stream; another 1,000, and it is knee-deep; another 1,000 — waist deep; another 1,000, and Ezekiel is forced to swim. The mighty river flows east and down into the Dead Sea, and makes its waters fresh and teeming with fish — “so everything will live where the water goes.” Trees blossom in and out of season, and their “fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing” because “the water for them flows from the sanctuary.”

The water from Jesus’s side

It is important to first note that, as the Roman soldiers approach Jesus’s body, John’s audience knows that Jesus is dead — while the Jews, Pilate, and the soldiers do not. Contrast the aftermath of Jesus’s death in all three Synoptic gospels: Darkness covers the land, the Temple veil is torn in two, and Roman centurions acclaim Jesus’s innocence or heavenly origin. Matthew’s Passion goes even further, describing an earthquake and the dead rising from their tombs. In John, Jesus says simply “It is finished,” and first lowers his head, and then gives up his spirit — there is no unwilling slump of death. There is no cry from the cross, just as there was no Agony in the Garden — John’s gospel retains only the barest hints of that Synoptic tradition (in 12:27 and “the cup” in 18:11). Here we have only a quiet, resigned, even deliberate passing, witnessed only by his mother, the two Marys, and the Beloved Disciple.

At most four witnesses, then, see the inconsequential little trickle of water from the side of the new Temple. The flow of water from Jesus’s side is not just a sign of eternal life for the individual Christian believer, but for the redemption of all creation and the reestablishment of God’s kingdom on earth. It is not just a sign of Jesus’s gift of the Holy Spirit to those who believe in him. As the gospel has prepared us for this scene, we understand that the Spirit is in the believer’s power to give, as well. For the Beloved Disciple, it is a sign witnessed at the cross, but understood only in the empty tomb.

Just as the Samaritans told the woman at the well, “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” So too, these few witnesses — and the few recipients of Jesus’s Spirit gathered in a small room in Jerusalem (20:19–23) — will bring faith in Jesus and the experience of his redemptive Spirit to countless millions. Like Ezekiel’s inconsequential trickle, that Spirit will very soon be, and even now is, renewing the face of the earth.

 — Edward John Craig is a managing editor of NRO.


The Latest