January 31, 2015

Living Waters and the Woman at the Well

In ancient times, living water played a significant role in Jewish religion and culture. As modern westerns, we often oversimplify “living water” to merely mean that water is life sustaining. Yet, if you were to ask an ancient or even modern Jew to define “living water” they all would say the same thing, it is water from a natural source, such as from a spring, rainwater, or a moving stream [1].  In other words, “living water” is not stagnant it must be moving.

They also would have known that “living water” is specifically used for purification purposes in a mikvah for someone that has become defiled (such as from touching a dead body). A mikvah was also used for all new converts to Judaism, and used prior to entering the Temple in Jerusalem. Many mikvahs have been discovered around the perimeter of the temple mount, and would have been used by Jesus and all Jews prior to entering the temple.

Mikvah diagram showing "living water" being added to normal water
A mikvah was created by filling a reservoir with water, and then adding “living water” from rainwater, a spring, or a river, to the other water, making all of the water “living.” The person desiring to become clean would then enter the mikvah, completely immersing themselves under the water, and then exit from the font becoming clean. “Often there was a wall separating the clean side from the unclean side” [2].

In Jeremiah, we find a reference to this “living water” and how Israel had rejected the true source of its purify power. “For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13). Thus, the Lord himself declares in the Old Testament that he is the “fountain” of these living waters that purify and bring life to all.

Woman at the well by Anton Dorph 
It is significant then that during his mortal ministry the Lord proclaimed to the Samaritan woman at the well that he can give living water, for only Jehovah could do this. “Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water” (John 4:10).

Assuming this woman understood what living waters were (as the Samaritans still had many of the truths of the Law of Moses and were practicing them during the time of Christ); she must have understood this to be a messianic declaration. It does seem that the woman upon hearing this statement is confused and asks the Savior “Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from whence then hast thou that living water?” (4:11). The Lord then teaches how those who drink of this well dug by Jacob, the great patriarch, will thirst again, but he (Jesus Christ) will give water that will provide a “well of water springing up into everlasting life” (4:14).

Therefore, when Jesus says to the woman at the well that he can produce “living water,” he in essence is saying that he can produce clean natural water used for purification purposes. Simply stated, it is he, Jesus Christ, who is the source for true purification. Jesus, seeking to be clearly understood, and sensing that she may not fully understand that he is the Messiah, simply states “I that speak unto thee am he” (4:26). In other words, he says I AM he, the great I AM. [3]

[1] The Old Testament Ritual Immersion
[2] Mikvah, Ritual Baths
[3] See footnote 26a in LDS Scriptures which reads: "The term I Am used here in the Greek is identical with the Septuagint usage in Ex. 3:14 which identifies Jehovah."

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