Water is absolutely indispensable for human life. The average human body is more than 50 percent water. Water is also refreshing, whether it is used to drink or to bathe or swim in. In developed countries, water is often taken for granted. But in many nations the lack of clean water is the primary public health problem; even when clean water is available, it takes significant time and effort to get it. The concern for clean water was often primary in ancient times as well.
Water is so critical to our existence that it has become a symbol for life itself. There is a Brothers Grimm fairy tale called “The Water of Life” in which a dying king’s sons attempt to locate “the water of life” so that their father can live. Similar scenarios are common in literature. Spanish explorer Ponce de León is said to have been on a quest for the “Fountain of Youth” in the New World. Of course, he died without ever finding it. There is no “water of life,” that is, water that one can drink or bathe in which will grant eternal life, healing, or perpetual youth.
The Bible uses water as a metaphor in some places, and it does speak of “the water of life.” John 4:10–26 is sometimes called the Water of Life Discourse (the counterpart to the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6:22–59). In John 4, Jesus is sitting at a well in Samaria when a woman comes to draw water. This would have been a daily task for her and would have involved significant effort and time on her part. Jesus asks her for a drink. This simple request was significant because Jesus was publicly speaking to a woman (see John 6:27) and a Samaritan woman at that (John 4:9). The woman asks Jesus why He is willing to associate with her, assuming that most Jews would not stoop to ask a Samaritan for a drink. Jesus uses the occasion to turn the conversation in another direction.
Jesus answers the Samaritan woman at the well, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10).
The woman wonders how Jesus can provide this water, especially since He had no means to draw it. In fact, didn’t He just ask her for a drink?
Jesus answers, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13–14).
The woman misunderstands, thinking that, if she could get this water, she would not have to spend any more time laboring to get water daily from the well. At this point, she is thinking that Jesus is talking about some kind of magical water that would meet her physical needs.
Jesus turns the conversation from physical needs to spiritual needs by telling the woman to go and get her husband. She responds that she does not have a husband. Jesus says, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true” (John 4:17–18). In saying this, Jesus puts His finger on an area of sin and shame in this woman’s life. The water that He speaks of is not to quench a physical thirst, but a spiritual thirst—a thirst that has manifested itself in this woman’s life by a series of broken and sinful relationships. The conversation ends with Jesus telling her plainly that He is the promised Messiah, and she goes and tells the whole town to come out and listen to what Jesus has to say. The water of life that Jesus spoke of is a metaphor for spiritual washing and refreshment, which this woman needed more than she needed the water that she drew from the well each day.
In John 7, Jesus mentions this water of life or living water again. “Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.’ By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive” (verses 37–38). Once again, Jesus uses the physical to point to the spiritual. People need “living water” to give life to their spirits more than they need water to give life to their bodies. Here, we are told that the “living water” Jesus offered is really the Holy Spirit. He is the one who will be able to cleanse and satisfy the thirsty spirit.
Finally, the water of life is mentioned in Revelation 21—22, which tells of the blessings of those who will spend eternity with God in the new heavens and new earth. In Revelation 21:6 God says, “To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.” This is a picture of bountiful spiritual supply. Revelation 22:1 expounds further: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb.” A final invitation is issued in Revelation 22:17, “Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.”
We need not understand the references to the “river” in the New Jerusalem literally. The picture is of a place where God lives with His people and meets all of their needs. In ancient times, a city with a continual supply of fresh, clean water would be considered a great place to live. The abode of God and of the believer for all eternity is pictured as having a pure, clear river running through the heart of it; in other words, it is a place where no need will be left unmet.
It is not necessary to wait for the new heavens and the new earth to experience the blessings of the water of life. Because the Holy Spirit comes to live within the believer, the Christian can experience a taste of this now. The Holy Spirit within the believer will quench every spiritual thirst, as long as the believer will simply take what the Spirit has to offer and follow the Spirit’s leading on a moment-by-moment basis.
In summary, the water of life is a metaphor that speaks of the Holy Spirit’s work in the life of the believer, providing spiritual cleansing and constant refreshment.