Could there be more to Jesus’ offer of “living water” than we recognize?
During the Lenten season we’ve been asking what’s “the main thing” that happened on the cross. Payment for sin? Or Jesus “marrying” us (while paying for sin)? Brant Pitre says it’s marriage. He develops this in Jesus the Bridegroom: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told, including Jesus’ offer of “living water” pointing to his “marrying” a bride on the cross.
He begins with ancient Aramaic interpretations of the Old Testament expanding on the story of Jacob’s encounter with Rachel at the well. Jacob transforms the well’s still water into a spring of running water that miraculously flows for twenty years. The Samaritan woman’s reply to Jesus’ offer of living water indicates she’s familiar with this story: Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this well? Jesus is. The water he gives becomes in people a spring of water welling up to eternal life. The Samaritan woman asks for this water so she’ll never again be thirsty and have to keep trudging back to this well.
That’s the right request. However, at this point it’s not apparent the Samaritan woman has connected living water, the cross, and marriage. In this regard, she’s a lot like a lot of us. So let’s make some connections. Start with living water (Hebrew mayim hayyim).
Living water is the ritual water used in the sanctuary for cleansing from sin (Num.19:17-20). When combined with the ashes of a sacrifice, a priest would take a branch of hyssop and sprinkle the living water on the unclean. This is the same kind of branch used to sprinkle the sacrificial blood of the Passover lamb (Ex.12:22), the same kind of branch that was offered to Jesus on the cross, turning the water from his side into holy ritual water, living water.
So we’ve connected living water and the cross. We also know a river of living water will flow out of the side of the Temple (Ezek.47:1-12). Zechariah connects this with the death of the Messiah (12:10-13:1, 14:8). So does the Gospel of John, quoting Zechariah’s prophecy of “him whom they have pierced.” The water from the side of the crucified Jesus is the living water Jesus is offering the Samaritan woman. But how’s this connected to marriage?
The Temple of Solomon depicts God’s bride, a connection we noted two weeks ago. The living water used in the temple for cleansing from sin (Num.19:17-20) became associated with the custom of a Jewish bride undergoing a ritual bath before her wedding. At the well, Jesus offers to cleanse this woman to be his bride, just as the Song of Solomon describes the bride on her wedding day as both a fountain and a well of living water (4:12,15).
So we’ve connected living water, the cross, and marriage. This cleansing of the bride happened on the cross. And since our bodies tell God’s story, we discover why the veil protecting “the holy of holies” was torn open when Christ our Bridegroom shed his blood for us on the cross, “marrying” us. If you’re comfy reading about our bodies, read on.
In God’s design for marriage, a bride’s hymen is broken at the time of the first marital intercourse. The French word “hymenée” (for marriage) comes from “hymen.” The tearing of the hymen signifies the opening up of the betrothed—the church—to Christ in marriage, depicted in the veil protecting “the holy of holies” in the sanctuary being torn open.
And just as rivers of living water flow from Jesus the Bridegroom’s side, so too will rivers of living water will flow from his bride’s inmost being (Jn.7:38). There is far more to Jesus’ offer of “living water” than most of us recognize. I’m grateful to Brant Pitre in this regard.
But Pitre is simply standing on the shoulders of giants. Augustine (354-430AD) wrote that this Samaritan woman is the bridal figure: “It is pertinent to the image of the reality that this [Samaritan] woman, who bore the type of the church, comes from strangers, for the church was to come from the Gentiles, an alien from the race of the Jews. In that woman, then, let us hear ourselves, and in her acknowledge ourselves and in her give thanks to God for ourselves.”
And Saint Methodius (815-885AD) simply stood on the shoulders of Augustine. The ancient bishop of Olympus wrote: “In the faith of the holy woman is pictured all the features of the church in true colors that do not grow old; for the way in which the woman denied a husband when she had many, is just the way the church denied many gods, like husbands, and left them and became betrothed to one Master in coming forth from the water. She had five husbands and the sixth she did not have; and leaving the five husbands of impiety, she now takes Thee, as the sixth, as she comes from the water, exceeding great joy and redemption.… The espoused church of the nations, then, left these things, and she hurries here to the well of the baptismal font and denies the things of the past, just as the woman of Samaria did; for she did not conceal what had formerly been true from Him who knows all in advance, but she said, “… Even if I formerly had husbands, I do not now wish to have these husbands which I did have; for now I possess Thee who hast now taken me in Thy net; and I am by faith rescued from the filth of my sins that I may receive exceeding great joy and redemption.”
In closing, I recognize Jesus “marrying” us on the cross is “new” news for many of us. Let me make three suggestions. First, Mark Twain said education consists mainly in what we have unlearned. Some of us are unlearning what we were taught about the cross. Keep unlearning.
Second, the prophet Hosea reminded the Judeans that God was their Bridegroom and they were his betrothed. They had forgotten this, making “idols for their own destruction” (Hos.8:4). A growing number of American evangelicals feel we have made idols for our own destruction. We’re dissenters and you can read about us in this short piece.
Third, my hope is an increasing number of Christians will recognize our idolatry, how we’ve made what’s not the main thing on the cross the main thing. Lent is a season of penitence, and repentance “is the repudiation of idols. It is the beginning of being undeceived.” Every single one of us can be deceived, myself included. God loves us and longs for us to make the main thing on the cross the main thing—Jesus the Bridegroom “marrying” us. It’s wondrous.
 Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Genesis 29:10-11.
 Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 15:10.
 Romanus Methodus, Kontakion on the Woman of Samaria 9:11–12, 14.
 Os Guinness, The American Hour: A Time of Reckoning and the Once and Future Role of Faith (Free Press, 1993), 403.