Baptism, An Exploration: The Samaritan Woman at the Well (The After Post, Part 1)

JESUS BAPTISMWe don’t usually think of this as a baptism passage. And maybe it’s not. But there are good reasons to think that baptism is at least in the background.

(John 4:7-15 ESV) 7 A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.)

9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)

10 Jesus answered her, “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.”

11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.”

13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”

Now, the text makes clear that Jesus is speaking foremost of the Holy Spirit —

(John 7:37-39 ESV) 37 On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'” 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

And the Holy Spirit fits Jesus’ use of “living water” very well. But we need not stop there in our thinking.

To the Jews, living water is flowing water, as from a spring or a river. And the rabbis required that the mikvehs be filled with living water. In the Jewish mind, the purest water is living water. And so, to be ceremonially clean, you need living water. Therefore, a Jew or Samaritan hearing “living water” would very likely hear “the water in which we are immersed to become clean before God.”

If you doubt me, consider this from the Didache, a Christian document usually dated from the late First Century —

And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before.

At least in whatever community the Didache came from (Alexandria area?), the early Christians made it a point to baptize in living water, continuing the tradition of the rabbis as well as the practice of both Jesus and John (although not the teachings of Jesus and John, who never commanded the exclusive use of living water).

Now, it would be a huge mistake to read into this a command to baptize in living water only, thereby voiding all other baptisms. There have been churches that thought this way. I’ve even heard of a church that had creek water flow through its baptistry for this very reason! (Cool idea, except in the winter, when it would be a cold idea. 🙂 )

Therefore, it’s at least possible that Jesus chose “living water” as a metaphor for the Spirit because baptism and the Spirit go so closely together: (John 3:5 ESV) “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Or maybe the Didache authors wanted to use living water for baptisms because of its powerful symbolism of the receipt of the Spirit concurrently with baptism.

Jesus was also referring to —

(Jer 2:12-13, 18 ESV) 12 Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, 13 for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water. … 18 And now what do you gain by going to Egypt to drink the waters of the Nile? Or what do you gain by going to Assyria to drink the waters of the Euphrates?

(Jer 17:8, 13-14 ESV) 8 He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.”… 13 O LORD, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water. 14 Heal me, O LORD, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved, for you are my praise.

God is “the fountain of living water.” He is the only source of the water that sustains and gives life. All other gods are but dry, broken cisterns.

Now, what does this tell us about baptism? Well, the reference to “living water” may well have been initially heard as a reference to ceremonial washing. Early Christians may have even heard a reference to baptism. But Jesus explains that the real living water is within those who live in the Kingdom. Real living water is “in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” It’s in the believer, not outside him.

Therefore, as we’ve seen before, in the Gospels, the primary significance of baptism is the receipt of the Spirit. Jesus is speaking to the Samaritan woman about the Spirit. Although he is using a watery, baptismal sort of metaphor, his foremost thought is the Spirit. After all, it’s God who nourishes and gives life, not water. In fact, there’s a subtle rejection of physical water as the water that saves. It’s the living water within that provides “eternal life.”

This story is told by John immediately after the accounts of Nicodemus and of Jesus baptizing. Baptism can’t be far from his mind. After all, John’s Gospel is an edited book. John picked his material to make his points. And he moves from John’s baptism (water), to Nicodemus (water and Spirit), to Jesus’ having others baptized (water), to the Samaritan woman (Spirit). And then, at the end of chapter 4, he gives life to the dead. There’s a lesson here. But we have to reinvestigate Nicodemus to see it.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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10 Responses to Baptism, An Exploration: The Samaritan Woman at the Well (The After Post, Part 1)

  1. Randall says:

    One is left to wonder if some in the CofC will read baptism into any text that mentions water.

  2. Gracethrufaith says:

    So true Randall! So many who idolize a holy baptismal tank approach and teach Scripture with their own agenda.

  3. Adam Legler says:

    It would be interesting to see a study done on none C of C people between the time they say a sinner's prayer to the time they are baptized. Since most churches outside of the C of C (at least those that are aggressive in spreading the Gospel like Willow Creek) have baptismal services but advocate that the moment of salvation occurs when the sinner's prayer is said, are they saved but have not received the Spirit until they are baptized? Their belief, as we know, is that we are saved by grace through faith and baptism is only symbolic. Some have baptism services for those who have put their faith in Christ months afterwards. And I've heard some of them talk about how they could see the Holy Spirit begin to change their life as soon as they said the sinner's prayer when they have yet to be baptized.

    Obviously God is the final judge and I don't think he will keep people out of Heaven if they are sold out for him. But if what Baptist, those who go to community churches, etc. say is true (and I have no reason to doubt their sincerity as many of them are far more spiritual than I am), then there seems to be a contradiction in either what the Bible says (which I hate to even say that), or our view on this whole converstion process.

    That's where I struggle greatly with understanding baptism and relating to fellow Christians in other churches. Expressing these thoughts in the C of C has also caused me great scrutiny. Any input on this would be greatly appreciated.


  4. Randall says:

    The concept of an unbaptized believer is foreign to the New Testament – I think FF Bruce said that. The "raise your hand and become a Christian" and the just "say the sinners prayer" thought lines are a bit dubious in my mind.

    I believe the norm in NT times was for a believer to be baptized immediately upon recognizing they had come to faith in Jesus – even if it was the middle of the night and the grandparents were not there to witness the blessed event. I think that should be the norm today, but it isn't. There are too many denominations and non denominational groups teaching too many different things about baptism. The population as a whole, even inside many churches, is biblically and theologically illiterate and tend to follow whatever practice the the preacher advocates.

    However, none of this should lead us to read baptism into a passage of scripture when it isn't there.

    The CofC has made water baptism, frequently with the requirement that it be understood that it is done in order to obtain the remissions of sins, the sine qua non of becoming a Christian. I have even heard people in the CofC comment of some passages that they believe refer to baptism by saying "It says WATER doesn't it?" IMO that is reading more into scripture than is there.


  5. Jay Guin says:


    I'll be addressing that very question in a few days, but I have to work through some more passages on baptism before I get there.

  6. Adam Legler says:

    Good thoughts. I would disagree though that there are a lot of biblically illiterate Christians in other demoninations. In my visits to other churches outside of the C of C I've been thoroughly impressed with the biblical knowledge of other Christians. Sometimes they have even more bible knowledge than those in the C of C. The emphasis on baptism just isn't the same. I'm sure it has to do with their own theological tradition like some of the theological traditions we have that may or may not be necessarily as important as we think. I don't think they are defiant against what we believe about baptism. They just have different beliefs while still loving and serving the same God.

    I guess my dilema has been that, even though there is an unbiblical aspect to it, if you worship with those who believe in the Sinner's Prayer you see the Holy Spirit is still very much present.

    That has been the one thing I have not been able to reconcile in my mind. But, I don't believe withholding fellowship from others or not working with them is the answer. After all, are they not praying to the Lord of the Universe who desires all men to be saved? Do we sometimes have too little faith in God to save even those who may emphasize different things in the conversion experience but honor the Lord with their lives all the same?

    Again, I'm not a fan of the sinner's prayer because it's not biblical, but I wish our fellowship would stop refusing to work with other bodies of believers because of it and would put greater emphasis on unity like Jesus prayed for while having faith that God knows who are truly his or not. We will still find that they have been baptized at some point in their Christian walk.

  7. HistoryGuy says:

    Adam & Randall,
    Not to be a stickler, but FF Bruce said “the idea of an unbaptized Christian is simply not entertained in the New Testament.” Why? Because the Bible records completed conversion accounts. The rub comes from our modern and somewhat western way of thinking and applying specific points of chronology to salvation. Church history reveals that baptism has been both under-emphasized and over-emphasized depending on the movement and reaction. I seldom hear a balanced approach to the place of baptism within the conversion of a person. Perhaps this is largely in part due to Protestantism perhaps specifically Calvinism vs. fundamentalist Restorationists, where one is either saved before or saved after baptism [a false dichotomy]. There seems to be little room for baptism as part of the transformative conversion process, though it’s always been present.

    Neither the Bible, nor the early church, nor Catholicism, nor the Orthodox sees baptism as a line in the sand regarding justification. I believe that Protestants/COCs should take note of this and learn. Justification is by faith alone, but it is also a continual process of faith response (belief, repentance, baptism, faithful living, growing in grace, etc). Believers Water baptism, Spirit baptism, and forgiveness of sins were closely connected in the Bible and unanimously among very early church leaders. However, all of those who spoke on martyrdom agreed that it was an “exception” to the [relative] necessity of water baptism for salvation. If one who believed [absolute necessity] in Christ desired baptism, but died or was killed before he could be baptized, they received the baptism of blood and were considered saved.

    I wish more people would realize that the exception did not diminish, nor sway the early church from declaring the Biblical teaching on water/Spirit baptism. For example, in one breath Origen said that it’s impossible to receive forgiveness of sins without baptism, but in the next breath he made an exception for believers who died before they could be baptized. The reasons are wrapped up in the meaning of justification, sanctification, regeneration, and salvation, which I hope Jay will address before his latest baptism series is finished.

    I boldly affirm that baptism is part of the salvetic process, more than a symbol, and a distinguishing mark between the visible and invisible church of believers. However, it is NOT a line in the sand separating believers in Christ from heaven and hell. Faith in Jesus is an absolute necessity; water baptism is a relative necessity. One does not have to understand the connection between baptism and forgiveness of sins to receive the promise of forgiveness. That said, there are specific changes performed by God on the one being baptized, which is preparatory for the Christian life, and this should never be negated or substituted by human tradition or teaching.

  8. Adam Legler says:

    Thanks for the input History Guy. It is very insightful.

  9. Adam Legler says:

    Great! I'll be looking forward to it. Thanks for your work.

  10. JMF says:

    Adam: a couple thoughts:

    1) Illiteracy: I have heard many, many times in my life that nobody knows the bible as well as the people in the COC!! In fact, I've heard stories about how a local courtroom didn't have a bible upon which to swear people in, so they sent for the local COC preacher and they put their hands upon his head and swore, because he knew the entire bible!

    Of course, this is preposterous and no doubt is just COC folklore made up by people in the COC. As well, in my experience, the whole "COC knows their bible the best" is also an idea pretty much only perpetuated by the people within the COC.

    My take: the people of the COC know the bible VERY well so long as you are asking them to quote one of the following verses: acts 2:38, acts 22:16, 1 Peter 3:21, Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16, and maybe a few others. Explore much beyond that and you'll get some blank looks. Present company excluded, of course. There are certainly many that do know and study the Word diligently…I just loathe seeing people feel self-righteous because they can quote a few verses (out of context, generally.)

    2) Sinner's Prayer: To my knowledge, I don't see anything unbiblical about this. It is simply a prayer announcing faith and penitence. So the idea is obviously biblical, even though the words are no listed out in the bible as a prayer to be recited.

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