We 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.