Towards the end of John’s Gospel, after the soldier pierces Jesus’ side and blood and water flow out (John 19:34), we find something very strange. There is a break in the narrative, an interruption in John’s story. He brings his account to a screeching halt and tells us that what he has just reported really did happen:
He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth—that you also may believe. (John 19:35)
This is the only time any we find anything like this in the fourth Gospel, so it has to be really important, even though John doesn’t tell us why. At first, we might think it is because this event fulfilled some Old Testament passages (John 19:36-37), but John points out fulfilled prophecies elsewhere without interrupting the narrative like he does here (for example, John 2:17, 19:24). As a result, there has to be something more going on in this verse. The blood and water that flowed from Jesus’ side after his death have to have some deeper spiritual significance, so let’s examine the passage more closely and see what we can find.
To begin, we actually need to back up a bit and look at what Jesus did right before he died. We read:
After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the scripture), “I thirst.” A bowl full of vinegar stood there; so they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, “It is finished;” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:28-30)
Let’s focus on the seemingly unimportant phrase “I thirst.” Jesus said this when he knew he was at the moment of death (“knowing that all was now finished”), but why would he do that? If he knew he was going to die in a few moments, why even bother?
The strange timing suggests that Jesus very deliberately waited until this very moment to ask for a drink, so his request most likely had a deeper meaning. Now, the text doesn’t tell us what that deeper meaning was, but if we read these words in the context of the entire Gospel of John, we find that Jesus asked for a drink only one other time, and that other time has a surprising and important parallel with this one.
Water and The Samaritan Woman
Fifteen chapters earlier, we read about Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well. It begins when Jesus asks her for a drink (John 4:7), and just a few verses later, he offers her “living water” that would “become…a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4::10,14). This conversation mirrors the scene of Jesus’ death perfectly. Both begin with Jesus asking for a drink, and they both quickly move to Jesus becoming a source of water.
As I said before, these are the only two times Jesus asks for a drink in the entire Gospel of John, so the parallels are almost certainly intentional. John purposely crafted his description of Jesus’ death in order to mirror the conversation with the Samaritan woman and show us that the water that flowed from Jesus’ side was a symbol of the “living water” that he offered her.
The Holy Spirit and Living Water
And what was that “living water”? The story doesn’t tell us, but if we look elsewhere in the fourth Gospel, we find our answer:
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.'” Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive. (John 7:37-39)
In this text, the “living water” is clearly the Holy Spirit, but there seems to be a problem here. This passage tells us that the water will flow from believers, but the two other stories we’ve looked at tell us that it comes from Jesus. The problem, I would suggest, is with our English translations. The original Greek text of this passage can be translated two different ways. We can take it to mean that the water will flow from believers (as in most translations), or we can take it to mean that the water will flow from Jesus himself.
From a purely grammatical point of view, either option is possible, so to figure out which is correct, we have to look at the context. Specifically, if we read this passage in light of the entire Gospel of John, the second translation (in which the water flows from Jesus) makes more sense. In both the conversation with the Samaritan woman and the story of Jesus’ death, the “living water” flows from Jesus himself, so it makes sense that he would be its source here as well. As a result, when we put this all together, we can see that the water that flowed from Jesus’ side after his death was actually a symbol of the Holy Spirit, the gift he won for us by his sacrifice on the cross.
And in case there is any doubt about this, let’s look at the phrase John used to describe the actual moment of Jesus’ death: “he…gave up his spirit.” When we read that, we usually take it as a simple euphemism for death, but there’s actually more to it. For one, the Greek literally says that he “handed over the spirit.” The text does not specify that the “spirit” was Jesus’ soul; that is just an assumption we make when we read it. Secondly, this phrase was never used as a euphemism for death in all of Greek literature up until this point. There were numerous other ways that John could have described Jesus’ death, but he chose to make up a new one, and that was almost certainly intentional.
So why did John do this? Given everything we’ve seen so far, the answer is clear. The “spirit” that Jesus handed over was the Holy Spirit, so by using this novel phrase, John was teaching us that when Jesus died, he gave the Holy Spirit over to his followers. He was giving them the reality that the “living water” symbolized earlier in the fourth Gospel, and with that, we have our smoking gun that confirms the connection between Jesus’ death and his conversation with the Samaritan woman. The stories are just too similar for it to be a coincidence. Both involve Jesus asking for a drink and then offering water and the Holy Spirit. As a result, we can be confident that the water that flowed from Jesus’ side and the Spirit are in fact connected; just like in his conversation with the Samaritan woman, the water he gave at his death also symbolized the Holy Spirit that he gave to his followers.
However, one question remains: we know what the water represents, but what about the blood? Again, let’s look at the rest of the fourth Gospel to see if it can shed any light on this question. When we do that, we find that the only other time the Gospel uses the word “blood” with its normal meaning is in a sermon dubbed by scholars the “Bread of Life Discourse.” In this text, Jesus repeatedly tells his followers that they have to eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:53-56), a clear reference to the Eucharist. As a result, in the context of the entire Gospel of John, the blood that flowed from Jesus’ side must have symbolized the Eucharist, the sacrament in which we consume Jesus’ blood for spiritual nourishment.
Moreover, once we understand that, we can see that the water also has a sacramental meaning as well. Earlier in this Gospel, Jesus said that we enter the kingdom of God through baptism with water (John 3:5), so the water that flowed from his side symbolized the sacrament of baptism as well as the Holy Spirit. This double symbolism of the water may seem like I’m cheating, but it actually makes sense given the importance of baptism. For one, baptism is not just one way that we receive the Holy Spirit; rather, it is the first way. We receive the Holy Spirit for the very first time when we are baptized. Secondly, it is a prerequisite for receiving the other sacraments, so it opens the door for us to receive the Holy Spirit again and again throughout our lives. When we look at the double symbolism of the water flowing from Jesus’ side in this light, it makes perfect sense. It symbolized the Holy Spirit in general and, in particular, the sacrament of baptism, the first time we receive the Spirit and the gateway to receiving him again and again in the future.
And with that, we can understand why John made such a big deal about the blood and water that flowed from Jesus’ side. It was an extremely important event, so he wanted his readers to be absolutely sure that it really did happen. This blood and water symbolized the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, and the water also symbolized the Holy Spirit. By linking these two sacraments with the Holy Spirit, John was subtly teaching us that we receive the gift of the Spirit primarily through the sacraments. Granted, the text explicitly mentions only two of them, but as Catholics we can extrapolate from this and say that we receive the Spirit in all seven sacraments. They are the primary means that God has instituted to give us his very self. Consequently, we should make them the center of our spiritual lives and receive them as often as possible to unite ourselves more closely to the God who gives himself to us so freely.