John’s Gospel records one of the most well-known elements of the story of Jesus’ crucifixion: the spear in his side. Jesus died pretty quickly, so to make sure he really was dead, a Roman soldier stabbed him with a spear (John 20:34). When he did this, blood and water flowed out from the wound, and this event has stuck firmly in the minds of many Christians ever since. However, what is not nearly as well known is that when this happens, John brings the narrative to a screeching halt and addresses his readers directly:
“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)
John makes a point to tell us that this really happened. He was there, and he saw the blood and water flow from Jesus’ pierced side. Why is this so important? Why does John make sure we know that he was not making this up? At first, we might be tempted to think that it’s because this event fulfills some prophecies from Scripture (John 19:36-37). However, John points out fulfilled prophecies elsewhere (for example, John 2:17, 19:24), but this is the only time he stops the narrative to point out that the event really happened. As a result, there has to be some deeper meaning to this event, some spiritual significance that John wants us to see in it. Let’s examine the passage and see just what that deeper meaning is.
To begin, we need to go back a few verses to the scene of Jesus’ death:
“After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfil 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)
There is a lot going on in this passage, so let’s start with Jesus’ words “I thirst.” They seem fairly straightforward, but when we look at them more closely, questions begin to arise. He said this only when he knew that he was about to die (“knowing that all was now finished”), but why would he wait till then? He was going to die in a few moments, so why even bother?
This is a clue that there is something more here than meets the eye. Yes, Jesus was genuinely thirsty and really did want to quench that thirst, but his words also contain a second, deeper meaning. On a spiritual level, they tell us something about his impending death. Specifically, these words call to mind an event that happened near the beginning of John’s Gospel.
The Samaritan Woman
The only other place in this Gospel where Jesus asks for a drink is his encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well. He asks for a drink when they first meet (John 4:7), and then after a short exchange, he offers her some water (John 4:10-15). Specifically, he offers her “living water” that will result in eternal life. This conversation mirrors the scene of Jesus’ death perfectly: they both begin with Jesus asking for a drink and then end with him becoming a source of water.
This parallel sheds significant light on the meaning of Jesus’ death. By highlighting Jesus’ request for a drink on the cross, John was subtly telling us that the water that flowed from Jesus’ side (we’ll get to the blood later) was a symbol of the living water he offered to the Samaritan woman.
The Holy Spirit
And what was that living water? John does not tell us right away; instead, we have to wait a few chapters for an explanation:
“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)
Here we finally learn what this “living water” is, and it’s the Holy Spirit. However, there is a problem. In this passage, Jesus says that this water will flow from believers, but both in his conversation with the Samaritan woman and at his crucifixion, it comes from him. The problem, I would suggest, is with our English translations. In the original Greek, the text can be translated as I have quoted it above, or it can be translated to mean that the “rivers of living water” will flow from Jesus himself. That may seem strange to English speakers, but ancient Greek sentence structure is very different from that of modern English, so either translation is possible.
Now, while the grammar of the text is ambiguous, in the context of the entire Gospel of John, the translation I am proposing makes more sense. We see Jesus depicted as the source of this living water everywhere else it appears, 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 flows from Jesus’ side at his death represents the Holy Spirit. It symbolizes the gift of the Spirit that Jesus won for us by His sacrifice on the cross.
A Novel Phrase
And in case there’s any doubt, there is one more piece to this puzzle. When John narrates Jesus’ death, he says that Jesus “gave up his spirit” (John 19:30). Again, this seems simple enough, but there is a deeper meaning here as well. The Greek literally means that Jesus “handed over the spirit,” and this phrase was never used as a euphemism for death in ancient Greek literature. John made it up, and that has to be significant. If he had meant it to refer to Jesus’ death and nothing more, he would have used another, more common expression. However, he instead chose to make up a new one, and he must have done so for a reason.
You may be able to guess why John described Jesus’ death this way. By saying that he “handed over the spirit,” John was teaching us that at Jesus’ death, he handed over the Holy Spirit to his followers, thereby confirming everything we’ve seen about the symbolism of the water that flowed from his side. However, this leaves us with one last question: what about the blood?
In John’s Gospel, the word “blood” appears with its normal meaning in only one other passage (elsewhere, we find it only as part of an idiom referring to birth). In a sermon dubbed by scholars the “Bread of Life Discourse,” Jesus tells us repeatedly that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:53-56), a clear reference to the Eucharist. Consequently, in the context of this Gospel, the blood that flows from Jesus’ side has to symbolize the Eucharist.
Once we realize this, we can see that the water has a sacramental meaning as well. Like the phrase John used to describe Jesus’ death, this water also has a double meaning. In addition to symbolizing the Holy Spirit in general, it also represents baptism. Towards the beginning of John’s Gospel, Jesus describes baptism as a birth “of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5), so just as the blood calls to mind his words about the Eucharist, so too does the water call to mind these words about baptism. And if we think about it, this dual meaning makes perfect sense. Baptism is the first time we receive the Holy Spirit and the prerequisite for receiving the Spirit in other ways, so it’s fitting that the water would symbolize both baptism and the Spirit.
The Importance of the Sacraments
Now that we’ve seen what the blood and water symbolize, we have one final question to answer: What does this all mean when we put it together? In other words, is there any relation between the sacraments and Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit?
Yes, there is. By linking the Spirit with baptism and the Eucharist, John is telling us that we receive Jesus’ parting gift to us primarily through the sacraments. Granted, the blood and water that flowed from Jesus’ side only call to mind two of them, but as Catholics, we can extrapolate from that and conclude that God gives us the Spirit in all seven sacraments. This is extremely important because the Holy Spirit enables our faith (1 Corinthians 12:3), our good works (Romans 8:3-4), and our prayer (Romans 8:15, 1 Corinthians 12:3), the three pillars of the Christian life. Simply put, we can’t be Christians without the Spirit, and we can’t have the Spirit without the sacraments.