And he stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.
– Matthew 8:3
He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’
– John 7:38
Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.
– John 4:14
THEOLOGICAL WRITERS MAKE MUCH OF Jesus “contagious purity“. The laws of Jewish Scriptures assume that something that is impure cannot be touched lest the impurity pass through the touch. If one is in a state of ritual purity and touches something unclean it is the impurity that is contagious: if I touch a corpse it is I who become unclean. Thus men refrain from touching a woman because she may be ritually impure. It is her impurity that is contagious – a man’s ritual purity is very fragile and can be destroyed. Jesus, however, walks around touching things – lepers, the sick, corpses, etc – without fear. Instead of becoming impure himself he makes them pure – healing them, raising the dead, cleansing lepers.
I get why this is important as it’s a huge paradigm shift from Second Temple Judaism. Fear of contagious impurity is what makes the Priest and the Levite out to be the bad guys in the Good Samaritan story. Contagious impurity comes up in other New Testament conversations as well: it’s the heart of the objection that Jesus eats with sinners (becomes contaminated by them). Jesus says that’s not the issue at all. So I get why his purity is hugely important. But I missed the application until September when I was working on a paper for Homiletics, published here.
Finally, the reference to Jewish purification rituals in verse 6. Traditionally such washing had to be done in “living water” which means the ocean, a river, stream, a spring, etc, or from rainwater. Wealthier Jewish homes may have a dedicated pool (called a mikveh) for use by the family. Jewish laws require a certain amount of “living water” to be used but other “normal” water can be brought into contact and – thus ritually purifying all the water to make it acceptable for the ritual. Among other uses, the mikveh was traditional for a bride (and sometimes the groom) to use before the wedding to be in a state of ritual purity. A mikveh requires about 140 gallons of living water or water that had otherwise been purified. (Source retrieved on 9/11/22.)
… There’s something interesting about the use of “living water” in a mikveh and Christ promising streams of living water rising up with the believer (John 7:38). The Greek in 7:38 is the same phrase for “living water” in the LXX for Jeremiah 2:13.
I have been meditating on the “something interesting” for a while now. When I was a kid I thought that living water might mean something alive… like a monster or a water being. I don’t know. I did not think of living water as a class of water opposed to water that is “dead” or “still”. What I think I’m seeing is a promise that – as Jesus has contagious purity, flowing out from him to others around him – we are to have streams of living water (Hebrew מים חיים Mayyim Chayyim) rising up from within us, where this is a contagious purity flowing out to others. This is the promise Jesus makes to believers. What he does, we are to do as well – and ever greater things than he! This living water, welling up from within us, is not our own “Stuff” but rather Jesus.
It’s (another) scriptural promise for absolution in confession: those sins you forgive are forgiven… living water welling up inside of cleanses those around you. When we are open to Jesus’ action in our lives we become mediators of that action to others around us. “Acquire the Holy Spirit,” as St Seraphim of Sarov says. “And thousands around you will be saved.” We do not act for ourselves but for the extension of the Kingdom of God. As Pope Benedict says (in Introduction to Christianity) we’re to be open “on both sides”: to God and to our fellow men, as Jesus was fully for God and for us.
By Grace, we become a source of living water for those around us and they, in turn, become sources of living water as well. The living water flows out from the Tabernacle of the Eucharist until it becomes a flood filling all the world.