Jeremiah 17:13, 50:7, John 1:25
The Pharisees came to John in the Jordan River and asked him, “If you are not the Christ, the Messiah, or Elijah, or the foretold prophet, why are you baptizing?”
There is so much to unpack in this single question.
To understand the full import of what the Pharisees asked, we need to return to Israel before the forced exile to Babylon and the voluntary exile to Egypt, namely the time of Jeremiah the prophet.
During a time of famine, the Word of God came to Jeremiah.
The cry of Jerusalem has gone up
The nobles have sent their little children to the watersprings
They find no water
They return with their bowls empty
Ashamed and confused
They cover their heads
The ground is beaten down, afraid
There is no rain
The plowmen are ashamed and confused
They cover their heads
The deer calve but find no grass
The wild asses snuff up the air like dragons
Their eyes search to the end but there is no grass
Oh Lord, our sins witness against us
We have turned away, turned back from You many times
For Your own Name’s sake,
Israel’s Hope and Pool of Living Water,
Rescuer and Savior in time of anguish and adversity,
Why are you a stranger and a wayfarer in the land,
One who stays only for the night?
Why are you stunned and confused
Like a champion who cannot rescue or save?
From Jeremiah 14:1-9
Oh YHWH, LORD,
Israel’s Hope and Pool of Living Water,
All who forsake you shall be ashamed and confused
Those who revolt from my words shall be recorded in the earth
Because they have forsaken YHWH, the LORD,
The wellspring of living water.
From Jeremiah 17:7
Following the time when Jeremiah spoke and wrote these words, Israel’s people were divided and exiled. After their return to their homeland, they took great care to do whatever they could to avoid another exile and dispersal of their people. From this context, the Pharisees arose.
The Pharisees took Torah seriously and often literally. They followed its teachings in matters of belief and behavior. They were careful to observe religious rites and to perform acts of piety. They eagerly awaited Messiah, more so after their national humiliation first at the hands of the Greeks, defeated by the Maccabees, and now, in the time of John, at the hands of the Romans. They had not been exiled, but they were not the autonomous theocracy they believed God intended. So they were looking for the one God would send to rescue and save them, in part from sin, but in larger part from the Romans. They were the true believers, the true patriots.
One aspect of their belief is the necessity of ritual washing. Torah teaches that many life events cause uncleanness in the individual, who has then to wash and remain unclean until nightfall (see Leviticus, many places). (It can be noted that these life events often have to do with the death of potential life or actual death, ultimately connected with sin by way of the Fall.) After the Babylonian exile, the devout constructed mikveh for this purpose, sacred individual baths, fed by “living water”—water from springs. Rainwater from a cistern that flowed by gravity into this mikveh was acceptable, but flowing rainwater cannot purify. Then as well as today, converts to Judaism must wash in a mikveh.
The Jordan River, sourced by three smaller rivers all rising from springs, is living water for the purposes of washing away uncleanness. Thus it is the perfect spot for John to immerse those who are repenting of living wrongly.
The Pharisees who came hopefully to ask John his calling had already been through their daily washing, very likely. They wanted to please God so that their nation would be free from oppressors. They also wanted a Messiah who would help turn the nation toward God so that God would free them from Rome.
The Messiah Who Actually Came
The story is familiar about how Jesus arrived at the Jordan, John spoke prophetically of the Lamb of God who carries away the sins of the whole world, and then Jesus enters the purifying water and John baptizes him. John sees the Spirit of God descend on Jesus and witnesses that “this is the Son of God.” By the end of John 1, Jesus has identified himself as the same ladder Jacob saw between earth and heaven, with God’s messengers ascending and descending on it. In John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus that the natural birth and the water bath must be followed and superseded by a spiritual birth. In John 4, by Jacob’s Well, Jesus offers the Samaritan woman living water, even a well of water springing up in her to everlasting life. In John 5, Jesus heals a man waiting by healing waters, but the man does not, in fact, bathe either literally or figuratively in living water, and he turns Jesus in as a Sabbath-breaker.
In John 6, Jesus walks over the waters of the Sea of Galilee to join the fearful disciples in their boat.
In John 7, Jesus stands in the Temple and shouts,
All who thirst,
Come to me and drink
All who trust in me
Will have streams of living water
(He spoke thus of the Spirit of God)
It would not have escaped the Pharisees in the crowd that Jesus was echoing the prophet Isaiah:
All who thirst
Come to the watersprings
John 9 tells of Jesus healing a blind man by spitting in the dust, making a mud poultice, and then sending him to wash in the pool fed by the fountain of Siloam. This washing revisits the whole idea of the mikveh, the purifying bath that prepares for worship. Indeed, when the man sees Jesus again, he worships him.
By John 10, Jesus has completed a circle and returned to the spot where John baptized him. In John 13, Jesus washes feet, saying to Peter, “If I don’t wash you, you hold no part in me….Whoever has bathed is clean, and needs only to wash the feet. And you are clean.” Jesus himself is the living water that purifies, and to be part of him requires immersion in that mikveh as well as the specific washing of whatever is dusty. This becomes more vivid when the Roman soldier pierces Jesus’s side and blood and water flow out (John 19:34)—blood symbolizing life, human life, and water symbolizing the living water of spirit, first referenced in John 1:12-13:
But to as many who held onto him,
Who committed themselves to his character and authority,
To them he gave the strength and freedom
To become children of God:
Born not of human blood nor human pleasure nor human will,
But of God’s blood, God’s pleasure and God’s will.
John identifies Jesus with the purifying and healing water of the mikveh, and this is not entirely new information. But the most exciting insight comes out of the passages in Jeremiah, where the mikveh bath is a sacred pun for hope, one of the three central Christian virtues.
When Jesus is our cleansing bath, we enter into his being, we take hold of him and become one with him and one like him. This is our ground for hope. Hope is not an insubstantial wish for things to improve, but our hope, who is Jesus, anchors us. We may need daily to have Jesus clean us, but no one can take away from us that immersion in the water of life, which Jesus has also placed within us and provided for us. As the apostle says in 1 John 3:2-3:
Beloved, we are now the children of God
What we will be has not yet appeared
But we do know that when God appears
We will be like God
For God will allow us to see God
As God really is
And all who have this hope in God
Even as God is clean
Here is a picture of that cleansing, healing bath from the fiction of George MacDonald. In The Princess and Curdie, Irene has had a terrifying adventure underground in goblins’ tunnels, and has found her way back to her magical grandmother. Here is the scene:
“You are very tired, my child,” the lady went on. “Your hands are hurt with the stones, and I have counted nine bruises on you. Just look what you are like.”
And she held up to her a little mirror which she had brought from the cabinet. The princess burst into a merry laugh at the sight. She was so draggled with the stream, and dirty with creeping through narrow places…The lady laughed too, and lifting her again upon her knee, took off her cloak and night-gown. Then she carried her to the side of the room. Irene…[started] a little when she found that she was going to lay her in the large silver bath; for as she looked into it, again she saw no bottom, but the stars shining miles away…in a great blue gulf. Her hands closed involuntarily on the beautiful arms that held her, and that was all.
The lady pressed her once more to her bosom, saying: “Do not be afraid, my child.”
“No, grandmother,” answered [Irene], with a little gasp: and the next instant she sank in the clear cool water.
When she opened her eyes, she saw nothing but a strange lovely blue over and beneath and all about her. … she seemed nearly alone. But instead of being afraid, she felt more than happy—perfectly blissful. And from somewhere came the voice of the lady singing…
How long she lay in the water she did not know. It seemed a long time—not from weariness but from pleasure. But at last she felt the beautiful hands lay hold of her, and through the gurgling water she was lifted out into the lovely room. …When she stood up on the floor she felt as if she had been made over again. Every bruise and all weariness were gone, and her hands were soft and whole as ever.
And here is another lovely picture of the truth of this living water:
And he showed me a clean river
Of the water of life
Proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb
And on either side of the river was the Tree of Life
Yielding twelve kinds of fruit
One each month
And its leaves were for the healing of the nations
The first gathering of water referred to as mikveh is Genesis 1:10, where God gathers together the waters called Seas. The mikveh bath is a place where drops of water collect together. Many small drops of water springing from the earth or falling from the sky gather together in one significant community of water. This occurs because the separate drops abide together, or in the case of a river, they are continuous with one another.
Let us take to heart these truths. Jesus washes us clean, Jesus is the living water which springs up in us, Jesus is the living water in which we bathe ourselves, Jesus is our hope. As we gather together, we too can be living water for each other, and our hope bonds us together to be living water and hope—mikveh—for the healing of whole world.