Jesus, the Flowing and Living Water of “Yhwh”

A Biblical Reflection of the Relation Between Ez 47:1-12 and Jn 5:1-16

Christ Healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda, by Bartolome Esteban Murillo.

This essay is a theological reflection of two biblical passages and their implicit allusions in matters of theology and Christian spirituality. The first episode is taken from Ez 47:1-12, concerning the pericope of the stream of water that revives the Judean desert and the waters of the sea. The second episode is taken from Jn 5:1-16, that describes the healing of the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda. The study offers as a synthesis a case of the inner biblical allusion that is not determined by the strict use of vocabulary, but the implicit theological and spiritual allusions expressed in both texts. Giving a brief overview of the two texts below, I would like to highlight the golden principle of the inner interpretation of the Scripture. The person of Christ becomes the hermeneutical key that opens the doors of the texts of the Old Testament in order to experience new meanings from texts in the New Testament that can be overlooked.

The Prophet Ezekiel

In the studies of classical prophecy of Israel, it is quite significant to remember that Ezekiel is the first prophet who received his calling (vocation) during the Babylonian exile (597-538 B.C.). Usually we are aware of the most important Babylonian deportation that happened during the years 587-586 B.C., i.e., the classical date for the destruction of Jerusalem. However, before that event, the Babylonians initiated the first deportation around the years 598-597 B.C. The main characteristic of this proto-deportation was the seizure of the elite society of Jerusalem which included the royal family, high priests, military authorities, etc. Ezekiel who was a highly educated Jew, son of Buzi (Ez 1:3) belonged to the priestly class. As a kohen (a priest), Ezekiel was included in the first deportation as a member of the Jewish elite class. The prophetic vocation of Ezekiel started approximately between the years 593-592 B.C. while he was a captive in Babylon. Therefore, the first collection of his prophecies focused upon the period before the destruction of Jerusalem. The oracles found in chapters 4-24 are predominantly addressed to the people of Judah, offering a message of conversion and fidelity to Yhwh because the destruction of Jerusalem was becoming inevitable. Chapters 25-32 portray a negative message of condemnation against the nations considered enemies of Israel. The reader, however, will notice that after chapter 33 the theological perspective of Ezekiel’s oracles changed. According to biblical scholarship, 1 this collection of oracles in chapters 33-48 most probably were written after the destruction of Jerusalem, approximately between the years 586-571. After the dramatic event of the destruction of Jerusalem, Ezekiel’s prophecies became more positive, emphasizing a new hope for the future of Israel, a new beginning for the chosen people after losing everything, and focusing on the fact that even though desolation is present in the life of Israel, Yhwh continues being faithful to his people. 2

The brief overview of the possible historical context of the book helps the readers to infer that contextually Ezekiel 47:1-12 gives new hope for restoration of a people who lost any sense of material and spiritual security. In that time of despair during the Babylonian captivity, Ezekiel talks about the Temple of the Lord, as the privileged dwelling place of God among his people. The stream of water has its source in the Temple (Hebrew: baît) flowing through the Judean wilderness and into the Dead Sea. The prophet indicates that the increasing stream of water is so powerful that it can transform everything that it touches: “When it enters the sea, the sea of stagnant waters, the water will become fresh” (Ez 47:8 NRSV). Therefore, the water that comes from the Temple, meaning the Lord Yhwh himself, becomes a source of life: “Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes.” (Ez 47:9 NRSV).

The water becomes a life-giving instrument of Yhwh, like an extension of the same divine person of God. This life-giving water transforms a hostile environment, an ecosystem that cannot sustain life, into its opposite. Everything it touches is renewed and recreated, to produce and nurture life. The trees grow along the path of the living water, offering to the readers a flashback to the moment of creation and a new paradise (cf. Gen 2:8-10). 3

The water here is crucial in the understanding of this passage. The Hebrew word for water is mayim (or maîm) and in Ez 47:1-12 the term is repeated 12 times, almost the ratio of one repetition per verse. The redundancy in the narrative demonstrates the theological and spiritual dimension embraced in the utterance. In the Semitic culture of the sixth century B.C., the notion of water is fundamental. It is the very essence and substance of life, especially in the arid areas of the Ancient Near East. The living water nurtures the trees and plants, producing a marvelous garden of life. It sustains the aquatic animals, making it possible for them to live in a hostile environment. The purpose of the creating images is to establish an ecosystem where humankind can have all the necessary means to subsist and have a good life.

Ezekiel’s vision using the regenerating and life-giving power of water continues the manifestation of the faithful nature of God in times of desolation and apparent abandonment. The new creation confirms that even though the drastic experience of losing the land, freedom, and any personal security, the Lord steadfastly reveals himself giving a sense of hope. He is the source of living water despite the obliviousness of Israel (cf. Jer 2:13; 17:13). In the same manner as the miraculous water flowing from the Temple, God regenerates everything that was destroyed by the hand of man. The purpose of the divine intervention in human history is to bestow new life out of a hostile setting. 4

The life-giving water is described as an increasing stream in Ez 47:3-6. A spiritual correlation can be made with the different levels of the water. The progression is indicated from minor to major. First the level of the water was ankle-deep, and progressively it became knee-deep, waist-deep, and arrived to a point of swimming depth. The steps taken by the prophet in the measuring of the living water shows a high degree of trust and confidence. The faith of the prophet, who is not afraid to swim in the living water of Yhwh, offers to a modern reader an analogy of a progressive path of faith and trust in God. Each “step of faith” is presented according to the personal level of acceptance. It is the divine pedagogy of God who, step-by-step, prepares each person to the point that the believer is not afraid to jump into the immense stream in order to swim in the life-giving water of God’s love wherever it may lead.

The Gospel according to John

The theological notion of the divine regeneration through the action of water is also explicitly used by John in his Gospel (Jn 5:1-16). The inspired text starts indicating a feast that is not determined with particular details. However, there are some authors, like Lagrange, who suggests that this feast is the Pesah (Passover), a tradition that finds an echo in Irenaeus, in his monumental work entitled Against Heresies 2.22.3. Traditionally, Jews were obliged to go up to Jerusalem for religious reasons three times a year, i.e., Passover, Shavuoth, and Tabernacles. The importance of a feast in Jn 5:1 implies the significance of going up to Jerusalem, the focal setting for the miraculous action of Jesus. Jerusalem was the privileged location that God chose to be his dwelling place, and since the time of Solomon, the Temple embodied the most significant symbols of the power and mercy of Yhwh.

In Jn 5:2 the text says: “Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, {Bethesda} which has five porticoes” (NRSV). The author gives the translation of the Aramaic term “Bethesda” (Codex Sinaiticus and Bezae say Bethzatha). The word also embodies the symbolic meaning of “a house of mercy”. This was also the name of a borough in Jerusalem located in the northeast section of the Temple (cf. Flavius Josephus, Jewish Wars, II, XV, 5). Recent excavations found the archeological site of what presumably is the pool of the Sheep Gate. The waters of this pool had the ancient reputation of having healing powers. Some scholars, like Raymond Brown, made the connection concerning this belief because at the same place of this well, there used to also be a temple dedicated to Serapide (Greek: Sérapis) that was established by the Ptolemaic dynasty when they controlled Jerusalem between the 4th and 3rd century B.C. The belief of Serapide as a healing deity in the Greco-Roman milieu was very much in vogue during Jesus’ time. In one way or another, this tradition remained among the Jewish people who assimilated it into their Yahwistic religious system, interpreting the healing power of the water with an action of an angel: “From time to time, an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters. The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease they had” (Jn 5:4 see also v. 7).5

This historical background helps us to understand why a sick person was close to the pool waiting for any movement or bubbling of the water so they might have the opportunity to experience the healing power of the pool. Such a mindset exhibits superstitious notions that came from the eclectic convergences of religions and cultures. This kind of attitude is not very different from some Catholics today who mix Christian principles and traditions with various eclectic superstitions and behaviors.

John describes a striking contrast when he introduced in the narrative the attitude of Jesus in verse 6: “When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’” (NRSV). The verbal sequence indicates a clear behavioral pattern of the Lord: first he saw, then he learned. Seeing as God, Jesus is led to the knowledge of the person, because his seeing scrutinizes the deepest spaces of the human soul (cf. 1 Sam 16:7). Understanding the paralytic motivates Jesus to ask the most fundamental and important question: “Do you want to get well?” The term used in the text is hygiés which is usually translated as “well,” but also has the meaning of “sound, wholesome, safe.” If we take into consideration these different meanings, then we can say that Jesus’ concern was not only for the physical state of the paralytic, but also for the totality of his person which includes the physical and spiritual aspect concurrently. Jesus wants the whole restoration (wholeness) of the one who cannot walk by his own means.

After the positive answer of the paralytic, Jesus utters his command: “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk” (Jn 5:9). The power of Jesus’ imperative instruction is effective as it was at the moment of the creation when Yhwh created everything by his word (dabar). Immediate healing occurred, proving there is no need of getting into the pool that contained the so called “miraculous water.” The regeneration of the whole person can come only from God who gives a new gift of life to the paralytic. Jesus demonstrates the absurdity and ineffectiveness of the legendary pool. The healing event does not need the mediation of the “physical water” of the pool. On the contrary, healing comes directly from a personal encounter with Jesus and his spoken command. In this case, Jesus is the living water and the source of it (Jn 4:9.13-14). The Gospel according to John makes explicit the connection between Jesus and the living water, especially in the context of the Samaritan woman (cf. Jn 4). Therefore, there is a significant theological connection with the divine water flowing from the Temple in Ezekiel’s vision, and the person of Jesus in John’s Gospel. The author of the Gospel portrays the sign (sēmeion) of the healing of the paralytic as an explanatory event that corroborates what was proclaimed in Jn 4:9.13-14. This also means that the metaphor of Ezekiel 47:1-12 resonates in the inner allusions of the narratives of John’s Gospel, a spiritual and theological image that assumes its fulfillment in Jesus.

Concluding ideas: a pragmatic approach to the texts

In the book of the prophet Ezekiel, the starting point of the water is the Temple, meaning the presence of Yhwh himself. Because of its divine origin, that water can transform an inhabited environment into a setting full of life. That divine water produces life, making a new creation through every path where it flows. In a similar manner, Jesus produces a new creation in the person of the paralytic, by the direct power that flows from him, transforming any situation of desolation and death into a new setting of life and wholeness. Therefore, he is the flowing and living water that regenerates every path that he walks through, giving new life in the midst of misery and desolation.

Taking into consideration this aspect of a new creation, today it is crucial for every Christian to discover the presence of God amid the struggles and strains of daily life. There are many personal situations that cause spiritual and psychological numbness or paralysis. The worries, the anger, the envy, and many other spiritual and psychological states prevent a person from living his or her life with a sense of well-being and contentment. In the middle of static spiritual situations, like that of the paralytic, (i.e., while a person is waiting for some “miracle” to happen), the Lord is passing by. His divine initiative is unfailing and dynamic. In Jn 5:6, it is Jesus who knew about the paralytic and approached him, starting a conversation that will end in the gift of a new life.6 The paralytic was oblivious of the person, Jesus, of his true identity (Jn 5:13), meaning that this miracle was independent of the faith of the one chosen by Jesus. Why then did Jesus perform this healing? What was the motivation to do it? These are questions only God himself can answer. This behavioral pattern corroborates the divine initiative that is independent of the spiritual condition of the person. However, this does not imply spiritual laziness as a path of faithfulness and love of God, thinking that “I do not need to do anything because God does everything.” This simplistic interpretation is not implied or intended in the text. The reasons why Jesus chooses one particular person remains in the inscrutable mind of God who chooses who he wants. But the divine initiative presupposes the condition and openness of the heart to accept the presence, action, and words of God. In the moment that human nature is predisposed to divine manifestation and action, then grace effectively transforms and heals the person.

Ezekiel offers his oracles of hope and restoration precisely in a time when everything was lost, because the people in their captivity must continue to be loyal and truthful to Yhwh. Spiritual laziness was unacceptable for Ezekiel even in moments of total sadness and gloominess. Precisely during the darkest moments of the Babylonian exile is when the prophet proclaims the oracles of hope, courage, and restoration because Yhwh continues to be faithful, and there can be no room in the heart for distrust in God.

The Lord is the only one who can see each person, and understand the inner thoughts of their souls, knowing their greatest needs which can motivate him to come closer and ask: “Do you want to be whole?” (Jn 5:6). At that moment of hearing the voice of God, as his presence is at hand, the person must be ready to have a truthful dialogue with the Lord in which nothing can be hidden from him. According to Jesus’ behavioral pattern in the Gospel, one can expect that he, with the power of his word, will make the person whole and sound again, so he or she can continue to walk on his or her spiritual feet down the path of life presented to each person. The personal encounter with Jesus becomes the moment in which one swims in the stream of living water (Ez 47:6), freeing the believer from the spiritual, psychological, social, and economic captivities that have held he or she back. The moving, life-giving water of Yhwh, who is Jesus himself, makes everything new, allowing one to experience this new life even when surrounded by a hostile or stagnant environment.

I would like to conclude my reflection of these two profound texts with a patristic interpretation. The fathers of the Church—like Tertullian (On Baptism 5), John Chrysostom (Homilies on the Gospel of John 36.1), and Chromatius of Aquileia—understood the episode of the healing at Bethesda as being a symbol of the power of Christian baptism. The most interesting aspect of Chromatius’ reflection centers on the fact that Jesus never employed the water to perform the healing miracle. This element also corroborates with the Patristic tradition, that Jesus is seen as the living water himself. The aforementioned fathers saw in the person of Christ an essential explanation of how baptism continues to work in the ecclesial community, not only for those who are about to receive it, but also for those who have been baptized already. The sacramental actions of the Church become an extension of the healing and regenerating power of Jesus himself. The power of God continues to heal and restore each Christian by the faith received through the grace of the sacraments. Consequently, the healing and regenerating power of Jesus is embodied in the new waters of baptism, and according to this theological idea, the fathers acknowledged a connection between the personal action of the Lord and the sacramental water. This means that the word of God proclaimed and lived in the sacramental life of the Church becomes also the living water that regenerates and makes everything, and everyone, whole and sound again.

As a conclusive précis, the explanatory comparison expressed in Sermon 14 by Chromatius of Aquileia (4th-5th centuries) summarized this sound Christian tradition:

That water at the pool of Bethesda was moved once a year; this water of the church’s baptism is always ready to be moved. That water was moved only in one place; this water is moved throughout the entire world. Then an angel descended; now it is the Holy Spirit. Then it was the grace of the angel; now it is the mystery of the Trinity. That water cured only once in a year; this water saves people every day. That water healed the body; this water heals both body and soul. That water healed a person’s health; this heals from sin. There, the body and soul are freed from sin. There, many who were weary lay sick at that water because it only cured one person a year. No one will be left lying sick here where the waters of baptism are, if they resolve to come and be healed.7

  1. Cf. Luis Alonso Schökel and José Luis Sicre, Profetas. Comentario (Madrid: Ediciones Cristiandad, 1987) II, 675-676.
  2. Cf. Luis Alonso Schökel and José Luis Sicre, Profetas, II, 672-676; Lawrence Boadt, “Ezekiel”, in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Edited by R. Brown, J. Fitzmyer, and R. Murphy (Englewoods Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990), 306.
  3. Cf. Lawrence Boadt, “Ezekiel”, 327.
  4. Verse 11 can create confusion in an environment of complete regeneration. What is the reason of the exception of the marshes and its swamps? The text says “But its marshes and its swamps will not be cured, for they were given for salt.” (Ez 47:11 LEB). The notion of the “salt” is important in the institutionalized cult of Israel. Ezekiel, being of a priestly class, knows the function of the salt for sacrificial purposes. See Lev 2:13 and Ez 43:24. Cf. William H. Brownlee, “The Book of Ezekiel”, The Interpreter’s Commentary of the Bible. Edited by Charles M. Laymon (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971), 434.
  5. Cf. Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII (AncB 29; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983),206-207.
  6. Cf. Massey H. Shepherd, “The Gospel according to John”, The Interpreter’s Commentary of the Bible. Edited by Charles M. Laymon (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971), 715-716.
  7. Chromatius of Aquileia, Sermon 14, in Corpus Christianorum. Series Latina (Belgium: Brepols 1953-), ACCS, IV a, John 1-10 (ed. Joel C. Elowsky), 179.
Fr. Dempsey Rosales Acosta, SSL, STD About Fr. Dempsey Rosales Acosta, SSL, STD

Father Dempsey Rosales Acosta attained his Baccalaureatus in theology (STB) from the Pontifical Gregorian University of Rome in 1998. After his ordination to the priesthood in 1999, he graduated in Exegesis and Biblical Languages at the Pontifical Biblicum Institute of Rome (SSL) in 2004, and achieved his doctorate in Biblical Theology (STD) from the Pontifical Gregorian University in 2009. Since 2008, he has worked as a peritus and collaborator for the Presidential Liaison for Roman Catholic Ministries at the American Bible Society (ABS), and since 2010, he has been a full-time faculty member of the University of St. Thomas, Houston, TX.


  1. Avatar Paul Rodden says:

    Until a few years back, I was no fan of ‘exegesis’ as, so often, it was as dry as dust (or incomprehensible).

    But it’s wonderful that now we have so many scholars who are speaking, or writing, like in this article (thinking of ‘The Sacred Page’ project and The St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology).

    Thank you for a great article, Fr Dempsey!

  2. Avatar C J Braun says:

    I really liked this article and the historical context given. Elucidating God’s faithfulness through time like the flowing water analogy itself, reminded me that His ever flowing love is always there and ready to regenerate us – even when we begin by just wading in before taking the plunge all in. Thank you for the details.


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