Water and blood flow together
Peter Seal, 30 March 2018
John 19: 34
From St John’s gospel we have just heard, ‘One of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out’. I want to explore the significance of both blood and water flowing from the side of Christ.
Our physical bodies depend on two things above all else. One is water – we are each made up of about 60% water. The other is blood; without the blood circulating around our bodies, nothing would function for more than a second.
As we gather today, on what we, with hindsight, call Good Friday, Jesus is dying. He had no hospital, nursing home or hospice to die in. His execution was an extended and merciless form of torture. When Jesus had died, St John recounts these words: ‘One of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out’.
John’s gospel was written many years after Jesus died, possibly very late that century – that is maybe 60 years later. His writing is thoughtful and deeply reflective. What we have here is an interweaving of awe and intimacy: we have the grand cosmic story of what Jesus’ death came to mean; and we have the intense personal drama of an innocent and supremely good man being put to death.
What we have here is an interweaving of awe and intimacy.
Let me try and explain. It’s helpful to reflect on the Greek word for ‘side’, which is sometimes translated as ‘rib’. It appears only here in the New Testament, and only once in the Greek version of the Old Testament. But that single place, in Genesis chapter 2, is interesting. It’s the moment in the creation story when God takes the side (or rib) of Adam, and shapes it into a woman.
The creation of Eve (and we don’t need to understand this in a literal way) represents not just the creation of woman, but the creation of society, the creation of diversity and of the whole idea that human beings can share, and give and pass on life to one another.
So today what we have from St John is the thought that what flows out of Jesus – blood and water – may be the beginning of new life, of a new society. We remember Jesus’ promise that from him will come ‘streams of living water’.
John’s gospel is fond of the word ‘and’. In John, chapter 1, we get ‘word and flesh’, ‘grace and truth’. In John chapter 2, we get ‘water and wine’. In John chapter 3, we get ‘spirit and truth’. Here, we get ‘blood and water’.
That little word ‘and’ may be a clue as to how we are to interpret Jesus’ death. When you touch a dead body, you get the delicate intimacy of realising that you are close to the finite fragility of another human being, perhaps one whom you loved deeply. But you also get a shiver of awe that this is death – cold, numbing, unavoidable death. These twin feelings can help us understand better.
There is water – that is the way that Jesus’ death gives life, gives hope, helps us to trust in the promises of God and the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit.
And then there is also blood – which represents pain, horror, brutality, ugliness, violence and deep, deep fear, which Jesus is experiencing. John’s gospel says, ‘At once blood and water came out’. They came out together. The cross is about water and blood.
The same is true if we look back at Jesus’ life through the lens of his cross. There is water – there are fountains of life, living water; of healing, forgiveness, joy and gladness.
But there is also blood – there is hostility, betrayal, hatred, pain, adversity and, finally, what looks very much like defeat.
To follow the Saviour, from whose side at once came blood and water, is to believe both that suffering and death are real; and that Jesus’ death and resurrection have transformed suffering and death so that they no longer have the last word.
Because of the blood, what we see taking place on the cross is truly terrifying: it is real human death, and brutal. But because of the water, we can look on it with hope, and not have to turn away our eyes in fear and despair. It is not the end of the story.
This word ‘and’ is the overlap between water and blood. It was a place that the disciples found themselves unable to occupy, which is why they scattered at this crucial moment. It’s why they were not around to witness the scene. They scattered probably because they wanted reality to be all water, and when they saw the blood, they turned in fear and despair.
But the heart of being a Christian lies in staying still, right in the moment where water and blood can come out together. Being a Christian means remaining in the place where hope and suffering meet.
The heart of being a Christian lies in staying still, right in the moment where water and blood can come out together. Being a Christian means remaining in the place where hope and suffering meet.
This place, the place of water and blood, is the place where faith and fear overlap. This is perhaps the most difficult place to be. But this is the place where the Church was born. And this continues to be the place, more than anywhere else, where the Church still belongs.
The Church is, and always has been, most truly itself not when soaring in success, or when plunged into despair; but when success and despair are mingled like water and blood. It is a place of conflict, horror and agony, but also of new birth, new community and new sources of life.
This place has a name. It’s called the foot of the cross.