Symbols in John’s Gospel


Years ago as my husband was traveling in Turkey, the bus stopped near a little village off the beaten track.

There was a small lake, clear and clean, with a stony bottom. And there was a shrine, marking the place as special, maybe even sacred in a long ago day.

Locals think the shrine might have been built by the Hittite people; old, very, very old.

But the shrine is not what impressed Jerry. Rather it’s the natural spring that feeds the lake; the spring of water the shrine designates and celebrates as special, life-giving; maybe even sacred.

Water may well have been flowing from this little spring for more than 4,000 years. Think of it – before Jesus, before King David, maybe even before Abraham – ever fresh, ever flowing water, giving life to a parched land and a thirsty people.

In the Gospel according to John, we see images of water woven throughout.

Here is Jesus at the annual Festival of Booths that included rituals of water: religious rites invoking God’s blessing of water for the fall harvest. Here is Jesus crying out:

Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink for out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.

John 7:38

Here is Jesus with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well:

Those who drink of the water that I give them will never be thirsty. The water I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.

John 4:13-14

John’s Gospel overflows with symbols and images and signs that point beyond themselves to something beyond our human ability to speak or to know.

Throughout Scripture, symbols whisper, hint, glimpse, suggest a reality that is so real we mortals cannot fathom it. But we can have a sense of something beyond ourselves in part because the symbols we use are grounded in our own temporal reality; our symbols are grounded in this earth.

John is a master at using the things we know something about to teach us what we cannot know.

  • God is like light.
  • Spirit is like water.
  • Christ is like bread.
  • Christ is like wine.
  • Spirit is like wind.
  • God is like life.

John’s gospel teems with symbols and images and signs that deepen our awareness and widen our experience.

Words are not things; words are symbols.

Words point to the things we want to describe. Words fitly spoken can conjure up a whole world of imagination and experience.

Actually all of Scripture can do this. All the words of Scripture can be understood as symbols that help create a space where we are invited to move beyond our small reality and encounter the One who is Real Reality.

Sometimes we talk about how Scripture “projects a world.”

“Projecting a world” imagines that it is in the space between the world of the Bible and our own human experience where we make meaning; where we find that glimpse of Real Reality.

Meaning doesn’t so much happen within the Bible itself as much as it is found in the intersection between the words of the Bible and the embodied word of our real lives.

Meaning is generated in the soil of human experiences, personal relationships, social conditions, ways of seeing and perceiving the world. It is here, in this often chaotic mix, that meaning – true and transformative – can be created by the living Word and the hovering Spirit.

The Gospel of John asks one primary question: “who is this Jesus?”

Again and again, this way and that, John explores and probes this one question.

Again and again, John reveals what he has come to believe is the key, the core truth: “Jesus is the one sent from God.”

Jesus is the One who comes from God, who has come to reveal God, who embodied the Divine so that we embodied beings can get a flesh and blood glimpse what love and grace and compassion and power really look like.

And as John attempts to talk about this, to express his Christology and theology, he uses symbols, word pictures, signs.

Look at the way John’s Jesus reveals himself as “I AM.”

For every Jew reading John’s Gospel, they would immediately recognize the ancient story of the burning bush in which Moses is encountered by the Voice from the flame and experienced the self-revelation of the One-Who-Is.

“I AM” said the voice. “This is my name.” (Exodus 3).

When the woman at the well spoke of the Christ who is coming, Jesus said: “I Am.” (John 4) Throughout the lovely intriguing story John tells, this Jesus IS again and again: I AM.

Even for those of us who are not Jewish, any of us who are longing for meaning and coherence in our lives – even we hear something life-giving when we honestly ask the question: “who is this Jesus?”

We too can hear something life-giving, life-sustaining:

  • I Am Water
  • I Am Bread
  • I Am Light
  • I Am Life.

When we read John’s gospel, we find ourselves awash in the long story of Scripture; we find ourselves in the same story that has been flowing fresh for millennia.

When John’s Jesus speaks of living water, for example, we are immersed in a sea of water word pictures from The Story from Genesis to Revelation.

  • The Spirit hovered over the waters of chaos; God separated the waters from the land; and it was good. (Genesis 1)
  • The springs of the earth burst out of their bounds and chaos reigned once again but an ark of salvation rode the waves to safety and new beginnings. (Genesis 9)
  • The waters of the Red Sea parted and God’s people walked right through the seas of chaos out of slavery and into freedom. (Exodus 10)
  • Water flowed abundantly from a rock to sustain the life of God’s people. (Exodus 17 and Deuteronomy 8).
  • God’s righteous ones are like trees planted by streams of water. (Psalm 1)
  • God is the Lord of all creation who walks on the water, who rules over that chaos and makes a pathway through the seas. (Job 9:8, Psalm 77:20, Isaiah 43:16). And this Jesus – the one sent from God, the one who brings God’s presence to us – Jesus too is pictured as walking on the seas and calming the storms of chaos. (Mark 6:45-52, Matthew 14:22-33, John 6:16-21)
  • One of these days, in this Story of stories, when creation is complete and restored to all its intended goodness, the seas of chaos will be no more and we will gather at “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb…” (Revelation 22:1)

Scripture teems with rich images of our earthy, tangible reality that point us to the unimagined reality of God’s way, of God’s being. Scripture, and the gospels in particular, create a space where the living presence of Jesus may come: may become available.

In this space, the willing reader/hearer opens herself to the mystery and takes seriously the promise of the living Christ that:

I AM with you…

Of course, we do not conjure this Christ or control this God, but when we make ourselves available to the Spirit, when we present ourselves and expose ourselves to the Scriptures, when we let our own stories intersect The Story, we can claim with a certain audacity that God will come to us in grace, in this holy space in order to make the Holy present for us.

When I was preaching, when I would stand in the pulpit on Sundays and dare to attempt to speak a word in the name of the one true God, I would boldly pray: Holy and Eternal God, who has spoken to us once and for all in Jesus Christ and continues to speak to us in the Holy Scriptures, speak to us now, we pray, that we may know you, the one true God, and be disciples of your son Jesus the Christ…

“Speak to us now, we pray, so we may know you;” so that, in some fresh way, we may experience anew – in this moment – your presence, your love, your grace, your compassion, your power, your life.

God be Light to us.

Christ be Bread to us.

Spirit be Water to us.

One God forever.


Living in The Story readings for Week 28

1 Samuel 21-31

Psalm 18

Psalm 64

Psalm 142

John 6-7

Acts 24-28

Image Credits

BrianMorley’s photos, Hittite Water Shrine, Turkey

The World’s Best Photos by AnnaGillengerten, Waters of the Hittite Shrine (AnnaGillengerten)

Rushing River by Donna Caplinger,

Author: Charlotte Vaughan Coyle

Charlotte lives and blogs in Paris TX. She is ordained within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and developed Living in The Story while doing doctoral work at Brite Divinity School in Ft. Worth. Charlotte also blogs about intersections of faith, politics, and culture at