The Bible is drenched in water. In Genesis 1, before any other matter comes into being, we find God's Spirit hovering over the waters. Of the six verses that describe Eden in Genesis 2, four are dedicated to detailing the garden's shimmering rivers. Fast forward all the way to the final chapter of Revelation, and the waters of Eden have been restored: "Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb" (Revelation 22:1, NIV).
Between Genesis and Revelation, water becomes a powerful symbol of not only purification and renewal, but also, more essentially, of God's presence and provision: "For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground," God promises Israel. "I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants" (Isaiah 44:3). Thirst, conversely, becomes emblematic of our great and enduring need for God himself. "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God," confesses the psalmist. "My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?" (Psalm 42:1–2).
Not everyone is as clear-minded as the psalmist about the source of her thirst, of course. The Bible is populated with human beings who seem awfully contemporary in their desperate attempts to quench their longings with everything but God's living water. We meet one such woman in John's gospel, and though we're only given a few key details, it's not hard to imagine her backstory.1