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Water and blood flow together

28 March 2013

Sam Wells considers why both blood and water flowed from the side of Christ

THIS is a meditation on one of the more mysterious moments in the Passion account: the piercing of Jesus's side, and the outpouring of water and blood. John's Gospel does not waste words: each one counts. What do these words mean? There might be a clue in the hidden, but perhaps crucial, little word, "and".

One of the most privileged and tender moments you get invited into as a priest is to be with a person and their family at the moment of death. What I try to do is to touch the person's five senses, and gently offer each one back to God.

I touch the eyes, and think about what those eyes have seen; the ears, and reflect on what those ears have heard; the nose, and savour what that nose has smelled; the mouth, and dwell on what the tongue has tasted; and, finally, the hand, and consider what those hands have touched.

To touch the skin of a person's body after they have died is an intimate thing to do. It is terrifying, because it makes you realise how vulnerable each one of us is - because this moment will come for us all. But it also makes you ponder the intricate wonder of this person: how all the capillaries and nerve-ends, organs, and brain cells that are now silent and still were once so busy for so long.

Our physical bodies depend on two things above all. One is water -  we are each made up of about 60 per cent water. The other is blood - without the blood circulating around our bodies, nothing would function for more than a second.

Jesus had no nursing home or hospital side-ward to die in. His execution was an extended and mer­ci­­less form of torture. Once Jesus had died, John's Gospel records a sig­­nificant event: "One of the sold­iers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out."

It is an awesome event of atone­ment and salvation, judge­ment, death, and sacrifice; but it is also an intimate story of love and betrayal, physical pain, and emotional heartbreak. What is going on throughout the Passion narrative is an interweaving of awe and intimacy, of the grand cosmic story and the intense personal drama. I want to look at how all these things appear in this brutal moment shortly after Jesus's death, when the spear pierces his side, and out come blood and water.

THE first strand is the background of this spear story in the ritual shape of the life of Israel. The day of preparation falls every Friday, and ends at sundown on Friday night. Passover falls once a year, on the 14th day of the seventh month of the Jewish calendar, which can be any day of the week.

John's Gospel points out that the day that Jesus was killed was an unusual day, because the way the calendar fell, it was both the eve of Passover and the day of preparation, a coincidence that occurred only every ten years or so.

The fact that it was the eve of Passover meant that the blood that appeared as the soldier pierced Jesus's side gushed forth just as the blood of the Passover lambs was being spilt. The fact that it was the day of preparation meant that those who had condemned Jesus wanted his body removed before the day of rest began.

All of this is told with repeated reminders that those who wanted Jesus dead could do nothing without the Romans' authority. Even the final spear-thrust into Jesus's side is carried out by a Roman soldier. So already we have the grand context of sacrifice and deliverance, and the earthier context of meeting legal requirements and avoiding the 24-hour sight and smell of a crucified corpse.

But all of these are focused in the reality of a Roman soldier who has control over Jesus's body, as surely as Rome had complete control over the land of Israel. Already, themes of politics, personal passion, and providential purpose converge on this single moment.

THE next strand is the resonance of these events in the scriptures of Israel. Most obviously, we recall the words concerning the suffering servant in Isaiah 53: "He was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; . . . and by his wounds we are healed."

But, more subtly, we might 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 is very interesting. It is the moment in Genesis 2 where God takes the side (or rib) of Adam, and shapes it into a woman.

The creation of Eve in Genesis 2 represents not just the creation of woman, but the creation of society, of diversity, of the whole idea that human beings can share and give and pass on life to one another.

So what we have in this piercing of Jesus's side is not just the fulfilment the prophecy of the suffering servant, but also an idea that what comes out of Jesus may be the beginning of new life, a new society. When we recall Jesus's promise that from him will come streams of living water, we begin to wonder whether this is precisely what he was referring to.

THIS invites the weaving of another strand, which we might call the significance of these events in the life of the Church. Water and blood: it is hard to avoid the most obvious connection of this event to the two central acts of the Church's life: baptism and eucharist.

This moment on the cross is like Eve emerging out from the side of Adam, like a new birth - almost a new creation. Now it seems as if this is like the birth of the Church at the moment of Christ's death. And, in its birth, it is given the two sacraments that shape its life - the water of baptism, and the blood of holy communion.

A few verses earlier, Jesus had commended his mother to the beloved disciple, and the beloved disciple to his mother, with the words: "Woman, here is your son;" and: "Here is your mother." So here, at the cross, we are witnessing the foundation of the Church, with a new community, a new birth, and new sources of life.

THIS brings us to the last strand in understanding what the piercing of Jesus's side and the blood and water are all about. John's Gospel is fond of the word "and". In John 1, we get word and flesh, grace and truth. In John 2, we get water and wine. In John 3, we get spirit and truth. Here, we get blood and water.

I believe that that "and" is the clue to how we are to interpret Jesus's life, and how to interpret Jesus's death. When you touch a dead body, you get the delicate intimacy of realising that you are close to the 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 - and it is as scary close up, in flesh and blood, as it is far away in the language of oblivion and judge-ment.

I think that we can take these twin feelings to this moment of the death of Jesus. There is water - there is the way that Jesus's death gives life, gives hope, gives trust in the promises of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Yet there is also blood - there is pain, horror, brutality, ugliness, violence, and deep, deep fear. And John's account 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's life through the lens of his cross. There is water - there are fountains of life, living water, 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.

On Good Friday, it is easy to make one of two mistakes: to look only on the watery Jesus, who saved us from our sins and made everything right between us and God; or to look only on the bloodied Jesus, who suffered in agony, and at the last believed that God had forsaken him. This is why the "and" is so important.

This is also why the last strand in understanding the water and the blood of Jesus's pierced side is the kind of life you and I are to live in faithfulness to the moment of Jesus's death. We could live a life that  air­brushes out the blood, and sees only the water - a sunny life, that insists that everything always turns out for the best; that will not tolerate gloom; that fits the Jesus story into a positive and upbeat outlook on the world.

Or we could live a life that air­brushes out the water, and sees only the blood - a life of struggle, anger, and bitterness; a recognition that there really is hatred and enmity in the world; and that death comes to us all.

But to follow the Saviour from whose side at once came water and blood is to believe both that suffering and death are real, and that Jesus's 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 the place on the cross is terrifying: it is real human death. 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.

ONCE we have learned how to look at the glory and horror of the cross, we can look with new eyes at the most agonising sight in our own lives. We can look with new eyes  at what we have brought about by our own foolishness; at what we cannot put right, for all our attempts to ignore it, deny it, dis­tract ourselves from it, or resolve it.

We can dare to look at what we dare not look at very often: the truth about ourselves, our lives, our loves, our fears, our faith. And we can look with the searing honesty that is brought about by Christ's blood, and the unflinching courage brought about by Christ's water.

We can bring with us the tender intimacy of our own closeness to whatever it is, and the profound awe of how it connects to the suffering of Christ. We can dare to stay in that still place, a place of awe and intimacy, a place of water and blood, a place of grace and truth. This is the place of the "and". On Easter Day, we fling wide the doors, and feel the joy of glory. But on Good Friday, we stay in the place of the "and".

This "and" is the overlap between water and blood. It was a place that the disciples could not occupy, which is why they scattered at this crucial moment, and were not around to witness the scene.

They scattered because they wanted reality to be all water, and, when they saw the blood, they turned to fear and despair. But the heart of being a Christian lies in staying still, right in this moment, where water and blood 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. It 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 in 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 is called the foot of the cross.

The Revd Dr Sam Wells is the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, in Lon­don, and the author of  Be Not Afraid (Brazos, 2011) and What Anglicans Believe (Canterbury Press, 2011).

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