Posted in bible symbols, carrying water in a sieve, living water, wells

Are you futilely carrying water in a sieve?

By Elizabeth Prata

Israel is a dry land. It is verdant in some areas where it is close to the humid Mediterranean, and in the north rain does fall between November and March. More than 70% of the average rainfall in Israel falls between those months. June through September are usually rainless, however. For the most part it is a dry country. The Jordan rift valley is the the lowest place on earth (1300 feet below sea level) where where only one to two inches of rain fall annually.

Egypt, where major portions of the bible events take place, of course is also dry, with rainfall averaging from 8 inches per year in the north to 2-4 the further south one travels.

It is dry there. Water is an issue.

The first time a well is mentioned in the Bible is in Genesis 16:14, where as so often a well is the major landmark- “Wherefore the well was called Beerlahairoi; behold, it is between Kadesh and Bered.”

David longed for a sip of water from the well at Bethlehem. (2 Samuel 23:15)

Famously, when the Israelites were wandering in the desert, and they got thirsty, they grumbled and clamored for water. So Moses inquired of God what to do and God said to strike the rock and when Moses did a flow of water gushed out. (Exodus 17:1-7).

Think of how many times in the Bible Jesus (or The Angel of the LORD) met someone by a well or a spring.

When Abraham and Sarah put out the slave girl Hagar that had begotten Ishmael, Abraham gave her a skin of water and sent her on her way with the boy. They wandered, but the water ran out. She put the boy Ishmael under a bush and sat weeping a little ways off so she would not have to watch the boy die. The Angel of the Lord (Jesus in a probable pre-incarnate appearance) heard Hagar weeping, and comforted her with His words and when she opened her eyes there was a well of water. (Genesis 21:8-21).

I’ve mentioned before that the Woman at the Well is my favorite story in the Bible. John 4 has the story. A woman who seems to have been marginalized came to the well at midday (hot!) to draw water by herself (unusual- wells were the original water cooler place for talk and gathering). Jesus was there, being tired and thirsty. He was sitting. He told the woman to draw water for Him, and this was also unusual because it broke a gender and race taboo- men did not speak to women alone and Jews did not speak to the hated Samarians. She exclaimed in surprise.

“Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”” (John 4:10)

Living water? He seemed to her to be an unusual man speaking of an unusual thing. And indeed He is an unusual Person and the Living Water is the everflowing Holy Spirit. He said in John 7 in the section titled Rivers of Living Water:

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37-39)

Of course the enemy hates that the people have water. Wells were often targets of the enemy to plug up.

“For all the wells which his father’s servants had digged in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines had stopped them, and filled them with earth. (Genesis 26:15)

“And ye shall smite every fenced city, and every choice city, and shall fell every good tree, and stop all wells of water, and mar every good piece of land with stones.” (2 Kings 3:19).

In the Bible, water is a symbol for Salvation, Holy Spirit Truth, and Everlasting Life.

  • “Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.” (Isaiah 12:3).
  • “Understanding is a well-spring of life unto him that hath it; …” (Proverbs 16:22a)
  • “But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:14)

Peter likens false teachers and false prophets to dry and empty wells, hypocrites offering a pretense of Christian life but having no water at all: “These are wells without water, clouds that are carried with a tempest; to whom the mist of darkness is reserved for ever.” (2 Peter 2:17)

Can you imagine if Hagar, for example, had wandered alone with her son in the desert, her skin empty and the sun beating down, knowing life would end for herself and her boy if she didn’t find water, spotted a well. Eagerly moving the rock so as to draw water, she lets down the bucket, only to come up with nothing but sand and earth. Her wailing would have been all the worse for this bitter disappointment, having had the glimmer of hope only to have been fooled by the pretense of life giving water.

There is nothing worse than pretense! There is nothing more disappointing to sit under a teacher only to discover they were only offering dry earth and vain hope all along! (Colossians 2:8). They were a dry well and a broken cistern!

In Jeremiah 3:10 God says that He hated the pretense Judah was putting forth in their devotion to Him. Matthew Henry Commentary explains:

“Josiah went further in destroying idolatry than the best of his predecessors had done, and for his own part he turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul; so it is said of him, 2 Ki. 23:25. The people were forced to an external compliance with him, and joined with him in keeping a very solemn passover and in renewing their covenants with God (2 Chr. 34:32, 35:17); but they were not sincere in it, nor were their hearts right with God. For this reason God at that very time said, I will remove Judah out of my sight, as I removed Israel (2 Ki. 23:27), because Judah was not removed from their sin by the sight of Israel’s removal from their land. Hypocritical and ineffectual reformations bode ill to a people. We deceive ourselves if we think to deceive God by a feigned return to him.”

“for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jeremiah 2:13)

Have you heard the phrase “carrying water in a sieve?” That comes from Greek Mythology. “In Greek mythology, the Daughters of Danaus were the fifty daughters of Danaus. They were to marry the fifty sons of Danaus’s twin brother Aegyptus, a mythical king of Egypt. In the most common version of the myth, all but one of them kill their husbands on their wedding night, and are condemned to spend eternity carrying water in a sieve or perforated device. In the classical tradition, they come to represent the futility of a repetitive task that can never be completed.” (Wikipedia)

John William Waterhouse
The Danaides, 1903

You cannot earn your own salvation. If you are not complete in Christ (Colossians 2:9-10) you are no better off than the Danaides daughters, carrying water to fill an endlessly leaking well. If you’re in church and you believe that to be enough, it isn’t. Filling a leaking cistern in a church is just as leaky and incomplete as it would be in any other place.

Whenever you’re reading the bible and you see a reference to a spring or a well or a fountain, then think of these symbols of water and what they mean.

Christ loved the Church and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word.” (Ephesians 5:25-26)

Whosoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:14)

How might you get some of this living water? Here is a simple explanation of The Gospel

What is the gospel?


The gospel is the good news about what Jesus Christ has done to reconcile sinners to God. Here’s the whole story:

  1. The one and only God, who is holy, made us in his image to know him (Gen. 1:26-28).
  2. But we sinned and cut ourselves off from him (Gen. 3; Rom. 3:23).
  3. In his great love, God sent his Son Jesus to come as king and rescue his people from their enemies—most significantly their own sin (Ps. 2; Luke 1:67-79).
  4. Jesus established his kingdom by acting as both a mediating priest and a priestly sacrifice—he lived a perfect life and died on the cross, thus fulfilling the law himself and taking on himself the punishment for the sins of many (Mark 10:45; John 1:14; Heb. 7:26; Rom. 3:21-26, 5:12-21); then he rose again from the dead, showing that God accepted his sacrifice and that God’s wrath against us had been exhausted (Acts 2:24, Rom. 4:25).
  5. He now calls us to repent of our sins and trust in Christ alone for our forgiveness (Acts 17:30, John 1:12). If we repent of our sins and trust in Christ, we are born again into a new life, an eternal life with God (John 3:16).

Now that’s good news.

A good way to summarize this good news is to biblically unpack the words God, Man, Christ,

  1. God. God is the creator of all things (Gen. 1:1). He is perfectly holy, worthy of all worship, and will punish sin (1 John 1:5, Rev. 4:11, Rom. 2:5-8).
  2. Man. All people, though created good, have become sinful by nature (Gen. 1:26-28, Ps. 51:5, Rom. 3:23). From birth, all people are alienated from God, hostile to God, and subject to the wrath of God (Eph. 2:1-3).
  3. Christ. Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully man, lived a sinless life, died on the cross to bear God’s wrath in the place of all who would believe in him, and rose from the grave in order to give his people eternal life (John 1:1, 1 Tim. 2:5, Heb. 7:26, Rom. 3:21-26, 2 Cor. 5:21, 1 Cor. 15:20-22).
  4. Response. God calls everyone everywhere to repent of their sins and trust in Christ in order to be saved (Mark 1:15, Acts 20:21, Rom. 10:9-10).

(Some of this material has been adapted from The Gospel and Personal Evangelism by Mark
Dever, p. 43)


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.

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