The Gospels give an intriguing detail to the story of the preparation for the Last Supper. Mark tells us:
On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?” So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him” (Mark 14:12-13).
There are two aspects to this short account that might pique our interest: first, that it would be a man carrying a water jar. In the ancient Near East – as is still the case today – a man carrying a water jar would be an unusual sight. In that culture women traditionally carried jars of water, as we read in several biblical stories (John 4:4–42, etc.). Sometimes household servants (Deuteronomy 29:11; Joshua 9:21) would be sent to perform this task (we still use the expression “to carry someone’s water” to refer to performing menial chores), but it would most often be a female servant given this task. Second, we might also wonder why the mysterious nature of this instruction. Why did Jesus not simply give the two disciples (Peter and John) directions such as “Go to the house of Samuel near the gate” or whatever?
As far as the man carrying the water jar is concerned, commentaries on the Bible have proposed several possible identifications. One scholar has suggested that the man must have lived in an “Essene Quarter” of Jerusalem as the Essene religious group separated themselves from women and would have had to carry their own water. This idea does not hold up, however, not only because there are no details in the story to substantiate this idea, but also because in any such “Essene Quarter,” there would likely have been many men carrying water.
Other commentaries have noted that according to Jewish custom, before the first day of unleavened bread the master of a house himself had to go to the public fountain to draw the water with which the unleavened bread for the Passover Feast was kneaded. But Mark’s Gospel shows the man they were to meet was not the owner of the house and that the disciples were to follow him to: “... the owner of the house he [the water carrier] enters ...” (Mark 14: 14).
It has been suggested that it is possible that the “man carrying a jar of water” was the Gospel writer Mark himself, as some traditions claim that Mark lived in the home of his mother in which the upper room where the Last Supper was held was located. In this view, if Mark’s mother was a widow as tradition asserts, the family may have no longer been able to maintain servants even if their home was a large one, and Mark might have helped with tasks too heavy for his mother. While this idea is sometimes accepted, we should remember that when Jesus instructed his disciples to “Say to the owner of the house …”, the Greek word for home “owner” is masculine and is more usually translated as “master of the house” (NKJV, ESV, etc.). So this was not likely to have been the house of Mark’s mother.
But even if we cannot be sure of the identity of the man carrying water, the mysterious nature of Jesus’ instruction to his disciples can perhaps be understood in light of the events the New Testament describes. It is clear that at this time in the days before Jesus’ arrest, Judas was already looking for an opportunity to betray him (Matthew 26:16). But in order for Jesus to fulfill the important symbolism of his own sacrifice as the Passover “Lamb,” it would have been vital that he not be arrested too early – before his death could enact the Passover sacrifice at the proper time.
Given this situation, it is likely that Jesus utilized a plan by which he could keep the location of the Passover meal hidden from the other disciples until it was too late for Judas to arrange for Jesus’ arrest before or during the Passover meal. As it was, we know that it was only at the meal itself – when Judas knew where Jesus was and where he would be going in the following hours – that he slipped away to arrange to lead the servants of the religious authorities to him that night (Matthew 26:47). But the mysterious reference to “a man carrying water” that Jesus used may well have stalled the plans of Judas for as long as was necessary.