Water is the dominant ingredient of cells and its dynamics are crucial to life. We and others have suggested a physical picture of the cell as a soft, fluid-infiltrated sponge, surrounded by a water-permeable barrier. To understand water movements in an animal cell, we imposed an external, inhomogeneous osmotic stress on cultured cancer cells. This forced water through the membrane on one side, and out on the other. Inside the cell, it created a gradient in hydration, that we visualized by tracking cellular responses using natural organelles and artificially introduced quantum dots. The dynamics of these markers at short times were the same for normal and metabolically poisoned cells, indicating that the cellular responses are primarily physical rather than chemical. Our finding of an internal gradient in hydration is inconsistent with a continuum model for cytoplasm, but consistent with the sponge model, and implies that the effective pore size of the sponge is small enough to retard water flow significantly on time scales ( approximately 10-100 seconds) relevant to cell physiology. We interpret these data in terms of a theoretical framework that combines mechanics and hydraulics in a multiphase poroelastic description of the cytoplasm and explains the experimentally observed dynamics quantitatively in terms of a few coarse-grained parameters that are based on microscopically measurable structural, hydraulic and mechanical properties. Our fluid-filled sponge model could provide a unified framework to understand a number of disparate observations in cell morphology and motility.