Recently measured water permeability through bilayers of different lipids is most strongly correlated with the area per lipid A rather than with other structural quantities such as the thickness. This paper presents a simple three-layer theory that incorporates the area dependence in a physically realistic way and also includes the thickness as a secondary modulating parameter. The theory also includes the well-known strong correlation of permeability upon the partition coefficients of general solutes in hydrocarbon environments (Overton's rule). Two mathematical treatments of the theory are given; one model uses discrete chemical kinetics and one model uses the Nernst-Planck continuum equation. The theory is fit to the recent experiments on water permeability in the accompanying paper.