The book or John organizes Jesus’ ministry around different “Jewish” festivals, many of which were ordained by God for Israel in the days of Moses. The events chronicled in John 7-10 take place during and immediately after (mostly the next day) the autumn Feast of Tabernacles. This was an eight-day festival that celebrated, among other things, the larger fall harvest of wheat.
Kevin Howard and Marvin Rosenthal describe an important Feast of Tabernacles ritual. Each morning of the festival, a procession would begin from the Pool of Siloam, where the high priest would scoop up a pitcher of water and walk back to a corner of the altar at the Temple. In the meantime another procession had gathered willow boughs from a nearby location and placed them on the sides of the altar to form a leafy canopy above it. A crowd would joyously follow the high priest back to the Temple. As he entered the aptly-named Water Gate, the assembled priests would quote Isaiah 12:3, “Therefore with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” [As quoted from The Feasts of the Lord, p. 138] Afterward, the high priest would pour out the water into a basin at the altar, which emptied at the ground at the base. Simultaneously, a pitcher of wine was poured into another basin on the other side of the altar.
While this was happening, the priests would play musical instruments and sing Psalms 113-118 (praise psalms collectively called the Hallel). The priests circled around the altar while a set of three trumpet blasts filled the air. “At the proper time, the congregation waved their palm branches toward the altar and joined in singing: “Save now, I pray, O Lord; O Lord, I pray, send now prosperity’ (Ps. 118:25).” [Howard and Rosenthal, p. 138] (This is exactly what the palm-branch-waving crowds were doing on what is now referred to as Palm Sunday when Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. “Hosanna” is Hebrew for “save now.”)
On the seventh day of the Feast, the intensity of this ritual increased, with sevenfold trumpet-blasts and seven circles around the altar. Around 30 AD, a thirty-ish Galillean surprised the crowds by shouting out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37-38 as quoted by Howard & Rosenthal, p. 141).
At this particularly Messianic moment of the festivities, Jesus was telling them that He is the source and cause of their salvation. “Ancient Jewish theology connected the water-drawing ceremony with the Holy Spirit… The outpouring of the Holy Spirit in relation to salvation was a much-repeated theme of the Old Testament prophets (Isa. 32:15; 59:21; Ezek. 11:9; 36:27; 37:14; 39:29; Joel 2:28-29)” [Howard & Rosenthal, p. 147].
The idea of rivers of living waters has ancient roots, and is represented in the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden, which was watered by a river whose waters in turn became the source of every other major river in the world. These were rivers that flooded their banks once a year in order to fertilize the surrounding soil, producing bumper crops that sustained the highest civilizations of the day. The symbolism reappears in Ezek. 47:1-12, where a river begins at the south side of the east face of the altar, and proceeds east, healing rivers and seas wherever it goes. It suports fruit trees on either side which bear fruit all twelve months of the year. Ezekiel’s river imagery is picked up by John in the book of Revelation, where the trees are identified as trees of life, just as in Eden.
One of our members noticed that Jesus ends his confrontations at the end of the Feast of Tabernacles (10:22-30) with the declaration that he is the “good shepherd.” Knowing the Feast of Tabernacles background of this helped her understand what Jesus meant better. According to Psalm 23, David’s shepherd led him to green pastures beside the “still waters” or “waters of rest.” Jesus had not changed the subject. He was just telling them (and us!) to follow Him to the waters of rest in His Spirit.
Whether or not Ezekiel and John are also talking about literal waters under a new heavens and earth, we can’t go wrong by following Jesus. We do know that Jesus was speaking of the Holy Spirit because John tells us what he meant. Have you come to Jesus for the living water that only he can lead you to?