[Note: The material in this post may seem familiar because it has appeared in other forms in previous posts on this website.]
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 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). John notes that it cause no small stir.
On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified. On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.” Others said, “He is the Christ.” Still others asked, “How can the Christ come from Galilee?”
At this particularly Messianic moment of the festivities, Jesus was telling them that He is the source and cause of their salvation. According to Howard and Rosenthal, “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)” [Feasts of the Lord, 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 supports 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.
The prophet Zechariah also writes of that time.
Zech 14:8 – On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half to the eastern sea and half to the western sea, in summer and in winter. The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name.
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.” (This seems to have occurred on the Eighth Day, considered a different, yet related feast by the Jewish community.) Knowing the Feast of Tabernacles background of this statement 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?
Living waters have an amazing effect on the surrounding land, as noted by the prophet Isaiah.
Is. 35:1 The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God. Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.
Based on the descriptions above, living water seems to bring life to all the land it touches. Living water brings what Isaiah describes as “joy” and “gladness” to the desolate places. It decorates the surroundings with lush growth by creating conditions for growth. Like the Nile, Tigris or Euphrates rivers, it overflows its banks at just the right time of the year, spreading fertile soil and moisture to ensure a marvelous, sustaining crop along its flood plain.
There must be an analogy here somewhere, as there is so often in Jesus’ teaching. If Jesus provides us with streams of living waters coming out of our innermost being, how is that reflected in our lives and in the lives of those whose lives we touch?
Do we bring life, health and joy to those around us?
Do we radiate the peace of Christ to those who are near us?
Or do we bring shame, condemnation and fear to those around us? Are we the downer in the lives of our neighbours? Are they afraid to talk to us because of what they know we’ll say about their way of living?
I think Jesus calls us to let His streams of living water flow out of our hearts and into the hearts and lives of others around us. He gives us living water to refresh and bring joy to others, not to hoard it for ourselves or even for the church. It overflows our banks, spreading hope, life and joy and growth wherever the water reaches.
Let’s ask God to let the living, healing streams flow unhindered through our lives.