Rivers of Living Water
Pentecost Year C
John 7: 37 — 39
Our text is the Gospel reading for the Vigil of Pentecost. Earlier in chapter 7 Jesus is seen sending the disciples off to Jerusalem to celebrate the week long Festival of Tabernacles, while he stayed behind in Galilee. When they were safely dispatched, he also set out in secret. It appears that on arrival he kept a low profile at first, and then as the week progressed, he began to teach in the Temple courtyard. Eventually Temple Police were sent out to arrest him, but they found it beyond them to take him into custody.
The day before our reading occurred, Jesus made it plain he was going to a place where his opponents would not be able to find him. This helps understand what followed — the promise of the Holy Spirit was tied to his departure.
Our text continues:
John 7: 37 — 39a (New International Version)
On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood up 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.
John 7: 37 — 39 a (New English Bible)
On the last and greatest day of the festival Jesus stood and cried aloud, "If anyone is thirsty let him come to me;
Whoever believes in me, let him drink," As Scripture says, "Streams of living water shall flow out from him."
He was speaking of the Spirit, which believers in him would receive later;
Comparison Relating to Punctuation.
Two alternative punctuations are possible at the end of verse 37.
The full stop may be placed after, "and drink", as in most translations; (2) alternatively, it may follow the Greek phrase translated "him who believes in me", which comes in Greek at the beginning of verse 38. The translation would then be "If anyone thirsts, let him come to me, and let him who believes in me drink. As Scripture has said, "Rivers of living water shall flow from him."
The difference in interpretation is that in the first case the living water flows from the believer. But in (2) it flows from Christ. There is spiritual truth in both. The Scripture reference is not known.
Notes On Our Text
Our text opens on the last day of the great Feast of Tabernacles. This celebrated the pilgrimage of Israel through the desert, and the abiding presence of God as he demonstrated his loving and caring attention in the provision of food and water by many miracles.
According to several eminent scholars, each day during the weeklong Feast of Tabernacles, water was brought from the Pool of Siloam back to the Temple and poured out as a symbol of the Age of the Messiah when water would pour from Jerusalem in every direction.
As the lesson which was read from Zechariah said (14: 8).
"On that day, living waters shall flow from Jerusalem."
On the last day (some say the eighth), the most solemn, the pouring out of the water was not done! It was on this day that Jesus chose to stand up and call out:
"If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink."
He follows that invitation with a bold statement:
"Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him".
There has been much debate over what Scripture our Lord appears to be freely quoting. Some very reliable scholarship links his words to Nehemiah chapter 9, especially verse 20 which says:
"You gave your good Spirit to instruct them. You did not withhold your manna from their mouths, and you gave them water for their thirst."
We will pause for a moment to reflect on the understanding our Lord's listeners had when they heard him make this link with prophecy.
In the first sentence of this Scripture quotation, the term "instruction" here means the Torah, the Holy Law: learning God's Holy will, having God's Holy Word written on their hearts. The Spirit then, teaches and deepens understanding.
The second sentence shows the Spirit being given with essential food and drink. These are needed for one's pilgrimage to the place of fulfilment, the place of full living. The Spirit is therefore given to those who have enough faith to turn to God in their hunger and thirst, whether physical or spiritual.
So now, at the climax of the festival Jesus takes the opportunity to show how the Feast of Tabernacles actually points to him and his promise. Perhaps his words in a modern context would go something like this:
"Let all who are thirsty come to me and drink. Those who believe in me, the one who possesses and gives the Living Water — if they truly believe — will come to me for what only I can give. As many promises in Scripture testify, they shall drink from an unending flow of Living Water. And from them, in turn, shall flow rivers of this Living Water."
An old rabbinic teaching may have been in Jesus' mind"
"When the disciple is like a well, just as from the well flows out living water on all sides, so from that disciple will come forth disciples and their disciples."
What a magnificent description of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church at Pentecost.
Some may wonder how true it is that Living Water, the gift of Jesus Christ, will flow from the disciples of Christ. Why not direct from the Lord himself? Why via others? This is the mystery of the Church, Christ's body, of which he is the Head. As he himself was to teach, "I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me (and I in them) bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15: 5). It is God's way that we will be the living network by which God will bring others into contact with Him, and provide the spiritual nourishment for which they are, in fact, starving.
Notice that while our Lord did not, at the Feast of Tabernacles, actually mention the Holy Spirit, St John interprets Jesus words for us and makes sure we get the link. He writes:
"By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive:
Just as the words of Jesus were always the words of the Father, so the Spirit-filled disciple of Jesus will give forth the living words of the Lord Jesus. These are the life-giving water within the believer, which will flow out to all who know they have need for it. Far from usurping the role of Jesus, such disciples are the means by which he extends his Kingdom throughout this beautiful but troubled world.
Dr John Ryle, nearly a hundred years ago, wrote that the 3 verses of our text deserve to be written in gold. They are incredibly rich in the truth, they contain, which can only be unpacked by meditation, with God's help. Let us pray for one another, that rivers of Living Water may flow from within us; and may others be spiritually nourished by this Living Water.
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