And so Jesus has gone to the Feast of Tabernacles, one of the key pilgrim festivals of the Jewish faith, and he’s prompted lots of debate as to whether or not he’s the promised Messiah. Then, on the last day of the Feast, he comes out with a line that makes many believe in him:
“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.”
John explains that this is a reference to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, still quite a while away. But why does this statement stir up such a fuss.
Maybe it’s all about the imagery. After all, the crowds were living in an imaginative landscape inspired by the Prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. When he talks about living water, Jesus is drawing on Zechariah 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.”) and Ezekiel 47 (“I saw water coming out from the threshold of the Temple toward the east.”). All this summons up a picture of an abundant, healed land, symbolic of God saving his people (all of which foreshadows Revelation 22:1-2).
It’s a powerful image because it harks back to the Garden of Eden – one of the main features of the Garden was its rivers, and though the Fall cuts this beautiful, abundant place off from humanity, we’re told that it will be restored in some way by the coming of Israel’s Messiah. So when Jesus talks about living water, people start to sit up and listen.
(It’s not the first time he’s done this – in John 4:10 he also talks about living water, this time riffing on Isaiah 12:3, which again talks about the restoration of the land and humanity.)
But here’s the interesting thing. The Prophets are talking about the healing of the land – a very specific chunk of land – and water flowing from the Temple in Jerusalem. This is fair enough; after all, Jerusalem and the Temple were – are- the spiritual centre of Judaism. And yet here’s Jesus saying that he – and God, and the Holy Spirit – is the source of living water. Contradiction? Well, there’s a tension in the Gospels between Jesus – who’s the presence of God on Earth, and who’s crucifixion will somehow permanently fulfil the sacrificial system – and the Temple, which at this point is being run by corrupt authorities.
So maybe it’s not a case of Jesus decentralising the worship of God, although the presence of the Holy Spirit in believers achieves this. Maybe it ties in with the idea that, through the Fall, the world, as well as the soul of humanity, is broken and that, through the work of Jesus, it will be restored. The living water doesn’t flow from Jerusalem and the Temple as a fundamental physical feature, it flows because the relationship between God and humanity is restored and that also heals the land, radiating out from a new Jerusalem as the spiritual centre of everything.
And how does this tie in with the Feast of Tabernacles? Because that’s when water would be collected from the Pool of Siloam and carried to the Temple, where it would be poured out on the altar as an offering to God. The agricultural aspects of the Feast were about asking God to send rain for the harvest. Living water, in other words.
Or am I reading too much into two short lines?! As always, comments in the comments box!