Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, August 15, 2020
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Rivers of Living Water

John 7:28-39

John chapter 7 is centered around Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem for the Festival of Shelters, or it was also called Booths or Tabernacles. Shelters was one of the three great Jewish festivals, the other two being Passover and Pentecost. It happened in mid-October, by our calendar.

There was a historical significance to Shelters. It reminded the Jewish people of the forty years spent in the wilderness after the Exodus, a time in which God provided. To remember this, everyone had to move out of their houses and spend the week in little shelters that were built each year for the festival out of branches and such. The city of Jerusalem would be lit up with torches, as a reminder of the pillar of fire God used to guide them through the wilderness. Each day, water from the Pool of Siloam, at the lower end of the city, would be taken by ritual procession up to the Temple and poured out at the base of the altar, a reminder of the water God provided in the wilderness. On the last day of the feast, which was seven or eight days, we’re not exactly sure how long, the priests would process around the altar seven times before pouring out the water, a reminder of the seven trips around Jericho before the walls fell.

There was an agricultural significance. This was the end of the harvest season, and so Shelters was also roughly equivalent to our celebration of Thanksgiving.

But there was also what I would call a prophetic significance to Shelters. It was an anticipation of a great work of God. The prophets Zechariah, Ezekiel, and Joel all foretold of a day when there would be a river flowing out from the Temple in Jerusalem. Their prophecies are each a little different, but they all foretold of this river that would bring life to everything it touched. Trees would grow along its banks, bearing fruit all year round. The leaves of these trees would heal those who touched them. This river would even bring life to the Dead Sea. Shelters was also an anticipation of this great work of God. And that is important to the context of this passage!

We pick up at verse 28. Jesus says, “You know me and where I come from.” I think Jesus is referring here to his “human nature.” They knew where he was from: Nazareth, Galilee, Joseph and Mary, a baby conceived out of wedlock. But they didn’t really know where he was from, did they? Because really he came from God. And they didn’t know God, either. They assumed they did, but they really did not.

Many were convinced Jesus was the Messiah, because of his miracles. The religious leaders tried to have him arrested. In response, Jesus said, “I’ll only be here a little longer, and then I will return to the One who sent me.”

“Where is he going?” the Jewish religious leaders wondered. “To the Jews outside Judea? To the Gentiles?” Of course, these things foreshadow the Pentecost moment and the global mission of the Church.

On the last day of the Festival, the seventh or eighth day, depending on the interpretation, Jesus said, “If you are thirsty, come to me. If you have faith in me, come and drink. For as the Scriptures say, rivers of living water will flow out from within him.”

This is one of those places where Bible scholars just lose their minds. In the original Greek of the first century, there were no punctuation marks, no capital letters, no way to know how to break this into sentences. So that’s a frustration. Second, does the river of living water flow out from Jesus or from the one who has faith in him? It’s not really clear. And third, what Scripture is Jesus quoting? When Jewish people quoted Scripture in the first century, they just quoted it. Maybe they would say, “As Moses said” or “As the prophet Isaiah said,” but they wouldn’t say chapter and verse because the chapters and verses were not added till centuries later. And they didn’t feel constrained to quote exactly. They would “adapt” the quote to suit their situation. So we don’t exactly know what Jesus is quoting.

I think Jesus is quoting Isaiah 58:11, which reads, “The Lord will guide you continually, giving you water when you are dry and restoring your strength. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring.” And I think the best answer is to think that this water flows from Jesus. But that doesn’t mean that we should not also think that there is a “river of living water” flowing out of those who are intimately connected to Jesus, as well.

To understand this passage, we need to know how water is used in the Scriptures, and especially how it’s used in the Gospel of John.

The best story for context is John 4, Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, which we looked at a couple months ago. In John 4, Jesus says that he can give living water, and that the water he gives becomes a perpetual spring within a person, giving them eternal life. In John 6, Jesus says those who come to him and believe in him will never be thirsty again. The other text in John that I think might be important here is John 19. As Jesus is on the cross, a Roman soldier, to ensure that he is dead, thrusts a spear into him, and blood and water pour out. None of the other Gospels mention that detail, and given the significance of water in the Gospel of John, I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

There are some other significant texts about water that I think are also important to our understanding. In Isaiah 44, God says, “I will give you abundant water to quench

your thirst and to moisten your parched fields. And I will pour out my Spirit and my blessings on your children. They will thrive like watered grass, like willows on a riverbank.” In 1st Corinthians 10, Paul talks about the Israelites in the wilderness, drinking from the rock, and he says, “and that rock was Christ.” Again, connecting the water in the wilderness and the Festival of Shelters to Jesus.

Water, in the Gospel of John especially, but all throughout the Scriptures, is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. He is given to all who are in relationship with Jesus Christ. By his atoning death on the cross, the water of the Holy Spirit is poured out. At his Ascension, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit, and that promise is fulfilled at Pentecost.

The Holy Spirit is like water. We can’t live without water. And we can’t live without God. And the Holy Spirit brings God’s presence and power into our lives. We may look for other fountains to satisfy our thirst, but in the end, only God can satisfy.

In Jewish tradition, the water that flowed out of the Temple in those prophecies of Ezekiel, Zecharaiah, and Joel came out of the rock that was the foundation of the Temple. Jesus is the foundation of the New Temple, the Church, and he is the source of our living water. He becomes a never-ending source of water in us.

We may not appreciate this idea as much as some. We live in a pretty humid climate, sometimes a little too humid. We seldom deal with drought, and even when we do, our droughts are not usually sufficient to interrupt our ability to get drinking water. But Jesus spoke to people who were accustomed to droughts from time to time, sometimes even drought so severe that water had to be rationed. And for them, water was life.

God is life. And we will always be thirsty until we are satisfied by God.

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