Title: Living Water
Author: Susan Wallace
Have you ever wondered what Jesus meant when he said, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’“ (John 7:38)? It sounds beautiful, but what does it really mean? It may help to look at where Jesus was: the Feast of Booths. In Jewish culture, the Feast of Booths commemorated God’s faithfulness to the Israelites in the wilderness. One specific incident the Jews celebrated was Moses calling on God to draw water from the rock (Exodus 17), one of many displays of God’s patience and provision for the Israelites in the desert.
Thus, when Jesus stands up on the last day of the Feast of Booths and cries out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink” (7:38), he is doing more than simply using a metaphor. He is issuing a direct challenge to the Jews who don’t believe in him, and he is calling them to identify him in light of God’s provision in the desert. Just as God provided literal water for the Israelites when they had need, Jesus is proclaiming that he, being divine, is able to provide spiritual water for the people who come to him in faith. Earlier in the gospel of John, Jesus declares, “Everyone who drinks of this (literal) water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again” (4:13-14). In doing this, Jesus intimates that although the Jews come together at the Feast of Booths to celebrate God’s provision of literal water in the desert, the people need something more to be filled. They need the Spirit of Jesus.
Jesus’s statement takes on a bit more weight when one considers how Jesus chooses to deliver this message. The gospels are full of passages in which Jesus sits with his disciples, or even a crowd of people, and tells them about who he is. But this calm, didactic method is not the approach he takes at the Feast of Booths. Instead, Jesus makes a point to go up “in private” (7:10) to the festival and waits until the final day, when all the people are all celebrating in one area of Jerusalem, to shout – the text literally says that he “cried out” (7:37) – that any who thirst should come to him. Jesus strategically chooses the moment the people are rejoicing that their Lord has provided for them to tell them that they don’t really have what they need to maintain a healthy relationship with God. This approach seems crazy; it’s equivalent to someone leaping up in the middle of a Fourth of July parade and screaming, “You’re not really free, you aren’t independent! If you really want to be free, come over here!” People would be shocked, upset, and insulted. But that’s exactly what Jesus is looking to do; he didn’t come for the people who are satisfied by the Abrahamic Covenant. He came for the people who know there’s more, and what better way to find them than by shouting something that seems offensive in the middle of a crowd?
While Exodus 17 is about the Israelites’ untrusting call and God’s faithful response, John 7 is about Jesus’s invitation to the people to fill a need most of them didn’t know they had. Exodus 17 tells of God’s physical provision, but John 7 and the New Covenant tell the story of God’s spiritual provision for his people through the Holy Spirit. Without the Spirit of God, the brokenness of the people of Israel prevented them from remaining in a healthy relationship with God, and by the time of Jesus, this relationship was far more broken than the Jewish people knew. Thus, by sending his Son to bring living water to the people through the Spirit, God not only gives the people what they believe they need, but also goes beyond faithfulness to the Abrahamic covenant by creating a new covenant in Jesus, one that the people are able to keep. Because of sin, the Israelites were unable to remain faithful to God, but when Jesus was crucified, he took on him the brokenness of the people, restoring them to right relationship with God and enabling them to hold fast to that relationship through the Spirit. This is the new covenant.
This passage is not only relevant to first century Jews, but still speaks volumes to our society today. So many of us toil and strive just to fill our basic needs, because we don’t believe that anyone else can take care of us. But God has established a covenant of rest, knowing that our strivings could not heal our brokenness. Instead, God invites us to enter a restful relationship with him, for he has provided his Son to heal the rift sin has created and his Spirit to nourish us in a way literal water could not. The Old Covenant saw God providing physically for his people, but as He promises his people in Ezekiel 36:26, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” Jesus fulfills this prophecy quite literally in John 7; his call at the Feast of Booths is an invitation for people to come and replace their hearts of stone with a heart of flesh. Just as God drew water at one time from the stone in Exodus 17, Jesus promises to draw rivers of living water from the hearts of those who follow him.
Just as God called the Israelites to perform an exodus from slavery to the Egyptians, Jesus calls his followers to perform an exodus from slavery to sin. Just as God provided for the Israelites by drawing water from a rock, Jesus provides for those who love him by giving his Spirit. John is showing his readers how Jesus has modeled the Israelites’ exodus and thirst for us. The same thirst remains for many today. Are you thirsty? I invite you: “Come to [Him]…Out of [your] heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38).