“Living Water” (John 7:37-39)
Think back to a sweltering summer day when you were a kid. If you didn’t have a pool to swim in, what did you want to do? Run through the sprinkler! No matter how hot it was, it was bracing to leap through that stream of ice-cold water coming from the tap and out through the attachment at the end of the hose. And if you were lucky, you also had a “Slip-n-Slide” … one of those long rectangular pieces of plastic sheeting that you spray with water, then run with all your might, fling your body forward, and you slip and you slide to the other end. Great fun! Refreshing!
But you can’t keep the water running all day long. Dad won’t appreciate the water bill. The backyard will be turned into a huge mud puddle. Eventually, it’s time to turn the spigot off and come inside. The fun can’t last forever. Plus, what happens if the reservoir runs dry? No more water from the hose. Now, I know that here in the Northwest that’s not likely to happen. There’s plenty of water here. But in other parts of the country, drought is always a real possibility. In California where I grew up, there were some summers where we had to ration water. Take short showers. Refrain from watering your lawn. Cities would stop watering their roadside landscaping. Everything would wilt and die and turn brown. As if California isn’t brown enough.
But Jesus speaks about a source of life and refreshment that will never end. “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” St. John explains that Jesus said this “about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive.” Like a cold, refreshing spring of water, the Holy Spirit is a refreshing, never-ending source of life given to the Church from Jesus. And more than just a spring. Jesus says “rivers.” A life-giving source that is refreshing, cleansing, abundant, and overflowing.
In the Bible, the giving of the Holy Spirit is tied in with two events. The first is in John’s Gospel, and it’s connected with Jesus’ death and resurrection. Lifted high upon the cross, crowned as our suffering King, Jesus was glorified there as our Savior, dying for the sins of the world. This is the “glorification” that awaited Jesus and which had to be completed before the Spirit would be given. This is not to say that the Spirit was not present and active before this. He was, but it seems as if the Spirit was only given to certain individuals for particular tasks or commissions, like the men in our reading from Numbers today. But now, with his work of redemption completed, Jesus kicks it up a notch. The Spirit is not limited to only a chosen few. Risen from the dead, he appears to his disciples in John chapter 20, breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And then, this giving of the Spirit is connected to the Word of Holy Absolution that Jesus gives to his Church, when he says “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:22-23). To the penitent sinner, forgiveness is promised and truly given through the Spirit-filled Word of Christ.
The other event is the Day of Pentecost recorded in Acts chapter 2. This is the more common event you and I probably recall when we think of the giving of the Spirit. Pentecost was a Spring harvest festival, 50 days after Passover. It was one of the three festivals that all good Jews were expected to attend if they were able. Therefore, Jerusalem would have been packed to the gills with people from all over the place. This was the day the Lord chose to pour out his Spirit upon the disciples and empower them to be powerful witnesses to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Tongues of fire rested upon them, signifying God’s presence … like the burning bush for Moses or the pillar of fire leading the Israelites in the wilderness. The Holy Spirit enabled them to speak in the languages of the people gathered there, a reversal of the confusion of languages at Babel. At Babel, the people were scattered. At Pentecost, there was a harvest of souls who were gathered into Christ that day – repentant, believing, baptized – about three thousand, Luke tells us. And as Peter said, this was the day foretold by the prophet Joel, “in the last days … I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” Sons, daughters, young men, old men, male and female. And “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” As the rest of the Book of Acts unfolds, the Spirit is poured out through the preaching of the Word of Jesus to Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles. The Word was preached and the Spirit came upon each group. The Holy Spirit is truly for all people. No exceptions.
But today’s Gospel is from John 7, and here a different festival altogether is described where Jesus takes an opportunity to teach about the Holy Spirit. Here it is the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths as they are sometimes called. This was in the Fall of the year. All around Jerusalem, people would build “succoth” or shelters in which they would live during the duration of the feast. This was to be a reminder of how their forefathers lived in tents in the wilderness after their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. A custom developed where on each day of the festival, a golden pitcher was taken to the Pool of Siloam and filled with water. Then, the High Priest would carry it in procession with psalms being sung. Back inside the temple, the water was offered to God and poured out at the altar. This was meant to remind everyone how the Lord provided water in the wilderness. It was a prayer for water now, asking the Lord to bring the Fall rains. And it was an expectation of the coming Messianic age when God would pour out his Spirit on all. Verses such as these may have been on the minds of the worshippers … Isaiah 55:1 – “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters” … or Isaiah 43:19 – “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” … or maybe Zechariah 14:8-9 – “On that day living waters will flow out of Jerusalem … It shall continue in summer as in winter.” No stopping it. No drying up. A constant supply of refreshment and eternal life when the Messiah arrives on the scene. And there’s also the visionary imagery in Ezekiel 47 where the prophet sees water flowing out of the temple, becoming a deep river that flows to the sea and makes its waters fresh, enlivening the creatures that swim in it.
And so, Jesus stands up on the last day of the feast and says, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” In essence, Jesus is declaring, “This is all about me! I am the fulfillment of all this! I am the Messiah! The Messianic age begins with me! Only I can give you the refreshment that your souls are seeking!”
The death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus inaugurated the Messianic Age. All that he came to do, he accomplished … dying for the sins of the world and rising to life again to conquer sin, death, and hell. This is the age in which you and I are blessed to live, even while we await the final consummation at the end of the age when Christ returns visibly as promised by the angels on the Mount of Olives. This is the age in which the Spirit continues to be poured out upon the Church, creating and sustaining faith in Jesus, even in the face of hardship and suffering around the world.
A river of living water flows from within all who believe in Jesus as Savior. However, there is still some stagnant water within us … our old sinful nature. Our sinful disobedience is like dead, decomposed detritus and other slimy refuse that clogs up a stream and takes the life out of it. Nothing can survive there. It stinks. It’s rotten. It needs to be cleaned out, pumped out, filtered, purified. No one would dare attempt to drink it. A mere sip of this water would be nauseating. That’s when you need to hear the invitation from Jesus once again: “Come to me and drink.” He is the one who provides you with the refreshing, cleansing, abundant, and overflowing waters of the Holy Spirit.
In baptism, your sins were washed away. You were given new life when you were born from above by water and the Spirit and brought into God’s kingdom (John 3:5). And although you sin daily, the Holy Spirit works in you to receive and believe the refreshing and cleansing words of forgiveness in Holy Absolution. The same Spirit whom Jesus breathed upon the disciples is breathed upon you as you hear those words, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And you ARE forgiven. The living water of Jesus purges the stagnant water of sin from within you and gives you eternal life.
Moreover, the living water of Jesus is abundant and overflowing. It is a well that never runs dry. There is more than enough for all people. That was evident on the day of Pentecost. The Spirit-inspired Good News of Jesus was preached to “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians.” The point being that the Good News of Jesus is for all people … including “Marysvillians,” “Arlingtonians,” and “Lake Stevians” … both “Everett-ites” and “Snohomishites” … for Tulalips and Stillaguamish … for citizens and sojourners … for ALL whom the Lord calls through the Word of the Gospel. The work of the Holy Spirit is not limited to a select group of people. It’s not limited to a certain set of congregations or denominations. It’s not limited to a particular locale. The Holy Spirit works where and when he pleases whenever the Good News of Jesus is preached and taught.
Are you thirsty today? Does your soul need refreshment? Then come to Jesus and drink of the water that he provides. Through his Word, he pours the Spirit into your heart. His Word of forgiveness refreshes and cleanses. His Word and Spirit prepare you to eat and drink worthily today of his refreshing body and blood. And your Lord’s living water is so abundant and overflowing that it pours out from you to others, so you can reach out in love and offer them this living water, giving opportunity for the Spirit to work in their hearts, as well.