"On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood 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. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified." - John 7:37-39
There were many feasts in ancient Israel but three of them stood out as especially important; Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Booths/Tabernacles. The Passover Feast celebrated the deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Of course, this feast continues to be a significant day for modern day Jews and also for Christians since the "last supper" Christ had with the disciples was a passover meal. The Feast of Weeks was a harvest celebration and is so named because it was celebrated seven weeks (a week's worth of weeks) after the beginning of harvest. In Greek speaking Judaism, this festival also came to be known as Pentecost, the "pente" denoting the 50th day, the first day after the seven weeks mentioned above. This festival also has enduring significance in Christianity since Acts 2 describes the outpouring of God's Holy Spirit on the apostles on Pentecost, which we celebrate this coming Sunday, seven weeks after Easter.
The third important feast in Israel was the Feast of Booths (a.k.a Tabernacles). This feast was also connected to the Exodus story. During the seven days of this feast, the people of Israel were to dwell in booths, small tent like structures, to remind them of their dwelling in tents in the wilderness after God delivered them from their slavery in Egypt. However, over time this feast began to take on other meanings and significance as well. By the time of the prophet Zechariah, the Feast of Booths had also become connected to rain. In last chapter of Zechariah, God says that rain will only fall on those nations that come to Jerusalem and keep the Feast of Booths (Zechariah 14:16-19). By the first century, a practice of pouring out libations at the altar of the Temple had also been added as part of the festival's observance. Water would be gathered from the Pool of Siloam, carried to the Temple, and poured around the altar, perhaps as a symbolic act of the prayer for rain.
It was likely after this water drawing ceremony that Jesus stands up 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." Jesus' first sentence here seems to be an allusion to Isaiah 55:1. "Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price." This verse is a part of God's promise to Israel that they will be restored from their exile in Babylon.
The other part of Jesus' statement, about rivers of living water, is a bit more difficult to pinpoint to any particular verse in the Old Testament, especially since the river is flowing "out of his heart". However, one passage where a river of living water takes center stage is Ezekiel 47. Like Isaiah 55, Ezekiel is also conveying a promise of Israel's return from exile. However, Ezekiel's vision speaks not only to Israel's historical return from Exile but also has a kind of supernatural quality to it in which the actual land of Israel itself is restored and teems with life. Ezekiel describes a stream that flows from the base of the Temple, past the altar (where the libation for the Feast of Booths were poured) and toward the Dead Sea. On its way to the Dead Sea, this stream becomes a mighty river despite having no tributaries and when it arrives at the Dead Sea, it turns the salt water fresh. The Hebrew here literally says that it "heals" the water of the Dead Sea allowing the once lifeless body of water to teem with life. This is literally a river of living water.
But this river flows from the Temple. Why then does Jesus say "out of his heart"? Many English translations make this sound like a reference to the heart of those who believe in Jesus. However, the "his" could just as easily be referring to Jesus himself. Additionally, the Greek word in this verse is not heart (kardia) but gut or belly (koilias). The verse would then read "If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and whoever believes in me drink. As the Scripture has said, "Out of his gut will flow rivers of living water." The image of water flowing from Jesus' gut or side should not be lost on those familiar with John's telling of Jesus' crucifixion. Water and blood will indeed flow from Jesus' side when the soldier pierces him with a spear as he hangs on the cross.
So what does all this mean? It means these few simple verses are a profoundly in depth but succinct summary of John's understanding of Jesus. All of this takes place in the midst of a festival which reminds those gathered of the Exodus; God's greatest act of deliverance for his people. This festival also reminded them of God's continued sustaining of creation with rains. Jesus then alludes to two verses which remind those gathered of another of God's greatest act of restoration; return from Exile. But Jesus does not simply remind the people of this. He says he is now the source of deliverance, sustenance, and restoration. "If anyone thirsts, let him come to me." Jesus is the source of living water because he is the God who did all these things now made flesh. The water and blood which will flow from Jesus' side at his crucifixion are the beginning of Ezekiel's vision of a river of life which will restore the land of Israel, healing it and giving it life.
But this is not only a statement about Jesus. As a statement about Jesus' death, it is also a statement about the Spirit. John says as much in the very next verse. "Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified." In the Gospel of John, Jesus' glorification refers to his crucifixion. John repeats several times throughout his gospel what he says here; the Holy Spirit can not come to the disciples until Jesus has been crucified. That is why Jesus' death is the beginning of Ezekiel's vision of new creation. It means the outpouring of the Holy Spirit who will carry out this work of restoration and renewal. The Holy Spirit is the river of living water which renews and sustains all that it touches.
This is the essence of Pentecost which we will celebrate this Sunday; God's Holy Spirit, God's river of living water has been poured out on those who place their trust in Jesus. This is why we expect lives to be transformed, attitudes to be changed, and the chains of sin to broken. This is why we expect that these old creatures that we are and this old creation that we live in can both be made new. This is why we believe there can even be such a thing as church. Because in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we believe that God has opened up a spring of water right here in the midst of our otherwise very dry world and from that spring flows a river that brings life to everything around it. May we see that river flowing through our church this Sunday and may we who are thirsty come and drink.