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Day of Pentecost - Year A
John 7.37-39

Other texts:

John 20:19-23 is an optional Gospel reading.


CONTEXT

This takes place "on the last day of the festival." The festival was "Tabernacles" or "Booths" (see 7:2, 10, 14). There was a water ritual related to this festival. Note also that Jesus' speech on this last day continues through 8:59.

Maloney, (John, Sacra Pagina) outlines the section as:

(1) 7:37-52 - Jesus' revelation of himself as the living water leads to schismata among "the people" and the Pharisees.

(2) 8:12-30 - Jesus' revelation of himself as "the light of the world" and the consequences, both positive and negative, of his reveal presence.

(3) 8:31-50 - Jesus and "the Jews" enter into unresolved conflict and acrimonious accusations about their respective origins.

THE FESTIVAL RITES

The following come from The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 1: "Booths, Feast of". Direct quotes are either within quotes "" or, longer ones, are indented. Other comments are my own, based on the article.

This is one of Israel's three great annual festivals, celebrated with great joy in autumn, and the completion of the agricultural year, to recall Israel's wilderness pilgrimage and, apparently, as a renewal of the covenant; commonly known as Tabernacles.

It is also known as "the feast of ingathering," "the feast of the Lord," or even "the feast."

The celebrants:

  1. provided themselves with a booth in which they slept and ate all their meals for seven days.


  2. collected twigs of myrtle, willow, and palm. Originally these were used in the construction of the booths, but later some of them were bound together into a sort of festal plume, called the lulab. This was a symbol of rejoicing and was carried ceremonially during the daily singing of the hallel.

There were three common rites that were performed on each of the days.

The water libation ceremony was the first common rite for each day of the feast. On the morning of the first day a procession of priests led down to the Pool of Siloam to bring up a container of water, which was to suffice for the seven days. The water was brought up in solemn fashion with the blowing of the Shophar at the city gate. The pilgrims, singing the Hallel and carrying their lulabs, witnessed the circumambulation of the altar by the priestly procession and, waving their lulabs, joined in the great cry: "Save us, we beseech thee, O LORD." It was from this cry that the rite was given the title "Hoshianah (Hoshono) Rabbah." Having completed the circumambulation, the priests acting as celebrant ascended the ramp of the altar to perform their libation, using two silver bowls, one for water and one for wine. The people called out: "Lift up thy hand," so that they could verify the performance of the rite, for Sadduccees denied the legitimacy of the rite, on the ground that there was no basis for it in the Pentateuch, and they had refused to perform it properly. On the seventh day the circumambulation of the altar was repeated seven times. As on other days, the priests in the procession carried willows, but this time, instead of waving them aloft, they beat the earth with them at the conclusion of the ceremony.

It could be that the setting for our verses "on the last day of the festival" was the day that the priest walked around the altar seven times. Jesus words about living waters flowing out of one's heart (or belly) would be significant concerning the emphasis on a water rite during each of these days.

The second great common rite occurred at night. It sought to give expression to the rejoicing of the feast. Four huge Menorahs fitted out with wicks made from the worn-out garments of the priests, illumined the entire temple area. Under them the celebrants danced a torch dance to the accompaniment of flute paying, and the Levites chanted the Psalms of Ascent (120-134), one each on the fifteen steps that led down from the court of Israelites to the Court of the Women.

Later in Jesus speech, he will declare that he is the light of the world (8:12) -- also a significant symbol during this feast.

Each day at dawn there was a more solemn rite carried out by priests. At cockcrow they proceeded to the E gate of the temple area. Then, at the moment of sunrise, they turned W to face the temple and recited: "Our fathers when they were in this place turned with their faces toward the east, and they worshiped the sun toward the east; but as for us, our eyes are turned toward the LORD" (Suk. 5:4; cf. Ezek. 8:16).

WHAT DOES JESUS SAY?

PUNCTUATION PROBLEM

What does Jesus say? Punctuation makes quite a difference. [NOTE: the verbs for "thirst," "come," "drink," and "believe" are all present tense, implying continual or ongoing actions.]

Option 1:

If anyone thirsts, let that one come to me and let that one drink.
The one believing in me, just as scriptures says, "Rivers out of his belly will flow -- living water."

With this option, his would refer to the "one believing in me".

Option 2:

If anyone thirsts, let that one come to me. And let that one drink, the one believing in me.
Just as scripture says, "Rivers out of his belly will flow -- living water."

With this option, his could refer to Jesus who gives "drink" to the thirsty one who comes.

LIVING WATER

"Living water" is a phrase used for flowing or fresh water, e.g., "running water" in English. Flowing water is usually drinkable water -- something very important in desert climates. In contrast, there can be "dead" water. Water going nowhere -- stuck in a stagnant pool. Water that is standing still is usually undrinkable.

A Jewish Story: Stale Ancestors -- Stale Learning (from A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People, Edited by Nathan Ausubel, p 51)

 

Usually the orthodox rabbis of Europe boasted distinguished rabbinical genealogies, but Rabbi Yechiel of Ostrowce was an exception. He was the son of a simple baker and he inherited some of the forthright qualities of a man of the people.

Once, when a number of rabbis had gathered at some festivity, each began to boast of his eminent rabbinical ancestors. When Rabbi Yechiel's turn came, he replied gravely, "In my family, I'm the first eminent ancestor."

His colleagues were shocked by this piece of impudence, but said nothing. Immediately after, the rabbis began to expound Torah. Each one was asked to hold forth on a text culled from the sayings of one of his distinguished rabbinical ancestors.

One after another the rabbis delivered their learned dissertations. At last it came time for Rabbi Yechiel to say something. He arose and said, "My masters, my father was a baker. He taught me that only fresh bread was appetizing and that I must avoid the stale. This can also apply to learning."

And with that Rabbi Yechiel sat down.

WHO IS "HIS"? & OT REFERENCES

I've already mentioned that, depending upon the punctuation; "his" may refer to the believer or to Jesus. Another problem with this text is that there are no exact OT references that say what Jesus says. There are some passages that are similar to either understanding of "his".

If the waters flow from the believer.

Proverbs 18:4 - "The words of the mouth are deep waters; the fountain of wisdom is a gushing stream."

Isaiah 58:11 - "The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail."

There is a sense that what we have received from God is not meant to stay within us, but is to flow out of us. "Water" that stays still becomes stagnant. Could the same thing happen to our faith if it is not shared with others? Could we not make a contrast between stagnant and living faith?

If the waters flow from Christ.

There many references to the water flowing from the rock at the Exodus, which, in the NT becomes a type of Christ. In addition:

Isaiah 44:3 - "For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring.

Isaiah 55:1 - "Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price."

Especially after the worshipers have worked all week long carrying water to their booths, now they are offered free water that comes from Jesus/God. In many ways, I don't think that we can feel the sense of the importance of running water. We almost always have it when we turn the knob on our faucets. If we're thirsty, turn the knob, water comes rushing out. Or, if we've planned ahead, we can take cold water out of the refrigerator. The people in Jesus' day didn't have such luxuries. Finding fresh water was a mater of life and death in the desert -- not only for people, but for all living things.

Thus running water was a powerful symbol for life. By implication, Jesus is necessary for life. Then we need to ask, "What does it mean to be thirsty?" What does it mean to be without Jesus-as-life?

Symbolically to be thirsty means to want and desire God's salvation and life. When you drink from the water Jesus gives, you will never thirst again you have received the promised salvation. There is nothing more that you need. God has given it all to you.

THE HOLY SPIRIT

The word for "spirit," in both Greek and Hebrew (and many other languages) is the same word for "wind". Wind is moving air. As such, it is like living or flowing water. Both imply movement. This movement implies power. Windmills use the power of wind to pump water. Along Interstate 80, in Wyoming, and I've seen them also in southern California, there are rows and rows of wind-driven electric generators. Wind is power. Similarly, we harvest the power of running water by hydro-electric turbines in dams.

Air that is not moving is often described as stale or stagnant -- similar descriptions of non-moving water.

There are variant readings for 39b:

One says: "For there was not yet a [Holy] Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified."

This is the best reading, but we know that the Spirit did exist. It had come upon Jesus at his baptism and God had given it to him. This problem probably led to the variant reading below:

"For there was not yet a [Holy] Spirit which was given, because Jesus was not yet glorified."

This reading implies that there was a Spirit, but it hadn't been given to the disciples yet. It makes more theological sense, but isn't the best reading in the ancient manuscripts.

POWERED BELIEVERS

Both the image of moving water and wind convey power. In contrast to that we could have apathy. 1. lack of emotion; 2. lack of interest; listless condition; unconcern; indifference. This connection is made in a song about the Holy Spirit from the Iona Community called "Enemy of Apathy."

CONCLUSION

Neither living water nor wind are stale (or boring?). Shouldn't the same be true of Spirit-filled believers and congregations? Both living water and wind (Spirit) are images of power. I think that that's what Pentecost is all about. We, the followers of Jesus, have been empowered by God to carry on Jesus' witness and ministry in the world.

I've often thought and said, while the early believers thought of the Spirit as something that powered their lives, we often think of it as a doctrine to be studied.


Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 2215 S 8th Ave., Yuma, AZ 85364
e-mail: brian.stoffregen@gmail.com