John 7:37-39 (NRSV)
37 On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38 and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.'” 39 Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
Welcome to Pentecost Sunday! I have been intentionally focusing on the gospel lessons for my sermons during this time, which has kept things a little more interesting, because some parts of John I haven’t usually focused on that much. Our text today is only three verses. That may not seem like a whole lot of material, but it starts out talking about the last day of the festival –as if we should have immediate understanding of the context. What was this festival that is being mentioned? Is it a gathering, a shindig, or a hootenanny we are talking about? My little video clip in a humorous way defines the differences. If you know what show it is from you can give yourself 10 TV points, but they aren’t really worth anything.
Now to answer the question, what kind of festival was Jesus participating in? Well, it was a hootenanny; otherwise known as the “Festival of Booths.” In Jewish tradition there were four major festivals during which people would pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the celebration. Usually we think of the Passover as being the big festival, but the festival of booths was also very significant and a time for great celebration.
It occurred in the early Fall. There was the day of ingathering during which the people would gather in the produce of the land, and figs and dates that had been left to dry in the sun. This was because the weather was in the process of changing and invariably the rain was coming soon. Also, in order to remember God’s sustaining presence and take them away from their own self certitude, the people would leave their homes and construct shelters out of branches, palm fronds, and leaves, and live in temporary self-made shelters for a week. During this time there were celebrations. They were to remember how God had led the children of Israel through the wilderness and cared for them when they had little but tents to live in. Through this process of going camping and laying down the material strengths of home and possessions they were given the opportunity to contemplate the nature of God’s blessings and goodness upon them.
Can you imagine choosing to live in a field as the days are starting to cool off and the rains are beginning to sprinkle down. If it rains too hard you are sure to get wet, because your roof is not that good, and during it all you are participating in the ceremonies of your faith.
One commentator aptly described the days:
“The eighth day closed the whole festival, and it was kept as a Sabbath (Leviticus 23:36). It was called the Day of the Great Hosanna, because a circuit was made seven times round the altar with “Hosanna;” also the Day of Willows, and the Day of Beating the Branches, because all the leaves were shaken off the willow-boughs, and the palm branches beaten in pieces by the side of the altar. Every morning, after the sacrifice, the people, led by a priest, repaired to the Fountain of Siloam, where the priest filled a golden pitcher, and brought it back to the temple amid music and joyful shouts. Advancing to the altar of burnt-offering, at the cry of the people, “Lift up thy hand!” he emptied the pitcher toward the west, and toward the east a cup of wine, while the people chanted, “With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.”
So you see, if you put it all together, it was a hootenanny, and Jesus stood up during this final day of outside living, and not being surprised if the day is more wet than dry, daily walking about 4 tenths of a mile from the Pool of Siloam to the temple altar; with the golden pitcher of water to be poured out and thanks given to God for the water that makes life happen,
and Jesus cries out,
“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.'”
John makes it clear the Jesus is speaking about presence of the Holy Spirit within a believer’s life; that was yet to come at Pentecost. In essence, I think Jesus is interpreting the celebration as a fore image of the life and Spirit God was about to unleash upon all who would believe. From whom do we find a home, security, refreshment, life, and salvation; all the things this festival was pointing to? The actions during this festival were going to find their fullest meaning in the life in Jesus. Jesus was telling them that the best is yet to come. Is the weather hot and muggy? Have you been living in the barest of shelters? Are you thirsty? Jesus offers the spiritual presence of God that will quench the desires of the thirstiest soul. From deep down in your life springs of living water will flow without ceasing.
Now interestingly, there is no direct Old Testament verse that exactly matches Jesus words. “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” But I think Jesus is referencing the image of Moses striking the boulder in the wilderness and God splitting the rock and causing a mighty flowing stream to come forth from out of the earth. From this rock water poured forth to create a great pool from which the people and animals were able to drink.
Psalm 78:15-16 (NRSV)
15 He split rocks open in the wilderness, and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep. 16 He made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers.
Also there are other passages in Zechariah and Isaiah that references living waters as flowing from the presence of God.
Isaiah 58:11 (NRSV)
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.
That living water that for Moses gushed forth from the bowels of the Earth, and that God provides was soon to spiritually break forth within all our lives. For us today it is here and always present. Such is the gift of Pentecost. Such is the gift of God’s Spirit within us.
Does life ever seem dry and the spiritual depths of life empty? Maybe the he trick is simply to take a few lessons from the celebration that stood around Jesus words. Remember to pause in life long enough to return back to the basics. Remember to give up one’s own certitude surely enough to recognize the providence of God. Remember to live dependent enough that we may know we are dependent on God.
This is what the festival was about. People left their homes so they could consider God’s care. They simplified their lives so they could understand the complexity of God’s will. They focused on the basic elements of life, like water, so that they could perceive the outpouring of eternal life and salvation within them.
This Pentecost be not anxious, but breath if you will. This past week I began thinking about the images I saw on TV that depicted clearer skies and cleaner water, just because human activity had largely ceased. I got thinking about the nature of life and wondered what our world would be like if humanity was able to act as a global community and everyone everywhere would just simply stop work and motion for one day out of the week. This is the idea of a sabbath; rooted all the way back in Genesis as God rested on the seventh day from all that he created. Now I know the idea is a fantasy, but would such a weekly pause give our planet and ecosystems enough time to heal and be restored? Maybe it is possible that no group of animals would go extinct, or ocean reefs die, or glaciers melt away, if the world of people was able to periodically rest, and let the world recuperate. It is a far-fetched idea, but what if that is indeed how God had made our world to work? Maybe life is better when we are willing to take a moment to rediscover God in life. Would not the Spirit of God flow through life once more if we dare to just simply let it, and rely upon it?
Our world is filled with trails and overlooks. Some are easier to get to then others. Have you ever journeyed up a mountain for the reward of being able to survey the land below? A few years back I took my family on a vacation to the hills of West Virginia and one of our stops was Seneca Rocks. This is an escarpment of knife edged rock layers thrusted up into the sky. In my college days I climbed up the back side of the formation where a person practically made their own trail. In my later years I took the stairs up the front side made for the tourist, and learned how much better shape I was in when I was in my 20’s. But why go up the hill anyway? I think it is because when I reach those heights, it reminds me to be thankfully amazed of all that God has created. The beauty stirs the soul. It draws me closer to God. There is something about standing in the midst of creation and not having a lot between ourselves and the world that has a way of causing us to consider the reality of God. At least I find this true for myself.
Now I know that everyone won’t pause for God, and many of us can’t climb up the mountainside anymore, but we personally can find ways to return back to the basics and draw closer to God. Perhaps it is something as simple as watching the rain fall outside of our window and remembering that God’s hand is at work in a soft rainfall that waters the ground and brings life. Perhaps it is in taking a few quiet moments in the day to read the scriptures and consider God’s word. Perhaps it is in ponder what good God desires for you to be doing today. How can you lift another up, or relieve the burden someone else is carrying?
In these moments where we focus upon God, worship, faith, and what we may be able to do for another, these are the moments when we become most aware of the refilling nature of the Spirit of God within –the outpouring of a spring that never runs dry. How did the commentator put it when the water from the golden pitcher was poured out? The people lifted their voices and said, “With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.”
It may be of interest to know that the pool of Siloam from which the water was drawn during this festival and to which Jesus once sent a blind man to wash in so that his sight might be restored, was uncovered in 2004. It originally was a long square shaped area, and it is fed by a spring of water that flows to it through a tunnel into the city that Hezekiah built around 700 BC. To this day that spring and tunnel are still flowing and in the wintertime the area where the pool stands becomes flooded. In ancient times of distress, that pool would have been like saving waters –a source for water for the city under siege. A spring that never runs dry.
So, it is with the Spirit of God. God has set the waters of salvation to always be pouring forth. If you feel dry remember this. All we have to do is pause a moment to realize the great mercies of God upon us, and then dip in, and live. Such is the Spirit of God within our lives. Amen.