For Pentecost this year, our lectionary text places right smack dab in the middle of it all, in Jerusalem at the Festival of Booths (better known to some as Sukkot or the Festival of Tabernacles).
It’s important to have a few things in mind about this particular festival. First, it’s the festival. It’s the weeklong one where the Jewish people would travel from all over the place to set up a temporary tent (booth) to live in for one week. The streets surrounding the temple in Jerusalem would be packed with these temporary shelters as the people of God remembered the way that God provided for them while they were wandering in the wilderness for forty years. Secondly, this festival took place at the changing of the seasons. The harvest had been collected and prayers for the rainy season had begun. In fact, a water libation offering was a centerpiece of the festival. Each morning the priests would go through a water offering ritual and the people prayed for the upcoming winter season to be good and rainy so that God, by providing the rain, would provide for their crops planted in the spring. Along with the morning water ceremony, each night there was a lighting ceremony at the temple involving very large menorahs. These rituals were meant to remind the people of God of how God’s glory, or presence (shekinah) came and filled the temple that Solomon built for God.
So in a nutshell, the festival was about helping the people remember God’s providence, both in the past and in the present, to remember that God’s presence was a real thing among them, and to pray for God to continue to provide the living water that would sustain them in the year ahead.
It is with these meanings of the festival in mind that Jesus shouts out his promise of living waters. Our modern translations use “heart” for the Greek koilia because that’s the part of the human we associate with our life-force and the way we metaphorically talk about where God resides in us. But a more literal translation—which is also one that people throughout the history of the church would have connected with much more easily than us modern folk—is that it is in and out of our digestive organs, or stomach, our inmost being, that the Holy Spirit will be both simultaneously present and flowing in and out of us.
After a week of lighting menorahs to celebrate God’s presence at the temple, and after daily treks with the priest through the process of the water libation offering, culminating in the water offering being repeated seven times on the seventh day, Jesus shouts out to the participants the same sort of message he calmly explained to the Samaritan woman in chapter 4: “I have your living waters—you need not thirst anymore.”
We often note in these sermon commentaries that Jesus (or the other inspired writers) are using the plural form of “you.” But here in verses 37 and 38, the commands to come and drink are singular. The invitation is open: “Let anyone who is thirsty… let the believing-in-me ones…” but it is into the inmost being of the person who comes and drinks of God’s provision, that one shall receive the “rivers of living water” that describe the presence of the Spirit.
Which is not to say that there isn’t a communal component to the gift: after all, by their very nature, God’s provision in the wilderness and God’s glory filling the temple built by Solomon were communal events.
The gift of the Holy Spirit for each individual believer will be made clear in other scriptures in ways that help us make sense of the gravity of Jesus’s promise. Paul, for instance, reminds us that it is not the physical temple where God’s glory has chosen to reside anymore but instead has chosen to be within us: bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6). Elsewhere, Paul describes the quality of the rapids of the Holy Spirit’s living waters with a different metaphor: fruit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in Galatians 5); each of these characteristics is dialogical—it needs someone/thing to receive it or its benefits in order to be itself. Living waters bless many, they are the source of sustenance and provision for whole communities, they gush with the promise of hope and life and provision. Every good thing we do has been put there in the living waters of the Spirit that flows in our day-to-day lives (Ephesians 2).
All of this is captured in Jesus’s loud shout to anyone who is thirsty. Into the masses gathered in Jerusalem he proclaims the good news of what is to come: God always with us, the Holy Spirit, who is the giver of life and power and blessing.
It is good for us to remember this on Pentecost Sunday because it is good for us to remember the kind of Holy Spirit that is dwelling among us and within us. It isn’t just in the flashy events of long ago, like speaking in tongues and mass conversions, that the Holy Spirit is at work. The Holy Spirit is constantly at work, sustaining us, providing for us, blessing us and keeping us, from our very most inward parts to our very public lives. Our connection to God, to God’s goodness and love and mercy and any other attribute you want to name, does not run dry. We have God’s very self, infinite yet here, if we just believe.
Which day is all of this happening on? The Festival of Booths/Tabernacles/Sukkot took place over a full seven days, but an eighth day was then immediately observed as Sabbath and understood by rabbis to be part of the festival proper. If Jesus were giving this promise at the peak of the festival, on the final (seventh) day, he would be talking about living waters on the same day that the water libation offering for a good rainy season would be made not once, but seven times. Crying loudly that you have the work of God that will put an end to this yearly cycle of offerings and prayers just after the priests have performed the ritual, well, that’s a pretty dramatic scene, isn’t it? Even still, all of the details and rituals of the festival are still in people’s minds the next day as they observe Sabbath. So if Jesus let out his cry then, hearing Jesus say that he has the gift of provision and nourishment fits quite well with the undercurrent of trust Sabbath is meant to help us practice and keep.
It’s almost an iconic image from the second half of the twentieth-century… A hot summer day in a major city where most residents do not have AC units. Children flock to the street as a fire hydrant is let loose, showering the street and everyone on it with cool, refreshing relief. Is this the sort of sense we’re to have of the streams of living water the Holy Spirit makes possible in our lives? A blessing for ourselves and a relief to others?
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 28, 2023
John 7:37-39 Commentary