Rivers of Living Water
John 7:37-39

(c) Copyright 2008 Rev. Bill Versteeg

John 7:37-39   
    37  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.

    Sometimes the meaning of a few words can change if we look at them in context.  This is one of those passages.  John chapter 7 is in the context of the Feast of Tabernacles or Feast of Tents - a religious feast in which Israel remembered their camping journey through the desert under Moses on the way to the promised land.  For 7 days of this feast they would camp in booths or tents, living on the very basics, just like they did on their journey through the desert, and then on the 8th day, they would conclude with a great feast, gorge themselves of food and drink, eat and drink till they were absolutely stuffed, symbolic of entering the promised land.  Then they would return to their homes, their jobs, the blessings that they lived every day in that promised land.  To the Israelites, this was a religious high point.  To the non Israelite, this feast left you out in the cold because you did not participate in the history that created it.
    Jesus  brothers wanted him to go to the feast and there  do a public miracle because they themselves did not believe.   Jesus had no interest in going to that feast.  The reason he gave was that certain Jews wanted to take his life, and Jesus new it was not yet time for his life to be taken.  It was only  toward the middle of the feast that Jesus finally went.  But the context was acid with controversy about Jesus.  No one was willing to speak positively publically with regard to him for fear of these Jews.    
    When he got there, Jesus began to teach in the temple courts.  His message betrayed how unwelcoming a place it was for those who did not fit in.  He said: “I have come from God. Why are you trying to kill me?”  At first many denied that they were interested in killing him. But then as they started to recognize who he was, more and more they knew this was the man the Jews were trying to kill.  But he spoke with such authority that the guards are unwilling to arrest him.  Into this acid context, Jesus blew the lid off of the feast.  He said publically. (If I said these things to you, council members would right not be ushering me from the pulpit.)
    “I know God, you don’t.”
    “I am from God, you’re not.”
    “I am for God, you’re against him”.
     “Where I am going, you cannot follow.”     
    37  On the last and greatest (8th) 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." 
    Again it would be helpful to understand the symbolism here.
    On each of the first 7 days of that feast, a priest, usually of senior status would lead a procession through the Kidron Valley to the pool of Siloam.  The priest took with him a golden pitcher, at Siloam, he would fill the pitcher with water, carry it back to Jerusalem’s temple and pour its contents over the altar.  Each time he did that, he reminded Israel, those who knew the story, that the Lord provided for them with their very most basic need - water - from a rock which Moses struck. God provided the life giving water they needed in the middle of the desert.  On the very last day, the greatest day of the feast, however, the priest would not get water, rather they together would feast, symbolizing that Israel had arrived in the land flowing with milk and honey, they arrived to the place where there was plenty of water.
    It was on that day that Jesus arose, and in the middle of the feast he yelled "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." 
    This is after a long religious celebration that was supposed to give religious satisfaction, Jesus cried out “If anyone is thirsty...”

The implications are clear.  This religious high celebration left some hungry and others thirsty.  But who?

Our passage does not answer the question.  But it is followed immediately by a story about a women caught in adultery, a passage that might not have early manuscript support but certain fits well.  Those who were sinners, those who did not fit well in the religious hubbub and culture of Israel, those who were regarded as unclean, ostracized by the community, those who were not invited to the family feasts, or the gentiles who did not know the exodus story - they would get little or nothing out of this feast.

Jesus said to them "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." 

Where Israel had no welcome for sinners, scriptures tell us that Jesus ate and drank with sinners, and drunkards and prostitutes and tax collectors and Samaritans and gentiles.  Jesus was not only pointing to himself as the Rock that accompanied Israel through the desert giving them life giving water, Jesus went way further and he was telling all, sinners included and welcome, that he himself was the promised land, flowing with an abundance of life giving water.

    Sometimes one phrase will keep me awake at nights, wondering why Jesus said it like he did.  This is one of them.  "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."  I would have immediately understood his invitation to the believing thirsty to come and drink if he concluded it with “your cup will be full of water.”  Or “In me you will find all the living water you need” Or “I am the limitless supply.”  That I have found to be true, and I hope that you have too, that when we thirst for God as a deer pants for water, when our hearts seek joy beyond the wispy pleasures of this world, Jesus satisfies, the Holy Spirit satisfies, gives us everything for life that we need.  We expect Jesus to point us to himself, to the Spirit as our source of living water.  But in this saying he does far more than that!  He tells us: "Whoever believes in me, streams of living water will flow from within him."  This is not a full cup, this is a geyser, this is a torrent, overflowing banks, a stream turned to river, and the place where that torrent comes from is not Jesus, it is us, ourselves.  Why would phrase this that way?

    John himself clearly points us toward the Holy Spirit that came at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit that verified that Jesus had conquered all his enemies, the Holy thirst quenching Spirit of God that he has given to us when we were born again of the Spirit when we came to faith.  The Holy Spirit is our endless supply of the thirst satisfying presence of God in our lives.  But if that were the sum of what Jesus meant, it would have been equally appropriate for Jesus to tell us that if we believe in him, our cup would always be full, we will receive and be satisfied.
    There is something in this description, streams of living water will flow from within him that stuck like a burr under my saddle this week, making me uneasy because this apparently clear passage is saying things by its imagery that are not satisfied by the more common interpretations.
    He said streams (rivers) of living water will flow from within him.  What did he mean by that?
    Let me suggest to you a theme which takes what Jesus says in this image seriously.  Test it to see if it is true from the scriptures and from your experience.
    It seems to me first of all that Jesus is not only pointing to himself, the Rock from which life giving water flowed, in this image he is pointing also to us.  He said streams (rivers) of living water will flow from within him, that is everyone who believes in him.  Jesus is not only saying to the thirsty ones that he alone can satisfy, or that the Spirit satisfies, he is saying that those who believe in him satisfy thirst.  “The promise is not only that we will be satisfied, but that we will be satisfying.” (Dr. John Piper)   The image is not only that Jesus is the source of life and that the Spirit is the river of life, but that the thirsty ones who believe in him will be the source of life to the rest of the world. 
    Jesus is pointing to a spiritual truth beyond being mere receivers of blessing and life of God, he is pointing to the soul satisfying dynamic of being a giver, a source of the blessing and the life of God.  It is not without reason that the Spirit of God is the giver of gifts, not for our edification, but for the building up of others.
    What is it that enables us to experience the soul satisfying presence of God in our own lives more than anything else?  I suggest to you that the answer has to do with this truth from Acts 20 “It is more blessed (happy) to give than to receive.”  Jesus is pointing us to the truth it is the Spirit of God flowing through us to others, to our families, to our neighbours, to the world that gives us the joy of the presence of God that satisfies our thirst.  We experience the wonder of God more in giving him to others than simply receiving him. 
    From my experience, I have found that to be so true.  In the early years of my faith, one of the things that I very much wanted to do was grow as a Christian.  I wanted to know God in a richer way, I wanted to experience his presence in a way that I could taste.  A friend said to me: “Bill, if you really want to grow in the Lord, you need to tell others about him.  Come street witnessing with me.”
    I remember swallowing hard when he said that.  Me - street witnessing?  Who am I to tell others about Christ, I felt like such a beginner myself.  I need to know the scriptures more.  I have never taken a course of leading someone to Christ.  The Friday that he invited me to go street witnessing with him, I shuddered at that thought of going and telling others about Christ.  But there was no rest without trying, I took the risk..
    With shaking and stuttering I told people whom I had never met before about Christ in downtown Edmonton streets.  And I discovered something.  Giving to others, welcoming them to Christ, was what made me grow, as a Christian, in leaps and bounds.  There was greater struggle and greater joy, life in its fullness, in giving to others.  That experience, through a long and convoluted process, shaped the direction of my life so that now, my profession is telling you about Jesus, equipping you to be the source of life for those around you.
    And so the challenge of this mornings message is quite simple.  Put this truth to the test.  Is it more blessed to give than to receive?  Do we receive more by giving to others than by taking to ourselves?  Do we receive more by welcoming others than by make sure that we fit in?  Are we refreshed in God more by telling others about him than by listening and taking in from him?
    The challenge is to test that.  Serve others.  Tell others about Jesus.  Take the risk of welcoming others, and then ask yourself the question:  Where did my Soul find the greatest satisfaction? 

With profound irony, the giver of living water must himself thirst and the giver of good wine must drink vinegar or common wine. His “cup” is a hyssop, like that used to sprinkle the blood of the paschal lamb on doorposts prior to the exodus.  Only in death does he hand over the spirit, and the river of living water from his belly is released by a spear thrust.


(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

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