Rivers of Living Water - A River Crossings Reflection
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. (John 7:37-39)
As I’ve noted in previous posts prior to and during this sabbatical that I’m on, water images stand out in Scripture. There is water at the very beginning of the biblical story, where we find the wind of God (Spirit) swept over the water as God began the process of creation (Gen. 1:1-2). We find water at the end of the biblical story, where we read in Revelation an invitation to the thirsty to drink from the water of life (Rev. 22:17). During this sabbatical, I’ve crossed a few rivers and flowed down others. I live in a state that is bounded on three sides by lakes and rivers, and within the boundaries of the state are hundreds of lakes, rivers, and streams. This is why the Flint Water Crisis made no sense. How can the water of a city be poisoned when there is abundant freshwater to be found? In the lands where Scripture was born, water is not near as prevalent. It is precious. In fact, today it is a point of contention between nations. Whoever controls the water has power over others.
Having encountered water in a variety of forms over the past seven weeks (I’m now in the second half of my sabbatical), I decided to reflect on these words of Jesus found in John 7. He speaks these words according to John during the last day of the Festival of Booths, which brought him a bit reluctantly to Jerusalem.
The words we find here have their echo in Revelation 22. Jesus invites those who thirst to come to him, that is, those who believe (thirst) are invited to drink. He connects this invitation to drink to living waters that flow from a believer’s heart. These living waters, he suggests, fulfills the words of scripture (though this is more an allusion than a direct reference). A reference in Isaiah 44:3 connects pouring water on thirsty soil to the pouring out on the Spirit. According to Rabbinic sources, the Festival of Booths (Sukkot) references the provision of water from the Rock in Numbers 20:2-13 and the promise of the Messiah. So, it makes sense that Jesus might reference living water in a message at the Festival [see note in Jewish Annotated NewTestament, p. 173].
Here in John 7 the promise of living water is connected to the future provision of the Spirit, something that is hinted at in Isaiah 44, but which is given in John after the resurrection (John 20:22). As John notes as of yet the Spirit had not been given. While the idea that the Spirit is absent before Jesus is problematic, the linkage of Water and Spirit is a central theme to the Christian story. The giving of the Spirit is linked to baptism in Acts 2:38.
The word I take from this message in John 7, in relation to my own sabbatical River Crossings experience, is that the water of life is received from God as we come to Jesus and receive from the Spirit of life. As I encounter water in Lake Lucerne, the Rhine, the Sacramento, and the Williamson Rivers, I am reminded that life is dependent on water. We are physically bags of water. We can’t exist without it. Thus, when it comes to our spiritual lives, we are dependent on the Water of Life, which comes to us through the Spirit.