37 On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. 38 He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.'” 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. 40 When they heard these words, some of the people said, “This is really the prophet.” 41 Others said, “This is the Christ.” But some said, “Is the Christ to come from Galilee? 42 Has not the scripture said that the Christ is descended from David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” 43 So there was a division among the people over him. 44 Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him. 45 The officers then went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, “Why did you not bring him?” 46 The officers answered, “No man ever spoke like this man!” 47 The Pharisees answered them, “Are you led astray, you also? 48 Have any of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? 49 But this crowd, who do not know the law, are accursed.”50 Nicodemus, who had gone to him before, and who was one of them, said to them, 51″Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” 52 They replied, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and you will see that no prophet is to rise from Galilee.” (Revised Standard Version)
Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Fifth Sunday after Theophany), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:
Why does John make a point to mention that when Jesus spoke, it was the “last day of the feast, the great day?” It was the Feast of Tabernacles, sometimes referred to as the Feast of Booths (see Leviticus 23:36, 42-43, II Maccabees 10:6). On the final day of the feast, a ceremony took place during which priests drew water from the pool of Siloam and brought it to the temple to be mixed with wine. The mixture was poured out at the foot of the altar for purification which also served as a commemoration of when the Lord, through Moses, provided water from a rock to the wandering Israelites in the wilderness (see Exodus 17:1-7), in which they lived in tents or “tabernacles.”
Jesus was the fulfillment of this feast. In the opening chapter of his Gospel, John tells us that God (the Word) became flesh and blood and lived (or tabernacled) among us (1:14). He is the Tabernacle in which the glory of God dwells, the Temple from which the living waters of salvation flow. He is the Rock in the wilderness from which the Israelites drank spiritual drink. St. Paul writing to the Church at Corinth explains how the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt prefigures our liberation from sin by Jesus Christ:
I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ. (I Corinthians 10:1-4)
The cloud prefiguring the Holy Spirit, the sea prefiguring the waters of baptism, the Rock, the body of Christ, and the spiritual drink, his blood. And once again, John continues to use the Exodus story to further parallel our liberation and salvation in Jesus Christ. This portion of Scripture should immediately recall our baptism at which we were united with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, immersed into the redeemed, living waters of the Jordan, and sealed with the Holy Spirit who lives and dwells in our bodies, our tabernacle. St. Paul writes to the Romans:
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you. (Romans 8:11)
Rivers of Living Water
On more than one level, this narrative has special significance for those located in first-century Palestine. For those of us who take basic things for granted, such as ample water supply, the significance of Jesus’ reference to water may be entirely missed. Keep in mind, much of the Bible took place and was written in desert regions. Water ceremonies were important, as were prayers for rain. To hear Jesus refer to rivers of living water is inconceivable in that part of the world at that point in history. It would be a dream come true. Who there wouldn’t have listened to Jesus’ boisterous invitation to drink from this well?
What was also in the minds of those present and listening to Jesus as the festal water ceremony was taking place were certain scriptures from the books of the prophets. Perhaps they recalled Isaiah 12:3 which says, “You will draw water with gladness from the wells of salvation.” From the same prophet, God says,
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 44:3)
And perhaps what Jesus was offering was the exact invitation from Isaiah 55:1:
Every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Just as Isaiah prophecies, the living water that flows from Jesus is the Holy Spirit promised to come, but had not yet been given at this point in time. As St. John Chrysostom writes,
Since then the Holy Spirit had been withheld, but was for the future to be shed forth abundantly.
John has continually given his readers images of abundance up until now (wine at Cana, multiplied loaves and fish, the Bread of Life), and he gives us yet another one: rivers of living water. The image here is that the river is unfailing in its supply and unlimited in its operation, a description of the role of the Holy Spirit.
Our new life begins at Baptism at which we are immersed in the redeemed waters of the Jordan River and anointed with holy oil, sealing us with the Holy Spirit. It is only through Jesus that new life in Christ is possible. As St. Paul tells us in his second letter to the Corinthians,
Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.
When we thirst for a better life on our terms, we grow disillusioned with a God or a Church that doesn’t work. But the “spiritual life,” the abundant life that John talks about in a later chapter (10:10), is not something that works for us, or solves problems, but is a life of repentance and joy that transforms. When we thirst after God, he gives us the transforming, overflowing living water of eternal life.
Jesus calls those who are thirsty. Does our parish life, our individual life manifest such thirst? Do we thirst for living water, eternal life, or are we content for that which only temporarily satisfies? Are we satisfied in the ritual manner of our celebrations, or do we thirst for whom our rituals point, the reason why we celebrate? As a parish, let our communal prayer become one with the Psalmist:
As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? (Psalms 42:1-2)
This river will give life to you, and when you drink it, the river of the Holy Spirit will flow out from you to the world around you to touch others, inviting them into a new life in Jesus Christ.
Resurrection and Eternal Life
During the Feast of Tabernacles, prayers were offered in thanksgiving to God for his provision, for rain and water to be further provided, as well as prayers for the resurrection of the dead. Earlier in John’s Gospel, in his dialogue with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus refers to living water (John 4:13-14):
Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.
In the Old Testament, we read a prophecy from Ezekiel (47:1-12) in which a new river will flow from under the Temple threshold, and will get deeper and deeper, finally making its way to the Dead Sea where it will revive the stagnant waters, making it fresh and bringing it to life. This is a foreshadowing of the Messiah, an image of the resurrection. Jesus is the Temple from which this water flows, and we are those whom he brings back to life into communion with him and with one another.
In Sunday’s Gospel reading, the discourse between Nicodemus and the Pharisees further brings out the motif of resurrection, but in a hidden manner. Threatened by a new paradigm, the Kingdom of God, the Pharisees wrongly claim that no prophet has come from Galilee. Not only has Jesus come from Galilee (see Matthew 21:11), but the prophets Jonah and Hosea were also from Galilee.
Interestingly, Jonah’s story is one of resurrection, after being three days in the belly of a great fish.
And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights…And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land. (Jonah 1:17, 2:10)
Moreover, Hosea prophecies God will raise us up on the third day:
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him. (6:2)
John, in his own way, is setting up for the reader that Jesus’ death and resurrection will happen. God’s plan of salvation cannot be thwarted even when we try to cover or deny it. Whether we believe it or not, participate in it or not, eternal life will prevail. And Jesus invites us into that eternal life when he calls those who are thirsty to drink his living water.
Keep in mind, all of us are thirsty for the living water that Jesus offers, but not all of us drink from that well. And so something from us is required. The new life that Jesus promises us through the Holy Spirit is a life of repentance. St. Cyril of Jerusalem writes,
And as the dry tree, after being nourished with water, puts forth shoots, so also the soul in sin, when it has been through repentance made worthy of the Holy Spirit, brings forth clusters of righteousness.
This is precisely why some Armenian Crosses feature motifs of life such as budded beams, rays of light, or wheat and grapes growing out from its base. Even the ornate floral designs and intricately interwoven lines found in Armenian khachkars convey themes of eternity and resurrection. The idea is that the cross, once a symbol of torture and execution, or dead stone, are brought to vivid life by way of Jesus’ life-giving presence and resurrection.
The Pharisees failed to make a complete inquiry into who Jesus was, perhaps not even wanting to recognize him. Jesus is looking for those who will seek and recognize him for who he is. At times, does our life and actions reflect that of the Pharisees, threatened by accountability to the Truth, that is Jesus, or do we strive to have a heart like the officers who were unable to follow through on their authoritative duty because in the words and person of Jesus they perceived his divine, life-giving nature? What distracts or threatens us, as a parish or as individuals, from seeing and experiencing eternal life through Jesus Christ, here and now? Let’s not assume everything is according to God’s plan, that we are drinking from the right fountain or well, but pray the Holy Spirit awaken us and alter our priorities.