On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. John 7.37-39.
The feast that John refers to here is the week-long Feast of Tabernacles or Feast of Booths that took place in the October preceding Jesus’ crucifixion the following April. It was a festival of great rejoicing that was attended by pilgrims from far and wide, for it was a harvest festival that celebrated the in-gathering of everything from barley and wheat to olives and grapes. Also, however, it celebrated the rain without which all harvests would fail. Indeed Zechariah had suggested that failure to attend this festival would result in rain being withheld: “Then everyone who survives of all the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Booths. And if any of the families of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, there will be no rain on them” (Zechariah 14.16-17).
Accordingly, at dawn on each of the first seven days of the festival, a procession led by a priest would go to the pool of Siloam where a golden pitcher would be filled with water and then borne back to the temple as the morning sacrifice was being offered. The water was then poured into a funnel at the west side of the altar and as the temple choir sang what was known as the Great Hallel — Psalms 113-118 — the water would stream out from the east end of the altar. This was, it seems, a piece of deliberate symbolism to enact the promise made through Zechariah just a few verses earlier in the chapter already referred to: “And there shall be a unique day, which is known to the LORD, neither day nor night, but at evening time there shall be light. On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea. It shall continue in summer as in winter. And the LORD will be king over all the earth” (Zechariah 14.7-9).
That was a promise which, in vision, Ezekiel saw fulfilled as he was taken to the door of the temple and saw that “water was issuing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east” (Ezekiel 47.1). But the strange thing that Ezekiel is shown as his guide leads him alongside the water flowing from the temple is that it gets deeper and wider as it flows — first ankle-deep then waist-deep then so deep that “it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be passed through” (Ezekiel 47.2-5). The guide then tells Ezekiel that this river is a river that brings life: “And he said to me, ‘This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, and enters the sea; when the water flows into the sea, the water will become fresh. And wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish. For this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes'” (Ezekiel 47.8-9). Furthermore, “on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing” (Ezekiel 47.12).
This is all wonderfully relevant when we see what Jesus did “on the last day of the feast, the great day”. On that day, there was no dawn-procession to Siloam and no water was poured out at the altar, but — presumably at the point when that would have happened — Jesus stands and cries out these astonishing words: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'”
Where does the Scripture say that? Nowhere … except, according to Jesus’ interpretation of them, in the prophecies I have quoted from Zechariah and Ezekiel. “It is not from this temple,” Jesus is saying, “that the river of the water of life will flow, bringing life to everything that swims in it, bringing wholeness and healing through the trees that grow on its banks. No! It is from human hearts that become temples of the living God as folk put their trust in me!”
Ultimately, of course, this will find it’s fulfilment in the day spoken of in Revelation when the church is complete and has become the city of God: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22.1-2). But even now, today, insofar as I yield to the Holy Spirit whom God has put within me, the river flows. It flows from under what Wesley called “the mean altar of my heart” and as it is allowed to flow it will grow deeper and wider, to bring life and healing and wholeness, in some measure and by some manner or means, to everyone I meet, everywhere I go.
Flow, river, flow!