My son and daughter-in-law live in Seattle. Somehow, I doubt that people there spend much time praying for rain.
You can’t say the same about parched Southern California. We’ve endured years of severe drought. Many of our neighbors have had to let lawns die, or replace them with something that doesn’t need water.
And then the rains came.
Technically, the drought is over yet, at least not in this part of the state. But the weather of recent months has been an answer to prayer and a welcome relief. In our area, the rainfall has generally come in a way that the ground can absorb it instead of washing away. Our front garden began blooming early, with some plants putting on more color than they have in years.
That’s the background against which I hear Jesus’ words, as he cried out to the crowds thronging the temple in Jerusalem:
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, 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.’” 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, NRSV)
Water for the thirsty. The metaphor is a compelling one for those who live in an arid climate. It’s used throughout Scripture to signify divine blessing and gracious abundance: “I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. The trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase” (Ezek 34:26-27).
To this point in the Festival of Tabernacles, Jesus has only been answering people’s challenges and doubts. Here, however, he issues a direct invitation. It’s reminiscent of his earlier conversation with the Samaritan woman, who heard Jesus’ words as relieving her from the chore of having to come every day to draw water from a well (John 4:10-15).
The pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem for the festival may have heard Jesus’ words against a different background. Every day during the celebration, water was drawn from the nearby pool of Siloam, brought to the altar, and poured out. Such rituals were accompanied by prayers for God’s blessing, including rain. The ritual may have ended, however, on the last day, the day on which Jesus stood before the crowds and offered his invitation instead.
Jesus doesn’t seem to be quoting a particular passage of Scripture; there is no reference anywhere else in the Bible to streams of water flowing out of a person’s heart (or more literally, “belly”). Still, as suggested above, the idea of water for the thirsty was common enough. What kind of water was being offered?
John explains that Jesus was speaking about the Spirit. He’s writing in retrospect, after Jesus’ resurrection, and after the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit was given. It seems unlikely that people would have understood what Jesus was saying.
And yet, as we’ll see in the next post, some found the invitation, well, inviting.