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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

John 7:37-39
“Living Water”
February 16, 2014 - Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

         The snow and ice came, the trees broke and fell, power lines went down, and for some people out in the country, like Kim’s father, the water stopped running. Without electricity to power well pumps, nothing came out of the taps. I remember the same thing happening a couple times at the rural place where we lived while I was in seminary.

         We are so used to the ease with which water flows in our homes, that we need to work a little to imagine a scene like John pictures for us in our text today. But we need a little background to understand how Jesus’ words about “living water” fit into what was happening there in Jerusalem.

         The “last and greatest day of the feast” means the end of what we call in English the “Feast of Tabernacles,” and what Jewish people today call Sukkot. It is a festival in the fall when Jews, especially in Israel, set up sukkah, little booths or tents outside their homes and spend time in them, especially to eat, for seven days.

         Sukkot is primarily a commemoration of Israel’s forty years in the wilderness, living as nomads in their tents, before God brought them into Palestine and gave them permanent homes. It’s a festival of homelessness, you could say, a time when every observant Jew tries to live like the folks in Opportunity Village or Whoville here in Eugene.

         It’s a fascinating spiritual holiday. Jews celebrating Sukkot watch for opportunities to welcome ushpizin, people who are strangers, to a meal in their sukkah. They are remembering that part of their history was to be wandering strangers without homes. So they see an opportunity to be kind and feed a stranger as a particular blessing. If you’re looking for a good movie and don’t mind subtitles, I recommend an Israeli film about a modern Sukkot with that odd word for strangers as its title, “Ushpizin.”

         Tabernacles is also a feast of joy. It recalls Israel’s coming home out of the wilderness and it celebrates the autumn harvest. Palm and willow and myrtle branches are carried as symbols of the first materials used to build temporary shelters, along with a citrus fruit, a lemon or citron, as a sign of the first fruits of harvest. Watch the movie I mentioned and you will see how Jewish people still approach this feast with huge joy and anticipation.

         Yet there was and is also a little undercurrent of worry and need in the Feast of Tabernacles. While the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness, God provided for their basic needs, food and water. The festival remembers that provision of water and prays for it to continue.

         In Jesus’ time, in Jerusalem, each day of Tabernacles a priest took a golden pitcher, which could hold about three pints, and walked down to the Pool of Siloam where the Gihon Spring came through Hezekiah’s tunnel and bubbled up in the lower city. He filled that pitcher, then carried it back up the hill through the water gate of the temple. The excited crowds followed him, waving their branches and reciting Isaiah 12:3, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”

         Then the priest climbed a ramp up to the altar and poured that pitcher of water out into a silver funnel behind the altar as an offering of God. It simply ran out on the ground beneath the altar. If you happened to read the sermon I didn’t get to preach last Sunday, you will remember that in Ezekiel 47 the prophet saw a vision of a river of water pouring out from the temple, past the altar, flowing out to revive a thirsty, dead land. The water ceremony on the Feast of Sukkot enacted and looked forward to that vision of streams of water flowing in the temple.

         On the last day of the feast, the one Jesus spoke at, the priest carrying the water and the crowd marched around the altar seven times, making it even more impressive. People remembered the water in the desert, the promised river in Ezekiel, and the seven times they circled Jericho as they entered the promised land. They knew all those other passages like Psalm 46:4 about God’s river. At the end of the long dry summer and fall, they prayed for God to make the symbol of water into reality, for the winter rains to come, for their Lord to provide water once again for His people.

         In his commentary on this passage, Raymond Brown says that Jordanian Arabs, despite their dislike of Israel, still look to see if God will answer the Jewish prayers and send rain at the Feast of Tabernacles. It’s a sign for them of future rain, of winter moisture, kind of like an Arab Groundhog Day.

         With all that background now, listen again to what Jesus said, standing in the middle of all that joy, of all that ceremony around a quart and a half of water being carried up the hill and poured out in a tiny symbolic stream. Jesus stood up in the middle of that hot, sweaty, thirsty crowd cheering and singing as a little trickle ran across the ground and “cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.’”

         If you just glance down to the next couple verses after our text, you can see how His words affected the crowd. People were amazed by Jesus’ pronouncement. Some them thought He was the prophet who comes before the Messiah. Others were sure He was the Messiah. Others were skeptical because they heard Jesus came from Galilee and the Messiah wasn’t supposed to be from there. But He made an impression. His promise of water for anyone who is thirsty struck a powerful chord on that day.

         We are thirsty people. Go to the supermarket and check out the water section. You will find spring water, distilled water, carbonated water, mineral water, flavored water. There are probably a dozen different brands just of plain water in various sizes and shapes of containers with screw caps or pop-up nipples. You can buy a single bottle, a six-pack, or a Costco-sized plastic-wrapped case of four dozen plastic bottles.

         Skeptics will tell you a lot of that water for sale is no different from or maybe worse than what you can get out of the tap at home. You’re really just paying for the bottle and someone to fill it up for you. But we keep buying those little plastic containers and filling up holes in the ground with them because it’s terribly convenient. I confess I’ve got three or four bottles like that in my car, just in case I get thirsty.

         We’ve gotten so lazy, so used to our convenient water, that it’s hard for us to grasp the impact Jesus made there during the water ceremony of the Feast of Tabernacles. Some of us may have never had to walk down a hill and scoop up water like we did on our church backpack trip last year, carrying it back up to camp and then boiling or filtering it to drink. Water is just so easy to get most of the time.

         Yet just like those crowds of worshippers in Jerusalem who sang and cheered a man carrying one small pitcher of water, we are thirsty, and the people around us are thirsty. All those different little bottles on the shelf at Fred Meyer may be our own sign that we are trying to figure out how to quench a thirst that has little to do with physical dryness.

         Jesus went on in verse 38 to say something about the source of the water we are really after, what He called more than once, “living water.” Unfortunately, there’s a bit of a dispute about what His words mean here. If you read most modern translations, you will miss the question, because they’ve already decided it for you.

         In my usual choice, the NRSV, we read, “As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” And the new NIV puts it, “as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” But what Jesus actually said was, “As Scripture has said, ‘From his belly shall flow rivers of living water.’”

         Once you realize that the source of these rivers of living water is “his belly,” not “the believer’s heart” or “within them,” you can see that there is another possibility here. Jesus is not talking about rivers springing out of us, out of people who believe in Him. He’s talking about the rivers which spring out of Himself. This living water doesn’t run out into the world from you and me. It comes from Jesus, out of His belly, out of His heart.

         That’s why John’s Gospel in chapter 19 verse 34 is the one which tell us that when a soldier pierced Jesus’ side blood and water flowed out. John wanted us to know that what Jesus said was fulfilled when Jesus died. The Cross made possible what verse 39 tells us hadn’t happened yet. It was the Cross and resurrection of Jesus which would make that living water flow out from Jesus to quench the thirst of everyone who believes in Him.

         As our men’s group talked about in a different way Friday morning, we get this wrong, we want to put the source of that river of living water in us, because we want to make God, to make spiritual life, to make the Good News of Jesus Christ about what happens inside us. Yes, yes, yes, God is inside of you and me, inside of everyone, but He’s way more than just inside us. When we meet God, we are not talking to ourselves, not just exploring our own feelings. God comes to us from the outside. We don’t find Him by looking inside.

         That’s one of the reasons we’re so spiritually thirsty. Every time you turn around some movie character or Olympic athlete or politician is telling you to find strength or hope or the answers to life inside yourself, inside your own heart. Honestly, and please forgive the graphic nature of this picture, but it fits, telling you to get what you need from inside you is like telling a man dying of thirst to drink his own urine. We don’t have what we need inside us to quench spiritual thirst anymore than we have it to quench physical thirst. We need a river flowing to us from the outside, from God, from the wounded side of the Son of God who gave His life so that we could drink true living water.

         And of course that River which quenches spiritual thirst is, as I’ve been saying all along this year, the presence and person of God Himself. Which is exactly what John goes on and explains for us here in verse 39. “Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive.” The living water which quenches spiritual thirst is the Holy Spirit, who is none other than God Himself, living in and among us.

         Notice the word there. We receive the Holy Spirit by believing in Jesus. The Holy Spirit is given to us, comes to us. We don’t find the Holy Spirit spurting up out of us. We find Him entering into us like cool, clear water flowing past our lips on a hot day. We open our mouths and drink in the Holy Spirit. We don’t somehow let Him run out of us.

         The next bit of verse 39 is also a bit difficult because John tells us that at that point, on that feast day there in Jerusalem, there was for all practical purposes “no Spirit.” That’s what it literally says. What it means is what some translations actually put in, that the Holy Spirit had not come to stay with us yet, that the River of living water was not yet fully open and flowing, that the Spirit was not yet given to us.

         You see the reason there: “because Jesus was not yet glorified.” It’s more than I can do here now to explain completely, but what John means by Jesus being glorified is what we more typically call Jesus being crucified. It was the same for John. Jesus was glorified by dying on the Cross and then rising again. And that’s also how this whole Holy Spirit thing happens, how the living water starts running for us. Jesus told the disciples over in John 14 to 16 that He had to go, He had to die and rise and ascend into heaven, so that the Holy Spirit could come.

         What I would like us to realize now is that this is all accomplished. Jesus did die and rise and ascend and send us the Holy Spirit. God is here, present, flowing to us and around us all the time when we believe in Jesus. We don’t have to just play act that River flowing from the Temple like the Jewish priest with his little golden pitcher. God’s River is full and flowing with a water full of life and joy for anyone who is thirsty.

         So I want to encourage you to drink of that living water more often. For most of us, the Holy Spirit is the neglected person of God. We believe in Jesus and pray to the Father, but we’re not quite sure what to do with the Spirit. The answer today is drink. Jesus came and died for your sins so that you could drink in the Spirit whom the Father sends. Drink in your forgiveness. Drink in peace. Drink in a new way of behaving. Drink in strength when life is hard. Drink in hope. Drink in all the spiritual help you need. You won’t find it in your own spirit, but you will find it by drinking in His Spirit.

         There’s a great opportunity this week to learn more about the Holy Spirit and how He comes to you and works in you. Go to the Chi Rho lectures by Jack Levison at Central Lutheran Church on Friday and Saturday and hear Jack talk about experiencing God’s Spirit in ways which perhaps you never knew about before. Listen to him talk about how the Spirit works in the Bible and tell stories about how he’s seen the Spirit working in his family and others. It may help you take a bigger drink of that living water Jesus promised here.

         One other good reason to interpret verse 38 as Jesus telling us that He is the source of living water is that receiving the Holy Spirit is not just about you or me getting blessed. It’s not just about an individual experience of God. As Jack Levison explains in his book Fresh Air, the Holy Spirit flows out to us as a community, together. Read the book of Acts and you will see that’s how it was over and over in the first churches. The Holy Spirit spoke, the Holy Spirit worked in Christian people, together, in the church as it gathered to pray and worship. That’s how the River of God, the living water, flows deepest and best.

         Which means there is this little droplet of truth in the reading which says that streams of living water will flow out the person who believes. When we come together, believing and trusting in Jesus as a community of worship and service, the Holy Spirit flows into and around us. And in that way, the living water will flow out to those who are still thirsty, those who haven’t yet realized that Jesus died and rose so they also could drink. Those streams will flow along and out with us whenever we go out into our work and play and show others that there is good water to drink here at the source.

         May our Lord quench your thirst with His Spirit. May you be filled to overflowing with living water, with the living presence of God flowing to you through the grace of Jesus Christ who was crucified and glorified so you could come and drink. And may that living water then spring up in you and all of us together so that it flows out our doors to bless and satisfy the thirst of our world.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated February 16, 2014