Today we celebrate Pentecost. We often associate Pentecost with flames of fire, as the Spirit descended on the disciples and tongues as of fire hovered over them. In our Gospel reading, however, John invites us to think of Pentecost with a different image: The imagery of water. For John, Pentecost is a time to see prophecy fulfilled and rivers of living water, flowing out from the Temple, through the disciples, and into the world.
In order to see this, John takes us to another feast. Not the feast of Pentecost, but the feast of Tabernacles, when God’s people would gather in Jerusalem to celebrate the final harvest of the year.
Biblical scholars have observed that the Feast of Tabernacles was a time when people could buy souvenirs. There were little water jars that those who went to the festival in Jerusalem could buy to remember the festival.
At first this seems strange. Why a water jar? The Feast of Tabernacles celebrated the final harvest of the year. By building and living in booths for a week, people remembered God’s sustenance through the wilderness wanderings and, by celebrating the yearly ingathering of the harvest, people recalled God’s gift of food for another year. For us, such a festival reminds us of Thanksgiving, and we could imagine a souvenir of a cornucopia or a basket of harvested goods. But a water jar? Why a water jar?
During the festival, at the time of the morning sacrifice, every day the priests would process to the pool of Siloam and fill a pitcher with water. They would carry the pitcher through the streets until they came to the Temple and the place of sacrifice. There, they would pour out the water as the trumpets sounded and the people sang, “Therefore, with joy shall you draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3).
At the heart of this joy was the mystery of the rock at Meribah (Numbers 20:1-13), the place where Israel quarreled with God about having no water in the wilderness and God commanded Moses to strike the rock and provide water for His thirsting but rebellious people. God’s grace comes in the midst of great need and great rebellion. He raised up a prophet to break open a rock and bring water from a stone. So, as a souvenir, a water jar captured a moment of mystery from this joyous feast.
God’s grace comes in the midst of great need and great rebellion.
When you listen to the words of Jesus, however, you hear an even greater mystery. Just as God raised up a prophet to strike the rock and bring forth water in the desert, so too God the Father has raised up Jesus to bring forth living water from people. Jesus says, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (verse 38).
Such work is a mystery that happens only by grace. As we come to worship, we are aware of our sins. We sense our needs. Hardened and empty, we come for grace. However, God’s grace does more than we expect. God breaks open our hardened hearts. He fills our lives with His refreshing Spirit, but His work overflows. His grace is more than a temporary transaction, fixing problems of the past. It is an eternal investment, breaking open our lives to be ever-flowing streams of life-giving water for the world.
In our text, Jesus, the great high priest, has come to Jerusalem. He is not carrying a water jar from the streets to the Temple. No, He moves from the Temple to the streets with thousands of water jars for a thirsting world. God’s people are water jars filled with the Spirit and Jesus will use them to provide an abundant source of living water flowing from them into the world.
Lest we wonder when this will happen, John offers a clarifying word. “Now this He said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive” (verse 39). Early in His ministry, at the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus was already prophesying what would happen at the Feast of Pentecost.
Pentecost is our celebration of this moment. Jesus has been raised from the dead and ascended into Heaven. He now rules over all things. He told His disciples to wait in Jerusalem until He clothed them with power from on high.
On Pentecost, Jesus fulfilled His prophecy. He sent His Holy Spirit to fill the hearts of the disciples and from them He pours forth life-giving speech. The language Jesus uses for water is abundant. “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (verse 38). This is not a drop, not a mist, not a stream, not even a river, but rivers, flowing rivers, bringing living water into the world.
I know a couple who have moved into a church. The church had long since closed its doors. So, they bought the property and converted it into a homestead. As they showed me around the house, they told me how they kept a few of the stained-glass windows. They wanted to remember that this once was a church. I was surprised by how easily the church had turned into a relic for them. It was something to remember. They wanted a small stained-glass window in their home to remind them that God’s house used to be in this place.
Their experience is typical of our world. Churches are closing their doors. Society has moved on to a time when churches no longer matter. As congregations downsize, it is easy to get discouraged. But Pentecost gives us hope. God continues to be at work. He works through His Word and Spirit in the lives of His people.
God is not in need of buildings. He is not in need of massive programs. Instead, He chooses to work humbly: In the lives of believers. Jesus fills us with the Spirit and sends us as sources of living water into the thirsting world.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching John 7:37-39.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach John 7:37-39.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Peter Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through John 7:37-39.