It is the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, the “day of the great Hosannah.” For seven days you and your family have lived in the Sukkah you built on your roof. A booth of leaves and branches – a temporary shelter to serve as a reminder of God’s everlasting promises in this ever changing life. For seven days you have come to observe the solemn services at the temple. For seven days you and your friends have partied into the torch and lamp filled night. On this final day of the great celebration you have come once again into the temple with your Ethrog, your citron fruit, in your left hand and your Lulav, your mrytle, palm and willow branch tied and waving in your right. You have done your duty to fulfill the command of Moses (Lev. 23:40) And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.
But today is the last day of the last great festival of the year. Today is different from each of the days before it. For on this day the leaves of the willows and the other branches used for the building of the booths will be shaken off and the palm branches will be waved against the altar. On this day the priests will go around the altar not once but seven times in a procession of thankfulness. On this day the chosen priest will bring the final golden pitcher of water from the pool of Siloam and pour it out at the side of the altar, along with the wine offering.
As you stand with the expectant crowd you think back to your Jewish teachers as they had explained some of these rituals to you as a youngster. The Sukkot to remind you of the temporary and fragile nature of life. The fruit and the branches and the water are a remembrance of the years spent in the wilderness, a thankfulness for God’s providence of shelter, food, and water. The water and wine poured out are also a thanksgiving for the rains and the harvest now over, and a prayer for the same in the year to come. But it is even more – a sign for the coming of the Messiah, and the Spirit He will pour out upon God’s People in that Great and coming day. The words of Isaiah’s song well up in your head as they do each year at this time (Isaiah 12:2-6) Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the peoples, proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be made known in all the earth. Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
Humming a little to yourself, you are drawn out of your contemplation as the crowd begins to murmur. The priest is here with the final pitcher of water! The crowds boil into a rising fervor. Around and around the procession goes, the flutes play out their song of praise and the throngs join in crying out from the great Hallels “Save us, we pray, O Lord! O Lord, we pray, give us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! We bless you from the house of the Lord.” (Ps. 118:25-26) And the water and the wine are taken up to the silver bowls, and the silver trumpets blast forth their three-fold call. The people reach a fevered pitch. A forest of branches wave toward the altar as the offering of water and wine are poured out. And a hush descends on the crowds … and in that palpable stillness, in that moment when everyone is trying to catch their breath before the final sacrifices are laid upon the altar, a lone voice thunders forth with the authority of heaven and steals the very breath from your body: (John 7:37-38) 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.
For those of us who have never celebrated the feast of Tabernacles, the true significance and impact of Jesus words and their lead-up can go right by us. The proclamation of Jesus at this precise point was not only shocking, but so very important and hugely significant. He not only applied the words Isaiah 12 to Himself, Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid … Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel. He as much as says that all the other prophecies connected with this festival had now found their fulfillment in Him!
No longer was this just a national holiday, or a nice family outing. Not simply empty ritual, and religious observance … the very one to whom this whole celebration pointed was right there in their midst! The Holy One of Israel – the very Water of Life! The very prayers of the crowds were being fulfilled in their stunned presence! (37-38) 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. It is a call from the Lord, an open invitation to move to beyond the ritual to the true meaning.
And it is still His invitation to you this day. The water of the pool of Siloam was considered living water, since it was replenished from a spring in the rock. But, it was still only earthly water, which could quench thirst only for a while. Our souls are restless, and seek fulfillment in so many things that can satisfy only for a while. But those whose soul thirsts for God must go to the Saviour for their soul’s refreshment. For in the salvation earned through Christ’s Passion and death there is full satisfaction for the desire of all humble souls. A full measure of mercy and forgiveness to slake the gravest need. Jesus is the fountain of living water, for in Him there is true, everlasting life. Every one that accepts Him and His salvation will never again be tortured with thirst, for he will possess the fullness of God’s mercy.
It is Jesus’ promise to the woman at the well. It is his promise to one and all: (John 4:14) but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life. As a smarter man than I once said: What is the Word of Christ itself through which we believe; what are the confessions of His Bride, the church, in harmony with which we believe; what are her hymns, her prayers, her sermons, all the testimonies of the faith and love in saving word and sacred conversation – what are they but rivers of living water flowing from the body of the church? The river of Christ’s life welling up in Word and Sacrament, right here in our midst, each and every Sunday. (37) If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.
And not only is that river of living water in your midst – it is here … in you too. (38) Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water. For this is the promise of our Lord and God, that connected to this life-giving water in Christ, the believer will himself become a fountain of living water. “Out of his heart (literally “out of his belly) will flow rivers of living water” Not just trickles or streams, but rivers. The Spirit, who has entered into our hearts in regeneration, has worked a flood of spiritual life in us. (39) 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. This living water must manifest itself in deeds of the Spirit, in good works. There will daily be a new and full supply of knowledge and love, through the work of the Holy Spirit, given to all believers. And as a tributary of the great river of life in Christ our Saviour, this life in us by the working of the Holy Spirit will daily gain in strength, willingness and a deeper trust in the One who quenches the pangs of every thirsty soul.
Dear baptized, life can often seem temporary and fragile. A shelter that is here today and gone tomorrow. When the chances and changes of life leave us parched and thirsty remember with thankfulness the living water of God’s forgiveness, love and mercy. He does not leave us to suffer want, He supplies our every need. He has blessed us in all these years past and He will continue to bless us in all the years to come. But even more – He has poured out His Spirit upon you and your life is now like a river overflowing its banks. Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. With joy, dear friends, may you and all who thirst after God, continue to draw from that living water – Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour – right here in your midst. The invitation stands even now (37) If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.