Rivers of Living Water
Pentecost Year A
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
St. John 7: 37 — 39
In the tradition of the Church, from the celebration of the Ascension of the Lord, we participate in an intense period of preparation for week to nine days leading up to Pentecost. The Gospel text records a magnificent prophetic declaration made by Jesus at the close of the Feast of Tabernacles which occurred the previous October — about eight months before Pentecost. It is so pertinent to the study and celebration of Pentecost, that it is now used on the Vigil, the day before the major feast day. The short reading is a beautiful close to the “novena” — the traditional nine days of prayer addressed to the Holy Spirit. For that reason, our introduction is a little longer than usual so that we can take in the full impact of our Lord’s symbolic action.
To benefit fully from our Lord’s teaching with regard to the coming of the Holy Spirit, we will need to understand sufficient about the great Feast of Tabernacles. Jesus used the occasion for one of His most amazing proclamations which pointed directly to the spreading of this teaching.
The Feast of Tabernacles — Sukkot
By New Testament times the Festival of Tabernacles had become the occasion to offer prayers for rain. The Feast was celebrated at the end of September or in early October. If rain came at that time, it was taken as a guarantee that there would be sufficient rain for the crops. The prayer for rain was symbolised in dramatic fashion on each of the seven days of the festival. A procession would go down to Gihon spring on the southeast side of the Temple Hill. There a priest would fill a golden pitcher (large jug) with water and the choir would repeat the words of Isaiah 12: 3 “With joy you will draw water at the fountain of salvation.“
Then the procession would go up to the Temple through the Water Gate. When the crowd reached the altar in front of the Temple they would go around waving the lulab (or lulav) with their right hands and the ethrog (citrus) with their left hands The lulab consisted of willow twigs and myrtle tied together with palm. The ethrog could be either a lemon or a citron. As a climax, the priest would go up the ramp to the altar and pour the water into a silver funnel, through which it would flow to the ground. (Based on Newman and Nida)
Some of the Spiritual Significance of Sukkot
(Sukkot — woven dwellings / booths — pronounced: sue-coat)
1. The dwellings.
Strictly speaking they are to be “woven”. The roof must allow you to see the
stars, and let the rain come in! Time spent there requires one to rely totally on
God and His sheltering. This reminds us that the world, as we know it,
can be a wilderness and only by God’s presence and power can we survive:
yet do so joyfully, extending warm hospitality to invited and other guests.
2. Pouring out water.
In this Festival, the ancient custom of Israel was repeated, as recorded in
1 Samuel 7: 6, when they were gathered at Mizpah, they drew water and
poured it out on the ground before the LORD, and they fasted on that day,
confessing, “We have sinned against the LORD”. This signified repentance
and washing away of impurities. During Sukkot, this action symbolised
therefore, consecration of one’s whole being to God’s service and
the free flow of abundant life-giving water the people were praying for.
3. Golden candelabras.
The four enormous candelabras were lit thus illuminating the Temple
and signifying light going forth with water out into the whole world.
This was associated with symbolising the coming of the Messiah who
would be a light to the whole world.
4. The end time.
The festival pointed to the glorious reign of the Messiah and the
lovingkindness this would spread over the whole earth.
During the ceremony the people would sing Psalm 118 and would
follow it up later in the day with acts of charity.
1. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, his mercy
2. Let Israel say: his mercy endures forever.
3. Let the house of Aaron say, his mercy endures forever.
4. Let those who fear the LORD say, his mercy
5. “Day of the Great Hosanna”.
This was the last day of the festival, in Hebrew, Hoshannah Rabbah: a day for calling on God with “Hosanna” — “Save now!”
6. No one is excluded from God’s blessings.
There are several meanings attached to the four plants. One is that they are waved around in procession to represent categories of people, and illustrate how we tend to “classify” one another:
• those who study Torah (God’s Word) but do not
possess good deeds;
• those who possess good deeds but do not study Torah;
• those who have both Torah and good deeds;
and even —
• those who lack both Torah and good deeds.
All four species of plant require the same regular flow of abundant
life-giving water. Just so, all “categories” of people need the same
abundant flow of God’s life-giving blessings.
The three leafy plants bound into a kind of fan-shaped bouquet
are waved in a particular way, east, south, west, north, up and down.
The smoke of the morning sacrifice at the altar is thus fanned
towards heaven. This honoured God’s presence and associated each
person closely with the offering. The smoke is also spread more
widely and symbolised reaching out to include others in
prayers offered and in all the rejoicing before the Lord.
The Festival of Sukkot — of fragile, temporary woven huts,
brought the people to a time and place for repentance, consecration
and rejoicing in the richness of God’s blessings which were a mere
foretaste of those to be experienced at the coming of the Messiah.
It signalled the completion of gathering in the crops; but also of Gods
people being “gathered in”, to reflect God’s unity.
It is at this Festival our Lord chose to declare that He is the entire
fulfilment of everything the ceremony pointed towards. From Him
both Divine Light and Holy Spirit would pour forth into the whole
world. These were the two great manifestations at the coming of
the Holy Spirit at Pentecost which occurred about eight months
after this pronouncement.
Turning now to our text.
At this point we can now go to our text and listen to our Lord’s powerful message: All have need of an abundant flow of the Holy Spirit to fill them with true life. All are called to come to Him as the Anointed One, the Christ, the Messiah, and receive this abundant life as His free gift. Not only will this unite them all in the Household of God: it will flow through them far beyond any boundary they can imagine — out further and further to those who also need it.
Earlier in chapter 7 of St. John’s Gospel, Jesus is seen sending the disciples off to Jerusalem to celebrate the week-long Festival of Tabernacles, while He stayed behind in Galilee. When they were safely dispatched, He also set out in secret. It appears that on arrival He kept a low profile at first, and then as the week progressed, He began to teach in the Temple courtyard. Eventually Temple Police were sent out to arrest Him, but they found it beyond them to take Him into custody.
The day before the events in our reading occurred, Jesus made it plain He was going to a place where His opponents would not be able to find Him. This helps us understand what followed — the promise of the Holy Spirit thus being tied to His departure.
Reflections on our text
Verse 37 and 38
On the last and greatest day of the feast, Jesus stood up and
exclaimed, “Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink”.
Whoever believes in me, as scripture says: ‘Rivers of living
water will flow from within him’.”
There has been much debate over what Scripture our Lord appears to be freely quoting. Some very reliable scholarship links his words to Nehemiah chapter 9, especially verse 20 which says:
“Your good spirit you bestowed on them, to give them understanding;
your manna you did not withhold from their mouths, and you gave
them water in their thirst.”
We will pause for a moment to reflect on the understanding our Lord’s listeners had when they heard him make this link with prophecy.
In the first sentence of this Scripture quotation, the phrase, “to give them understanding,” here refers to the Torah, the Holy Law: learning God’s Holy will, having God’s Holy Word written on their hearts. The Spirit then, was promised to teach and deepen understanding.
The second sentence shows the Spirit being given with essential food and drink. These are needed for one’s pilgrimage to the place of fulfilment, the place of full living. The Spirit is therefore given to those who have enough faith to turn to God in their hunger and thirst, both physical and spiritual.
An old rabbinic teaching may have been in Jesus’ mind:
“When the disciple is like a well, just as from the well flows out living
running water on all sides, so from that disciple will come forth
disciples and their disciples.”
In addition to the above quotation from Nehemiah, Jesus draws from other ancient Hebrew Scriptures and combines two well known traditions to reveal an important aspect of His mission:
First — in the days of the Messiah there will be a purification of man,
symbolised by water flowing out of the Temple.
(Ezekiel 47: 1 — 12; Zechariah 14: 8)
Secondly — during the wanderings of Israel, water was given to the
people from the rock in the desert through Moses.
(Exodus 17: 6; Psalm 78; 1 Corinthians 10: 4)
Jesus has been speaking about Himself as the New Moses, indeed, the Messiah who brings these new, living waters, waters which flow from under the Temple.
“Out of His (Jesus’) heart” these waters come: in other words He, as
Risen Lord, is the New Temple and also the source of the Holy Spirit
who is given after His death and resurrection, (2: 13 — 22).
(Based on J. McPolin, S.J.)
Notice that while our Lord did not, at the Feast of Tabernacles, actually mention the Holy Spirit, St John interprets Jesus’ words for us and makes sure we get the link. He writes:
He said this in reference to the Spirit that those who came to
believe in him were to receive. There was, of course, no
Spirit yet, because Jesus had not yet been glorified.
The eminent theologian C. J. Callan, O.P. (1917) offers us a little clarification relating to the phrase, “no Spirit yet:”
The Evangelist here explains the futurity of our Lord’s words in the
preceding verse; and he means to say that, while the just of the Old
Law possessed the Holy Spirit, still the universal and abundant gifts
of the Spirit were reserved for Pentecost, after Jesus had been glorified.”
All of the explanation we have presented was assumed by St. John, as known by Christian readers. This is a good example of how profitable it can be for us to delve into our Hebrew heritage in order to receive the full impact of our Lord’s teaching. And, of course, to make sure we pass it on to our young, and to new believers.
The True Messiah
In this short but wonderful passage, our Blessed Lord is gently, yet firmly, declaring that He is the Messiah and Servant of God who baptises with, communicates, the Spirit — since the Holy Spirit is active in His words through the power of the Spirit (3: 34; 6: 63. Compare 1: 32 — 33). Consequently, His words, are life giving (water) within the believer when they are Spirit-filled (4: 16) (Based on J. McPolin, S. J.)
A Final Overview
At the morning sacrifice on the seventh day, water from the pool of Siloam was carried round the altar seven times, and poured out upon the altar. It was a commemoration of the water from the rock in the wilderness; it was also a petition for the Lord to send rain on Palestine (the rainy season began soon after this feast). Our Lord uses this ceremony to illustrate the streams of divine grace that will flow into His church, once the Holy Spirit comes at the following Pentecost. He used the image of water before, when He spoke to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well. There He Himself was the source of the living water; here He goes a step further and explains that anyone who believes in Him will in their turn become a source of life to others. Christians are not only united to Christ; grace flows through them to make other Christians; they become an instrument of divine grace. (Ronald Cox, C.M.)
What a magnificent description of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church at Pentecost.
Some may wonder how true it is that Living Water, the gift of Jesus Christ, will flow from the disciples of Christ. Why not direct from the Lord himself? Why via others? This is the mystery of the Church, Christ’s body, of which he is the Head. As He himself was to teach, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.” (John 15: 5). It is God’s way that we will be the living network by which God will bring others into contact with Him, and provide the spiritual nourishment of which we all very much in need. Amen.
Let us bless God
• Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has
sanctified us by His commandments, and instructed us concerning
the waving of the palm branch.
• Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, for
keeping us in life, for sustaining us, and for helping us reach this day.
• Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!
• Blessed is the Kingdom of our father David that is to come!
Hosanna in the highest!
(Hosanna means “Save now.” Mark 11: 10.)
Proclaim the Gospel to Every Creature
(Mark 16: 15)
The real Jesus, is the real answer to the real needs of the world!
Let us remember God’s teaching, contained in His Word and in doing
Rivers of Living Water
Pentecost Year A St. John 7: 37 — 39
This short reading records only two sentences from our Lord yet contains a
1. Jesus chose to invite “anyone who thirsts ” to come to Him drink and —
2. In the four different types of person represented by the four species of plant,
3. When we receive the Holy Spirit we share, speak, reflect on and
All who are members of His Body, the Church, share in this anointing through
Let us pray for one another that we will all radiate Christ wherever the Lord
Let us also pray the we will not be preoccupied with seeking to know the
John 7: 37 — 39
Pentecost Sunday Year A
37 (13) On the last and greatest day of the feast, Jesus stood up and
38 Whoever believes in me, as scripture says: ‘Rivers of living water (14)
39 He said this in reference to the Spirit that those who came to believe
(13) [37,39] Promise of living water through the Spirit.
(14)  Living water: not an exact quotation from any Old Testament passage; in the gospel context the gift of the Spirit is meant; cf ⇒ John 3:5. From within him: either Jesus or the believer; if Jesus, it continues the Jesus-Moses motif (water from the rock, ⇒ Exodus 17:6; ⇒ Numbers 20:11) as well as Jesus as the new temple (cf ⇒ Ezekiel 47:1). Grammatically, it goes better with the believer.
(15)  No Spirit yet: Codex Vaticanus and early Latin, Syriac, and Coptic versions add “given.” In this gospel, the sending of the Spirit cannot take place until Jesus’ glorification through his death, resurrection, and ascension; cf ⇒ John 20:22.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition