Scripture can be found here….
We encounter Jesus in John 7 as he makes an appearance at the Temple in the midst of a major Jewish festival, the festival of Booths (Sukkot). Like the other two major festivals (Passover and Shavuot/ Pentecost) this one is both historical and agricultural. While it commemorates in a vivid way the time of the wilderness sojourn detailed in Exodus through the construction of temporary shelters (the booths), it also serves as a fall harvest festival, with the carrying of plants and fruits. What ties these two together is the urgent need for water and the celebration of God’s providential presence. (For a full description of Sukkot, the article at Judaism 101 is very helpful.)
The context for our passage is this: Jesus goes to the festival at the prompting (goading?) of his brothers, who we are told, parenthetically, “don’t even believe in him,”John 7:5). He resists at first, but eventually goes in secret. The people are looking for him. Finally, he stands to teach (John 7:14). While we are not given the content of the initial teaching, John records a discussion of the teaching, which leads to a conversation about the role of Moses. Jesus’ boldness in teaching, combined with the fact that he does so for a time unimpeded, causes the crowd to wonder: could he be the Messiah? Jesus responds (“cries out”) “You know me, and you know where I am from. I have not come on my own. But the one who sent me is true, and you do not know him. I know him, because I am from him, and he sent me”(John 7:28-29). In response to this, the temple police do attempt to arrest him, but are unsuccessful “because his hour had not yet come” (John 7:30). Muttering, questioning, and the presence of the Pharisees add to the overall tension.
As our passage begins the festival is coming to an end, and Jesus cries 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’”(John 7:37-38). This seems to be a direct response to the Temple observances around Sukkot, which would include a daily procession to draw a pitcher of water from the pool of Siloam, a vivid commemoration (what Craig Koester calls ‘a visible prayer’; the “I Love to Tell the Story” podcast has a great and detailed description this; find it here). The narrator tells us, however, that the thirst Jesus is referring to is in fact the thirst for the Holy Spirit (connecting this passage with the discourse in chapter 4 concerning water and Spirit). The reaction in the crowd is explosive, and the people are divided: Some identify Jesus as prophet or Messiah as a result. Others concur with Jesus’ disbelieving brothers, snickering that the Messiah could hardly come from Galilee, but would have to be descended from David and be born in Bethlehem. (These last two, though we are familiar with the Lukan birth narrative, are claims never made in John’s gospel.) Another attempt is made to arrest Jesus, unsuccessful.
For the remainder of the passage Jesus does not speak; he is spoken about by the Temple police, the chief priests, and the Pharisees.
Chief priests and Pharisees: Why did you not arrest him?
Temple police: Never has anyone spoken like this!
Pharisees: Surely you have not been deceived too, have you? Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, which does not know the law—they are accursed.
Finally Nicodemus (a Pharisee, who came to Jesus by night in chapter 3) speaks up in favor of due process: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” He is immediately shut down by the other Pharisees who taunt him that he too must be from Galilee, and he’d better go back to the scriptures to find out how far that will get him.
Jesus’ appearance at the Temple and his proclamation that he is the true source of living water leads into a time of quarreling and testing: it is Exodus 17 all over again. David Lose makes the case in his commentary that the fourth gospel is a defensive document, and this passage certainly falls into that category: What Jesus offers is rejected, and Jesus’ identity is questioned and doubted.
This is a challenging text for preachers. Some possible directions:
Jesus as the source of living water: Connections can be made between this passage and chapter 4’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well; they can also be made with the story of water being given in the wilderness in Exodus 17 (and echoed in Psalm 95, one of the psalms associated with Sukkot).
Jesus as continuous with the story of scripture in the Old Testament: A slightly different take on the same elements as found above, an opportunity to counter the common misperception of the God of the Hebrew Bible as harsh and unloving).
Jesus as a Jew: At some point in our Narrative Lectionary journey, every preaching ought to seriously consider preaching a sermon parsing the use of “Jew” and all the terms associated with Jesus’ opponents in this gospel (chief priests, Pharisees). Here are David Lose’s words of caution, as found in the Working Preacher commentary:
John’s Gospel has been used throughout the centuries to justify anti-Semitism. Because those who followed Jesus and those who opposed him are all Jewish, it is something of a historical anachronism to call the whole of the Gospel anti-Jewish (let alone anti-Semitic), and yet if we deny how it has served those who have despised and persecuted the children of Israel we are indulging in a dangerous kind of denial. For instance, the repeated reports in this chapter and the next (though not in this particular passage) that Jesus’ opponents were out to kill him has led too many Christians over the years to label Jews “Christ-killers.”
It is incumbent upon those of us whose privilege it is to stand in the pulpit and preach to do absolutely everything possible to educate where we can, to correct wrong understandings where we must, and to locate Jesus firmly as a son of the covenant.
What are your thoughts? Please let me know what preaching direction you will be taking with this challenging portion of the fourth gospel. I look forward to our conversation!