Imagine a celebration so full of joy and happiness that the energy of it can hardly be contained. Imagine a party so full of life that it can hardly be expressed in words. Imagine a joy that wells up from within that completely changes your life.
In the world of ancient Judaism, today was the day of just such a celebration.
Today on Jewish calendars is the 21st of the month of Tishri, and it is the last and great day of a seven-day festival called Sukkot, or the Feast of Booths. Why is this day significant to the Hebrew people and what possible relevance does it hold for Christians?
In the time of Jesus it was a feast of the final harvest. Faithful Jews would gather in Jerusalem for a week of festivities; during this week God commanded them to rejoice (Leviticus 23:33-36). The city was filled with pilgrims, all of them setting up temporary booths to live in, sleeping out under the stars. This commemorated the time when Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years under the care of God.
To say that they “slept” under the stars is only partially true…many pilgrims in Jerusalem would spend all night, every night, in the Temple courtyard, celebrating: Levites playing music, sages juggling torches, singing and dancing. This would go until daybreak, when the climax of their celebration began.
The Water Libation Ceremony
A procession of worshipers made their way from the Temple courts, down Mount Moriah, into a valley where a natural spring called the Pool of Siloam was located. There in the shadow of the mighty Temple a specially selected priest filled a golden flask with pure water. The throng would then ascend the hill, march through the Water Gate (which got its name from this ceremony) and back into the Temple courts. Crowds as big as 150,000 people gathered to celebrate. As they entered this gate Levites would greet them with the blowing of trumpets. The joy of the crowds mounted as they approached the altar.
The priest would carry the water up the altar ramp and face the southwest corner where the libations were poured. There on the corner were two silver cups. One was for receiving the wine libations that were offered every day. The other cup was used only for this ceremony, only during this feast, for the receiving of the water libation.
The pouring out of water as an offering to God was based primarily on thanking God for the abundant rains needed for the harvest, but there was a deeper meaning: The cry of the worshipers that day was that God would pour out His Spirit upon them, that they might experience the joy of God’s presence. These worshipers turned to the promise of Isaiah 12:3, “With joy you shall draw water out of the wells of salvation,” and in joyful praise they cried to God for a taste of God’s living water.
This was one of the most joyful moments in the lives of these worshipers. The Jewish sages write that the joy of this ceremony was so amazing and contagious that “Whoever has never seen the celebrations of the Festival of the Water Libation has never experienced true joy in his life.”
Opening the Well
Enter Jesus. We are told in John’s Gospel that the last time he went to this feast he went in secret to guard against those who might try to take his life. But then in the middle of the feast he publicly entered the temple to teach. Controversy was in the air. Was Jesus the Messiah? What were the authorities going to do about him?
Finally the day of Hoshana Rabbah (“the Great Hosanna”), the 7th and final day of the feast arrived (which is today on the Jewish calendar). On this day the priest carrying the water flask and the attending priests circled the altar, not once but seven times. The crowds were shouting “Hosanna!” It was the climax of the feast, the season of their joy.
“On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, “Out of his belly will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-38).
And just in case we miss the message, John clarifies what Jesus meant: “Now this He said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive” (John 7:39).
Can you imagine the reaction? This throng of worshipers is crying to God day and night with shouts of joy, crying for the living water of His Presence, for His Spirit to be poured out upon them. It is the last day of the feast and the anticipation has heightened all week long. Just then Jesus stands in the midst of the crowds in the Temple courts and shouts that He will be the one to give them living water.
No wonder the reactions of the crowds: some thought Jesus was the Prophet promised by Moses, others said he was the Messiah, some doubted it, and some wanted him to be arrested (John 7:40-44).
Opening Blind Eyes
In the summer of 2004, archaeologists discovered remains of the Pool of Siloam—the same pool used in the water libation ceremony. Pottery discovered there indicates that the pool was indeed used in the first century. This photo, taken May 19, 2005, shows the large stone steps that were built to help worshipers down into these waters for ritual cleansing (much of the water is now gone).
John’s Gospel tells us that following Jesus’ bold claims to be able to bestow God’s Spirit on the people, He encounters a man blind from birth. Seeing this man in his plight, He spits on the ground, making mud with His saliva, and applies it to the man’s eyes. He tells the man, “Go and wash in the Pool of Siloam.” The text says that he went and came back seeing (John 9).
In a startling act of mercy, Jesus sends a message to the people of Jerusalem. Countless pilgrims came to the Pool of Siloam year in and year out; countless festivals had gone by when the priests had drawn water from this spring and cried out for God to save them; yet the Spirit of God never came. Here Jesus uses this ordinary water to supernaturally heal blind eyes, dumbfounding the people and leaving them in wonder and awe. Could it be that this Jesus can deliver what He promises?
Deep Thirst and Overwhelming Joy
According to the Jerusalem Talmud, when the prophet Jonah arrived in Jerusalem during the Feast of Booths, he was not expecting to hear from God. But when he was caught up in the joy of the festivities with all the other holiday pilgrims, it was then that God gave him prophetic vision. The Talmud relates from this that there is no joy greater than receiving prophetic inspiration, being near to God and hearing His voice.
This was the great hope and longing of the Feast: the nearness of God. Indeed, the prophets of Israel spoke of a day when this would happen. God said to Ezekiel that a time was coming of national cleansing, when the idols would be expunged from their memories, when they would be given new hearts that love and long to obey Him alone: “And I will put My Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:25-27). He told the prophet Joel, “And it will come to pass afterward, that I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out My Spirit” (Joel 2:28-29). This is what Jesus promised to those who would trust Him.
This may sound exciting, but it begs the question: What do we think will bring us joy and the deepest satisfaction? The prophets knew: when the Spirit of God was poured out on God’s people He would change us entirely because it would cause us to desire God above all else; we would experience His nearness and thus be totally satisfied with Him. When we hear this promise, does it make our heart ache with longing? Is the word “joy” even on our radar? Or do we need to have a thirst for God re-awakened?
Something we need to understand about Jesus’ statement about being able to give rivers of living water flowing from within: He says it to a crowd of people thirsty to experience God. They are not bystanders going about business as usual: they are men and women on a pilgrimage, crying out to God to come near so that they can taste Him. This is why Jesus prefaces his invitation with, “If anyone thirsts . . .”
In one sense we all “thirst,” evidenced by the fact that we are all bound in a pursuit of personal satisfaction and happiness. We naturally seek out the things we believe will bring lasting fulfillment. In another sense, only some are really in touch with their thirst to a degree that they call it “thirst.” What a descriptive word! Physically we know what it is to thirst, to go a long time without water and to finally be able to take a satisfying drink of cold liquid. When we know that it’s water we need, it is water we crave. Can we say that it is God we need? Do we thirst for Him?
Speaking of physical thirst, do you know that the thirst mechanism is so weak in some people that they mistake it for hunger or tiredness? When someone is not fully hydrated, the body’s longing for water can be experienced as a desire to eat or sleep. Water suppresses the appetite naturally and helps the body metabolize stored fat. Even mild dehydration can slow down metabolism. Some dietitians claim that the number one trigger of day time fatigue is lack of water, and just a 2% drop in body water can trigger fuzzy short term memory and difficulties with concentration.
Using our bodies as an analogy, it is easy to mistake our longing for the pure well of God’s Presence for a hunger for temporarily satisfying experiences. Do you thirst for God; or better said, do you know that your thirst for satisfaction is really a thirst for God?
G.K. Chesterton is famous for saying, “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.” The catch is: these men don’t know it.