John 7:37-52 Streams of Water

Home Moravian Church Adult Bible Class. Originally aired on March 11, 2007.

Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. This is the time of year that many of us wait for with eager anticipation, longing, and fear. The ACC championship will be played this afternoon and then the pairings for the Big Dance will be announced. Speaking as an ordained minister, I urge you all to reign in your enthusiasm and not harm those you love who happened to have made the wrong decision when choosing their college.  People around here do take college basketball seriously. I may have told you the story of the Carolina couple who had gone to every home game since before the time of Dean Smith. A few years ago, a younger couple bought tickets for the seats behind them. Over the years they became friends, but at the Duke game this year, the elderly woman was there alone. The younger couple asked about her husband and she shared the sad news that he had passed away. “Couldn’t one of the children have come to the game with you,” they asked. “Oh, no,” she said. “They’re all at the funeral.”

Recap John 7:                        Turning away from the world of sports and fun, let’s look at John chapter 7, which deals with the serious themes of the identity of Jesus and the opposition of the religious establishment to him. I think Gail O’Day’s comments about the focus of John’s gospel on the identity are helpful here: “The Fourth Evangelist’s singular focus on this question may strike contemporary interpreters as odd or even offensive, because contemporary Christians are preoccupied with a broader array of questions about the life of faith. The Fourth Evangelist, however, wrote out of the conviction that if one could not decide about that question, there were no grounds for engaging other questions.” (O’Day, 626)  In other words, John knew there was more to the Gospel than belief in Jesus as the Son of God, but that was the basis of the rest of the Gospel.

Kairos:            We had a really good discussion last week after we went off the air about the difference between kairos time and chronos time. In chapter 7 when Jesus says that his time has not yet come, the word is kairos. Chronos is the type of time that you see on your watch or a calendar. It is the normal, measurable passage of time that we can adjust for daylight savings. Kairos is time that is pregnant with meaning and significance. Kairos is that moment when you look at a person that you have known for years as a friend and suddenly realize that you are in love. Kairos time cannot be measured. It may be only a minute on a clock, but it may in fact be a lifetime. Mother Teresa had an experience of kairos time that led her to dedicate her life to the suffering in India. One moment was sufficient for a lifetime of devoted ministry. We will be returning to this idea of kairos as we approach Easter, but it is good to note that it the concept appears here in chapter 7.

Tabernacles:              Last week we discussed the significance of the fact that this story is set in the context of the feast of tabernacles. Remember, John assumes that his writers know all about the Jewish festivals and scriptures, so he does not explain them. Tabernacles or Succoth is an autumn festival that recalls the wandering of the Israelites in the wilderness. In America, the wilderness conjures up images of raging rivers, towering trees, and thick brush, but in the Middle East, the wilderness is dry. You probably remember from Sunday School the story of how the Israelites were dying of thirst after fleeing Egypt, and Moses struck a rock with his staff and out poured a stream of water. This was a popular story of God’s providence and is often mentioned in the Psalms and the writings of the prophets. Many of these passages were read during the Feast of Tabernacles (Brown, 322) , and it is likely that when Jesus cried out in today’s lesson, it was part of a sermon that he was giving on Psalm 78. When he came to the part about Moses bringing forth the water of life in the midst of the wilderness, he cried out.

            One of the interesting things about the ancient festival of Tabernacles is that it was an occasion to pray for rain. Tradition held that rain during the week of the festival portended abundant water for the year. In America, rain is considered bad luck because it interferes with our recreational activities, such as raining on one’s parade. But in dry lands, rains are a precious gift of God. Rain equals life in a dry land. Thus, water was an important part of the Tabernacles festival. Each day, a priest filled a golden pitcher with water from the fountain of Gihon near the temple mount while the Levites sang “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3; Brown, 327).  

            By the time of Jesus, the festival was also associated with the day of God’s victory: the day of the Lord, as described in Zechariah 9-14. According to the prophet, the Messiah will come to Jerusalem riding on a donkey (9:9), and he opens a fountain that flows from the temple to all Judea, cleansing and healing the nation. These prophecies helped shaped messianic expectations and were read each year at the festival. Thus, the feast of Tabernacles was associated with the prophet-savior Moses and the Messiah. John assumes that we know this, or at least most of this. All he says is that on the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood up and cried out. This would have been the seventh day, the day of completion. Jesus has been sitting in the Temple court preaching, and then as the festivities reach their triumphant climax, when messianic hopes are at their highest, he stands up and cries out. I’ll pick up the reading at verse 37.

Read 7:37-52 

Jesus’ Proclamation:             Jesus’ teaching here is very similar to that given to the Samaritan Woman about the living water, but the context is quite different. There he was speaking quietly to a single lost soul drawing water at the well in the middle of the day. Here he is proclaiming a bold messianic idea at the climax of one of the most important pilgrimage festivals of Judaism. John’s Gospel has been building up to this point. The miracles and the teachings have been growing more provocative, and the resistance to Jesus by the authorities has also been growing. He will not work a sign to entertain the crowds or to prove he is the Messiah; instead he cries out “If anyone is thirsty, come to me and drink.” The remainder of the Gospel will be about the choice of whether to come to Jesus or to kill him.

Questions:      It probably will not surprise you by now that there are some long-standing scholarly debates about this passage. The original Greek text did not have punctuation marks, and that has led to some radically different translations. Some ancient theologians read this verse as saying that the river of living water will flow from those who believe in Jesus. That is how the New Revised Standard Version translates it. Others argue that the living waters flow out of Jesus for the benefit of those who believe. There are interesting theological implications of these different ways of reading the original Greek text, but it is probably best not to get too carried with an interpretation based upon a punctuation mark or two. In the context of John’s Gospel, it seems most likely that the living water is flowing out of Jesus, not out of the believer. However, John often uses ambiguous phrases in order to say two things at once. So, it is best not to be too dogmatic in our conclusions. I think it is more important to note that this is not just a spring; it is a river that flows. Again, we see theme of abundance in John’s Gospel.

Living Water:                        The water flows from Jesus, just as the water flowed from the Rock that Moses split (Ps. 76:16), but we aren’t told what the water is. Based on a scribal explanation inserted in the original text (v. 39), the water is the Spirit of God. In John’s Gospel, the Holy Spirit is the spirit of Wisdom and Truth. In other words, this cry on the last day of the festival was like the cry of Wisdom in Proverbs 8: the Logos calls out to those who wish to learn the truth. In one way, there is nothing really shocking in Jesus’ statement here. He appears to be a rabbi who calls out to the crowds at the end of the festival to come to him and he will instruct them in the meaning of the Torah and wisdom. So why were the authorities upset?

Scripture Reference:             Before answering that question, we need to look at another major problem in interpreting this passage. It says that Jesus is quoting Scripture, but the verse quoted does not appear anywhere in the Hebrew or Greek versions of the Old Testament. John 7:38 is one of those verses that should keep fundamentalist preachers awake at night. The Bible is inerrant, they say; therefore there cannot be an error in John’s Gospel, but this quotation does not appear anywhere in the Old Testament. So either John’s Gospel or the Old Testament is in error here. It is enough to make you run around in circles, isn’t it? The conservative Ryrie Study Bible says that the verse was “probably Is. 55:1,” but ignores the fact that it is not an exact quotation. There are several verses in the Old Testament that say similar things, such as Psalm 78:20 “When he struck the rock, water gushed out and streams flowed abundantly,” and Isaiah 58:11 “You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” This is just further evidence that the Bible itself is the best argument against fundamentalism.

            There are two things to keep in mind when dealing with this curious statement about this statement about flowing water. First is that before the printing press, people quoted by memory, and such quotations tend to be shaped accordingly. Jesus would have been quoting from memory, and perhaps improving the quotation. Many of the famous quotations we use today have been changed to make them more pithy and useful. “Nice guys finish last” was originally “The Nice Guys are over there in seventh place.” It is possible that a similar process happened with this quotation from the Scripture. A second possibility is that this saying was indeed written, but it was written in the Aramaic version of the Scripture used in the synagogues in Galilee. This is a healthy reminder that Jesus used the interpretative translations of his day. A third option is that John was reminding us of his frequent admonition to focus on the spirit of the Scripture and not the literal words.

The Messiah?             So, why were the authorities upset? It wasn’t because Jesus misquoted Isaiah, it was because of his crying out in a festival that has messianic overtones. With the controversy already swirling around Jesus of Nazareth, this cry disturbed the people in the Temple. Some proclaimed that Jesus was the Prophet, who like Moses would lead the people out of oppression. Others shouted that he was the Messiah, the descendent of David who would vanquish the Gentiles and restore the Promised Land to the Chosen People. Jesus himself was almost forgotten as the people debated arcane messianic prophecies.

            In last week’s lesson, people said Jesus couldn’t be the Messiah because no one would know from whence the Messiah would come. Since they knew Jesus was from Nazareth, he couldn’t be the Messiah. Jesus told them that they didn’t know where he was really from. In this week’s lesson, some people raise the opposite objection. Everyone knows the Messiah will come from Bethlehem, the village where David lived. Incidentally, this is why Matthew and Luke say Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem even though he grew up in Nazareth. John does not seem familiar with the idea that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

            Many scholars see these contradictory statements from the crowd as evidence that several different people wrote John’s gospel, but it is likely that John wanted readers to understand that no one really knew what to expect of the Messiah. The confusion and division among the pilgrims at the feast reflected the historical reality that there was confusion and division among the Jews as a whole. No one knew for sure what the Messiah would be like or even where to look for him, so it was not surprising that so many people did not recognize him in the form of a wandering peasant rabbi from Galilee. In John’s Gospel, it is Jesus himself who defines the mission of the Messiah, not the ancient prophecies.

The Failed Arrest:     Last week’s lesson ended with the Sanhedrin sending the Temple Guards to arrest and silence the wandering prophet. In our lesson for this week, they returned empty-handed to their masters. The reason they did not arrest Jesus was not because he was so well armed, or protected by a militia, or because he hid from them. They reported to the priests that they had never heard anyone speak like this before. This is one of those moments that seem so amazing, we doubt the veracity of it. We shouldn’t. We have seen such moments in our recent history. Think of the Eastern German police in Leipzig in 1989 who were sent to arrest protestors carrying candles. Some of them put down their guns and took up candles to join in the protest against a repressive regime. Think of the Russian troops sent to arrest Parliament in the 1990s who refused to obey their masters. The Temple Guards listened to Jesus’ words and began to believe in him. This is the power of truth; the power of words; the power of the Word made flesh. This was the living water that flowed from the Son of Man.

The Accursed Mob:              The priests and the Pharisees were very upset that the Temple Police failed to arrest this self-proclaimed prophet. They were the experts in biblical interpretation and the Law, and they rejected Jesus’ claim to be the source of living water. It was only the ignorant mob that believed in Jesus. Jesus Christ Superstar captures the Pharisee’s response in John quite well: “Tell this mob who sing your song that they are fools and they are wrong. They are accursed. They should disperse.” They were accursed not because they believed in Jesus, but because they were too poor and ignorant to know the Law and follow it. The Pharisees called them the “people of the land.” Today we use words like redneck, hillbilly, homeboy, trailer trash, white trash, poor boy, wet backs, and worse terms to refer to those who have been left out of the centers of power. It is always considered politically correct to insult these people and dismiss them the way the Pharisees did. But these are the people who were thirsty enough to have faith in Jesus. These are the meek who inherit the earth and the humble who are exalted.

Nicodemus:                One member of the Sanhedrin stands up for Jesus against the power brokers. One person reminds the interpreters of the Law that the Law requires them to investigate and let Jesus speak for himself. If you have ever been in the situation of standing up for what is right in a group of your friends, peers, and colleagues, you know how hard this is. Who was the man who stood up for the rule of law when those in power just wanted to crush dissent? Nicodemus, the man who had come to Jesus late one night with questions. This is the evidence that Nicodemus had been born from above: he refused to cooperate tacitly with injustice. If you have been born from above or born again or simply love the Lord: Speak up for truth and justice. 

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