37 On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” 39 By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.
40 On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.”
41 Others said, “He is the Messiah.” Still others asked, “How can the Messiah come from Galilee?42 Does not Scripture say that the Messiah will come from David’s descendants and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?” 43 Thus the people were divided because of Jesus. 44 Some wanted to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him.
Jesus continues his dialogue in the Jerusalem Temple at the Feast of Tabernacles. This festival commemorated God’s provision of manna and water during the exodus. It is hard to imagine the scale of this original mass migration through the Arabian desert, with Moses at the head of 600,000 people, along with their flocks and herds. Their need for constant supplies of water must have been huge. Their experience of thirst must have, at times, been acute. But God provided for them– often miraculously (see Exodus 17:1-7).
And so on the last and greatest day of the Festival of Tabernacles, the day on which there was a particular ritual focussed on water, Jesus declares that he will provide water to all who come to him. Echoing the words of Isaiah 55:1-2, Jesus invites everyone to come to him and receive water without limit. In fact, he says, rivers of living water will overflow out from them.
Whatever the water ritual conveyed on that final day of the festival, John makes it clear that Jesus was referring not to physical water but to the giving of the Holy Spirit after his resurrection and ascension. This fulfilment was only only understood by the apostle afterwards. Other examples of this enlightened reflection occur in John 2:22; 12:16.
The life given by the Holy Spirit is continually renewing and refreshing– like a flowing river rather than a stagnant pond with finite reserves. Isaiah 58:11 likens God’s action in and for his people to “a well-watered garden in sun-scorched land, like a spring whose waters never fail.” Indeed, the life giving power of the Spirit is pictured in Ezekiel 47 as a river flowing outwards from the Temple. Similarly, the prophet Zechariah describes a day when, “living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half of it east to the Dead Sea and half of it west to the Mediterranean Sea, in summer and in winter. The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name.” (Zech 14:8-9).
So Jesus’ declaration that he will give water to all who come to him refers to the abundant and ever-lasting life given by the Holy Spirit. The risen Christ, now glorified, gives the Spirit freely. Anyone who is spiritually thirsty should come to him and drink.
Lord Jesus, I am thirsty. Please continually give me your Spirit, that I might live. Amen.