Jesus had started to lose his popularity by the time he shouted on the last day of a feast,
If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water (John 7:37-38, MEV).
Those who heard him contented themselves with debating who he was. But what did he mean?
John explains, “By this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believe in Him would receive. For the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (v. 39).
But we can’t stop there in unpacking the meaning. Jesus spoke of what Scripture said. And he specified rivers. What scriptures could he have meant? And what are rivers for?
Living water and its source
In Zechariah 14:8 we read,
On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half to the Dead Sea and the other half to the Mediterranean Sea. This will happen for the summer as well as the winter.
“That day” in the Old Testament always means the Day of the Lord. It will begin with darkness and terror as God pours out his wrath. It will end with an even greater outpouring of his grace.
Jerusalem sits on a mountain top. A spring supplied its drinking water, but that’s not the source of the living water.
Joel 3:18 says, “And it will be that in that day the mountains will drip sweet wine, and the hills will flow with milk, and all the streambeds of Judah will flow with water; a spring will proceed from the house of the Lord and will water the Valley of Shittim.”
The water comes from the temple and flows to a valley identifiable as a dry riverbed that leads into the Dead Sea. So Joel means the same stream as one of the ones in Zechariah.
Ezekiel 47:1-12 gives the most detailed description. He saw a trickle of water flowing eastward from the south side of the altar. It must have started from the most holy place, which Ezekiel couldn’t enter.
His angelic guide led him to the eastern gate of the temple. God’s glory had reentered this new temple through the eastern gate, so it was the holiest place on the temple perimeter.
Ezekiel stepped into the stream 1000 long cubits (about a third of a mile) from the gate, and it was ankle deep. Another 1000 cubits from the temple, it came to his waist, and another 1000 cubits farther it was too deep for him to walk across.
A natural river starts small and grows as tributaries flow into it. This supernatural river grows because God intends it to. This living water flows to the Dead Sea and heals it.
The sea becomes fresh water and a home for fish. But it doesn’t get any bigger. The surrounding marshes remain salty. A boon for fishermen does not deprive salt miners of their livelihood!
Some other Old Testament references to living water
- There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy dwelling place of the Most High (Psalm 46:4).
- You visit the earth, and water it; You enrich it with the river of God, which is full of water; You prepare their grain, for thus You have established it (Psalm 65:9).
- Therefore with joy you shall draw water out of the wells of salvation (Isaiah 12:3).
- But there the glorious Lord will be to us a place of broad rivers and streams on which no boat with oars shall go and on which no gallant ship shall pass (Isaiah 33:21)
Although Jesus couldn’t have had Revelation 22:1-5 in mind, it describes the same river as Ezekiel. Called the river of the water of life, it flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb. It recalls the four rivers of Eden, because the Tree of Life grows on its banks.
The meaning of rivers and water
Palestine enjoys a long rainy season that soaks the ground. Its land, largely limestone, is too porous to maintain rivers year round.
It has many channels that carry torrents of water when it rains, and then dry up.
Figuratively, “river” and “water” in Scripture frequently symbolize the abundance of God’s grace, which never runs dry.
References to rivers drying up represent his judgment.
We must have water to drink in order to live. With no permanent rivers, Palestinians depended on wells and cisterns.
Jesus, traveling through Samaria, stopped at a well and asked a Samaritan woman for a drink. She thought it a strange request, considering that Jews and Samaritans had no dealings with each other. But he visited that well specifically so he could offer her “a well of water springing up into eternal life” (John 4:14).
Although he doesn’t use the term “living water” until the passage from John 7 quoted earlier, he clearly has it in mind. Water from the well will assuage thirst temporarily. Living water will remove it entirely.
We not only drink water, we wash with it. All the ceremonial cleansings of the Old Testament require water. And like the drinking water, it had only a temporary effect.
Living water, by which Jesus meant the Holy Spirit, cleanses permanently.
Whether for drinking, washing, or swimming, water refreshes. How much more does the Holy Spirit refresh!
Jesus sent the Holy Spirit, the living water, to refresh us. Let us drink deeply, wash thoroughly, and enjoy the refreshment. Let us soak it up like a thirsty sponge.
But don’t stop there. We are the temple of God, both as a church (2 Corinthians 6:16) and as individual members (1 Corinthians 6:19). We soak up living water so that rivers of it will flow from us to a thirsty world.
Dan River. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Dead Sea. Some rights reserved by Israel Tourism. Link to Flickr no longer works
River of life. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons