IN AGRICULTURAL SOCIETIES the end of the harvest means that the workers could relax, celebrate and give thanks. In Judaism this is marked by the Feast of Sukkoth (tents or tabernacles), which celebrates God as the One who provided for the Israelites in the wilderness and who continues to provide for His people to this day. While the Temple stood, Sukkoth was one of the “pilgrimage feasts,” occasions when Jews were expected to visit Jerusalem and make their offerings at the temple.
One of the ceremonies performed daily in the temple during this feast celebrated how God provided water in the desert for the Israelites fleeing Egypt. A golden decanter of spring water would be brought in a joyful procession from the Pool of Siloam to the temple and poured by a priest into a precious vessel which drained over the altar.
This ceremony was accompanied by prayers for a fertile year ahead. People also prayed for the coming of the Messiah for, as Isaiah prophesied, on that day “with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3). What a shock it must have been to the fervent Jews taking part in this ceremony to see Jesus call attention to Himself: “On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying,‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink…’” (John 12:37). As God had provided water in the wilderness, so Jesus would quench the thirst of those seeking salvation. As we sing on the Feast of Mid-Pentecost, “As a river of divine glory, the Lord gives streams of goodness to all and calls out: ‘All who thirst, come to Me and drink deeply, because I am the Fountain of compassion and the Ocean of mercy’” (Sticheron at Vespers).
Rivers of Living Water
Jesus’ next words would have been even more startling: “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (v. 38). Water was never abundant in the Middle East; nevertheless, both Jews and Christians emphasized that for religious purposes fresh, running (“living”) water was the most fitting image, as standing water was not life-giving. Thus the first-century book of Church order, the Didache, instructs: “After the foregoing instructions, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living [running] water. If you have no living water, then baptize in other water, and if you are not able in cold, then in warm. If you have neither, pour water three times on the head, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Didache 7:1).
In our era people used to Biblical citations assume that the Lord Jesus is quoting some Scripture verse in v. 38 cited above. But, as St John Chrysostom and other Fathers pointed out, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” is not a verse from any Biblical book. Rather the Lord is referring to a whole range of Scriptures which make numerous references to the Messiah as the source of the life-giving Spirit.
During the exodus from Egypt Moses brought forth water from a rock at God’s command, an event remembered and celebrated in both the Torah and the Psalms. St Paul would say that this was the Word of God, even before His incarnation, who was caring for his people: “For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4).
The prophets Isaiah, Joel, Ezekiel and Zechariah all looked forward to the Messianic age when rivers of living water would spring forth from the temple or from the Holy City to water all creation. Isaiah in particular connected this flowing of water with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit: “For I will pour water on him who is thirsty, and floods on the dry ground; I will pour My Spirit on your descendants, and My blessing on your offspring” (Isaiah 44:2, 3). “You shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail” (Isaiah 58:11).
The water that quenches the thirst of the people is the Holy Spirit whom the Lord Jesus, the source of the Holy Spirit, sends into the world. This is what Christ says to the people in the temple, just as He told the Samaritan woman whom He met by the well at Sychar: “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst” (John 4:13, 14).
Are You Thirsty?
There is one final element in Christ’s teaching here on which we must reflect. Water quenches the thirst of those who are thirsty; those who are not thirsty will not appreciate it. Similarly the Living Water which is the Holy Spirit is for those who are thirsty (see John 7:37) and are tired from trying to quench their thirst with brackish water (see John 4:13-15). When the Holy Spirit came upon the first followers of the risen Christ at Pentecost, they were refreshed because they were thirsty: they had been waiting for the Messiah and had found Him in Jesus. Those who were not thirsty were untouched by the Spirit or, rather, the Spirit convicted them for their lack of faith in the present work of God.
Taking the Spirit for Granted
There is always a temptation for us to celebrate Pascha and Pentecost with all the richness our Tradition has to offer and then to go back to our daily routines, assuming that we are living the life of the Spirit to the full. Russian theologian Paul Evdokimov described it this way: “We have become mere spectators or hearers removed from the context, the life and the presences evoked by the liturgical texts. In one of his studies on the Liturgy, Fr. Zacharias mentions the song that ends the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, ‘We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit,’ and he asks: ‘Have we really seen anything? Did we really receive the Holy Spirit? Or have we fallen into the habit of acting like the characters in Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes by pretending to see what we do not see?’” (Women and the Salvation of the World, p. 15)
To help us stir up our awareness of the Spirit who dwells in us, the Church takes us from the festal season to a time of fasting, the Fast of the Apostles. All the Fasts are meant to shift our focus from the distractions of everyday life to the relationship we have with God. Shifting our attention from feasting to fasting, the Church is asking us the same question which St Paul asked the Corinthians: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16) Through the practices of the Fast (prayer, fasting, and almsgiving) – which are the basic practices of the Christian life – we strive to recover our awareness that we have indeed received the heavenly Spirit. As we grow in our Christian life, the promise Christ made to the Samaritan woman will become personally true for us: that the Holy Spirit whom we have received will become in us “a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4: 14).
He stood in the center of the temple, the infinite God – God in essence, yet become incarnate for our sakes, taking upon Himself the limits of the flesh – and offered to everyone the living water of His word, saying: Come, and purify your hearts and quench the heat of your passions. Let no one be deprived of drink. The water that I give is the grace of God by which you partake of the better and eternal life. Whoever drinks of it will share with Me, the Creator, the kingdom and the glory of God.