Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 3, Number 42, October 15 to October 21, 2001


A Sermon on John 7:37-39

by Rev. Russell B. Smith

From the constant flow of attachments and forwards to my email account, here's the latest. "After church on Sunday morning, a young boy suddenly announced to his mother, ‘Mom, I've decided to become a minister when I grow up.' ‘That's wonderful, son, but what made you decide that?' ‘Well,' replied the boy, ‘I have to go to church on Sunday, and I figure it will be more fun to stand up and yell than sit and listen.'"

After the past few weeks, it feels good to laugh. We've needed laughter after what happened in our country. Laughter releases pent up energy; it refreshes the heart. John 7:37-39 talks about a more profound kind of refreshment — the refreshing presence of the Holy Spirit.

Remember that chapter 7 of John's gospel takes place in Jerusalem during the feast of Tabernacles. In the first part of chapter 7 (1-13), we saw number of people misinterpret Jesus' role — the advisors, the despisers, and the admirers. Then in the middle section (14-36), we saw that Jesus, as a truth teller, upset the authorities by challenging them to stop looking at resumes and start questioning their assumptions and expanding their horizons. In today's passage, we see all of these themes reiterated. We see the conflicting opinions of the crowds. We see the opposition of the leaders. We even see the return of Nicodemus — Remember him from chapter 3? He was the member of the Sanhedrin who conversed privately with Jesus after he had disrupted the temple. He was the man to whom Jesus said, "Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God." Clearly, Jesus' words have had some impact on Nicodemus, because here he is again, defending Jesus against unjust accusation.

Because there is so much repetition in this passage, we will focus our attention on verses 37-39, where Jesus says, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him." Even this is repetitious — To the woman at the well, Jesus says, "…. Whoever drinks of the water I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life." If this is indeed repetitious, what does this passage add to our understanding of Jesus?

First, note the context here has changed. When Jesus spoke to the woman at the well, he was having a private conversation with a despised Gentile. Here we have Jesus speaking publicly in the temple on the most crowded day of the most popular feast of Israel. Jesus has taken a very direct and public stand. He calls the assembled body of Israel to come and follow him. There is no wishy-washiness here. Jesus uses no slick. Jesus is not being remotely seeker sensitive here. He issues the call, "Are you thirsty? Come and drink!" Do you desire satisfaction? Come and Drink! Are you burdened by the bad things you've done? Come and Drink! Are you weighed down by the struggles of life? Come and Drink! Jesus calls and leaves us to consider our response. Jesus calls, and something stirs within us to say, "There's something right about that man", and not fully understanding, we follow. Jesus calls, and we follow, knowing that understanding will come.

What is this living water that Jesus talks about? The passage explains it for us — the Holy Spirit. Verse 39 goes on to explain that the predicted New Covenant overflow of Holy Spirit had not yet been given. We know the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. Later on in chapters 14-16, Jesus talks extensively about the Holy Spirit and what the Holy Spirit will do for us. But here, it is important to pause and consider what this water imagery tells us about the Holy Spirit. We will also find that the

  • Holy Spirit gives us understanding, the
  • Holy Spirit gives us satisfaction, and the
  • Holy Spirit enables us to be a blessing to others.

To help us see these points, a history lesson is in order. Verse 37 tells us that Jesus makes this pronouncement on the last and greatest day of the feast. It is important to realize that a part of the celebration of this feast was a daily water ritual.

Each day of the feast, the Levites would proceed down to the pool of Siloam, on the other side of the city. There they would fill a golden cup with water from the pool. The High Priest would then lead a processional through the city streets back to the temple. As the group approached the Water Gate on the south side of the temple, a Levite on the walls would issue three loud blasts on the Shophar, the ram's horn trumpet used in religious ceremonies.

Once inside the temple, the priests would bear the cup around the altar while the temple choir sang the Hallel, Psalms 113-118. Probably all the observing crowd would join in the singing. When the choir began to sing Psalm 118, all the males in the crowd shook a bundle of branches in one hand and in the other, raised a citrus fruit, symbolizing the harvest. Everyone shouted, "Give thanks to the Lord" three times, and then the water was offered to God along with the regular morning offering of wine.

This elaborate water ritual reminded the Israelites of two things. First, it cast their mind back to God's provision of water in the desert. Since the feast of tabernacles commemorated Israel's wandering in the desert, this is an appropriate use of the image. The other reminder this water ritual signified was Israel's future. The river of life is a prophetic image. Zechariah 13:1 gives the picture of the fountain purifying from sin.

Ezekiel 47:1-11, taking place in the extended picture of the end times glory of Israel, shows a river coming out of the temple, giving life to the whole land. So when Jesus stands up in the middle of the festival and makes his pronouncement, he claims that he will make available not only the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit, but also the power that provides for ultimate cleansing and satisfaction. Jesus says that the end times are beginning now, at this moment, where he stands. There's a lot of talk about the end times — when will the end of time come?

What will this look like? Are we living in the end times? Jesus, in this statement, announces the coming of the end times. Jesus in his life, death, resurrection and ascension inaugurated the end times. The end times are the age of the Holy Spirit, where the Holy Spirit moves powerfully in all the faithful. This is the picture Joel sees in Joel 2:28 when he says, "I will pour out my Spirit upon all people." This is what Jeremiah imagines in chapter 31 of his book when speaking for God, he states "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor or a man his brother, saying, "know the Lord" because they all will know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord."

So if we are living in the end times, the age of the Holy Spirit, what does this mean for us? First of all, it means that we have understanding. The Holy Spirit is, first of all, a spirit of truth. You may say "But pastor, there are so many things I don't understand. Why does God allow evil things to happen? Why are there so many differences in Christian belief?" By understanding, I don't mean that we have comprehensive answers to every question. There will be many questions that elude us.

By understanding, I mean that we are equipped to perceive the moral and spiritual framework of the universe. We are able to know God and who He is, and who we are, and that there is a vast difference that must be bridged by an intermediary. We are able to know that there are moral absolutes that are founded upon God's character. We are able to know that we live not for ourselves, but for the service that has been given to us by God. This understanding of the framework of the universe impacts everything else we do.

The Holy Spirit also gives us satisfaction. Not satisfaction by humanistic standards, but the satisfaction of having a meaning and purpose of life. I know so many people out there who are bored to death. They churn through life halfheartedly, looking for the next distraction to divert their attention from the fact that their existence is devoid of meaning. But when you have the Holy Spirit, you have no excuse to be bored. The Holy Spirit opens up the instruction manual for you so you can get busy about the work to which you have been called. That doesn't mean that life will be easy, of course. There will even be times where you're overwhelmed and you distract yourself from the purpose that has been laid upon you. But the indwelling Holy Spirit is always nudging us on to that greater purpose of being worshipers of the Almighty God in all that we say and do.

Finally, not only does the Holy Spirit give understanding and satisfaction, but also the Holy Spirit enables us to be a blessing to others. As we understand the moral framework of the universe and our place within it, we start to live our lives as lives of love empowered by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit enables us to bless other people. The streams of living water flow out from us into other lives. The Ezekiel passage we quoted earlier gave the right image — the stream ends up flowing down to a great sea that nourishes life. It's not anything we do, but the Holy Spirit overflowing through our lives into the lives of others. Do we bless others in order to win praise or in order convince anyone that Christianity is true? No. We bless others because it is a natural outgrowth of whom Christ is making us to be.

With this Old Testament background of "living water", we see the Holy Spirit works within us to give understanding, satisfaction, and the capacity to be a blessing. The Holy Spirit does much more than that, but those roles are explained in other parts of Scripture that don't have this stream-like imagery. The way to access that water springing up from within is through faith. If you want this abundance, this good life of understanding, satisfaction, and blessing others, then I suggest you begin with prayer. Pray to Jesus, asking for faith in him. Place everything in his hands. Tell Jesus that you are going to live all for him and less for you. I know that most of you have prayed that prayer long ago, but we all have to renew that commitment on a regular basis. I invite you to join me as I pray:

Jesus, we confess that you alone are Lord over all creation. You call us to come and partake of the abundant life you offer. Today, Lord, we renew our commitment to you. We want you to rule over every aspect of our lives. Pour out your Holy Spirit anew, we pray. Let your Holy Spirit fill us so that we may understand your truth, that we may be satisfied with your calling, and that we may be instruments of your blessing. May your name be glorified in all that we do. Amen.