When figurative language fails

A section of the Arkansas river in Buena Vista, CO

Any time I am near a river, the verse that John wrote in his gospel where Jesus said “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink, for as the scripture says ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’ (John 7:38) comes to mind. How can it not? It’s an easy visual: If I seek Jesus, my heart should look like this stream. Right? Full of faith, confidence, joy in God. I am sure for all of us there are days where this might be easier to grasp, and others where it seems near impossible given all that is going on around you.

I wonder if this is even something people think about today.

Are we “thirsty” for something other than what’s trending on the social media platforms, the news feeds, political debates, or any other of the many, many things we can feast on when we are bored, tired, or trying to find something to fill our minds? Even as believers its easy to think that if we can feast on enough of these things, know how to prove ourselves “right” in a debate, or if we ingest enough instagram or blog “tidbits” of scripture that we have drunken living water and had our fill. My tendency is to read, read, bike, read (and snack) and read and bike some more (and snack more). I have to remind myself that even if I am reading books about God, this is not drinking living water either.

Those in Jesus day had heard of God as being “living water” from the prophet Jeremiah. They had heard that one day, living water would flow out from Jerusalem from Zechariah. They had been challenged by Isaiah to come to the waters of God to satisfy their soul. For an agrarian people who desperately needed rain to survive, the reality that God was the one that provided that the water that allowed them to live, I can only imagine this figurative language made sense to them.

What is interesting to me is that this statement is only made in the book of John. No other gospel records this, but let me reassure you: its not because Jesus didn’t really say it, or because the other gospel writers didn’t think it was important. The author of the gospel of John had a completely different core message than the other three (who focused on kingdom, repentance, and God’s fulfillment of his promise). Not that John’s gospel doesn’t address those things, but based on the stories and teachings of Jesus he included, his purpose was more to show the person of Jesus and his existence before time, as well as how he was the same YAHWEH who had been speaking to them all along.

What is even MORE interesting to me is that this claim was made on the last day of the festival of Sukkot, often titled as the “Feast of Tabernacles” in our bibles. The significance of this is crazy. This feast was held in fall after the harvest, and it was one of great celebration that lasted a full week. People came from all over to Jerusalem and built temporary huts to live in, as commanded in Leviticus 23:33-43. They celebrated God’s goodness to them, and sought His blessing on next year’s harvest.

Every day people would come and offer gifts to the Lord, then go back to sleep in their hut. On the last day, traditionally the priest would take a pitcher, march from the temple to the Pool of Siloam (which was fed from the Spring of Gihon), get some fresh water, and then return to the temple. He would stand near the altar and pour out the water as the people would cry and chant “Oh Lord, save us!” Symbolically, it was a cry for deliverance and saving by His provision in the next year of another good harvest.

Imagine for a moment having travelled with your entire family for a few days to get to Jerusalem. You are standing in a crowd of thousands, as you have since your childhood, celebrating the harvest that was harder than usual to reap this year. Yet you come to thank God and honor Him. You join with others, praying for rain for the next years crop and crying out for God to save you as a people, since you were living under an oppressive regime. Imagine watching this water being poured out…. and then a man you do not know stands up and says these words:

If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink, for as the scripture says ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’”

I wonder if I would have been curious as to what he meant, or brushed it over and ignored it? It helps sometimes to listen to how the original language draws a picture for us.

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In Greek, the word for thirst, when used figuratively means “those who painfully feel their want of, and eagerly long for, those things by which the soul is refreshed, supported, strengthened”

Likewise, the word for drink, when used figuratively, means “to receive into the soul what serves to refresh, strengthen, nourish it unto life” (Blueletterbible.org)

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In other words, what Jesus was saying is this: Those who need support and strength. Those who long for life giving stuff in their innermost being (often translated ‘heart’)… come and get it. I am the one that can deliver what you are looking for.

This is text we have to wrestle with today, my friends, because it’s just as applicable for us as it was the day it was spoken.

Do we recognize the thirst in our own lives, so that we can see the thirst of others? Are we letting OUR thirst be quenched by the very Spirit of God that was promised, or are we letting ourselves be dulled by the things of life that distract, or perhaps things in our past that tell us this water isn’t enough, it’s too low, it’s unpredictable, it’s unsafe?

I suspect that many of you who have been believers for a while have a complicated relationship with an understanding of the Holy Spirit, perhaps due to church stuff. But when we look back at scripture, it is this very Spirit that is to breathe on us, into us, just like the disciples, to BE the people of God. We need this living water just as much as people did when Jesus first spoke those words.

It is the Spirit that enables us to press on in loving our kids and families and neighbors …. that wound us, reject us, misunderstand us.

It is the Spirit that enables us to believe that God exists and moreover, He hasn’t stopped pursuing the broken people of this world…..including us.

It is the Spirit that will continue to lead us into truth – about ourselves, our world, and the church. It is the Spirit that will show us how to move forward so that we are aligned to Jesus and His mission, not ours – regardless of the political landscape.

It is the Spirit that will expose our motives, our weaknesses, our obsession with self, until we understand that only in being broken and poured out is the life of Christ revealed in us to a world that needs to know there is hope for them as well.

So as the summer starts and (hopefully) we can all get outside more and do the things we have been missing for a while – don’t forget to take time to drink in the Spirit of God and let Him refresh you… so that rivers of living water will pour out of YOU.

Blessing, my friends!