Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.  This is the day that the Christian Church around the world celebrates Pentecost, known among Jews as Shavuot (Festival of Weeks), the day on which God poured out his Holy Spirit upon the disciples of Jesus with tongues of fire and a mighty, rushing wind.  Fire and wind are typical theophanies—or manifestations of God’s presence—throughout the Old Testament.  But what about water?  Do you normally associate water with the Holy Spirit?

Jesus does in our Gospel reading:

“On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”’ Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:37-39, ESV).[1]


The Gospel reading from John 7 also mentions an important festival, but it’s not Pentecost.  Instead it is the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths), known among the Jews as Sukkot (cf. 7:2).

Sukkot was a harvest festival and one of three that all Jewish males were supposed to celebrate at the Lord’s Temple in Jerusalem.  Sukkot lasted for a week, during which the celebrants were required to sleep outdoors in tents or “tabernacles” (AKA “booths”).  This recalled the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness after the Exodus, the time in which God provided for his people’s needs with daily manna and water from the rock.  They had no permanent home during those 40 years, so they lived in tents and drank water from the rock which followed them (1 Cor. 10:4).  (Aside: I guess that’s what you call a “rolling stone.”)

You cannot live without water.  It is the essential molecule for life to exist.  That is why in their search for life on other planets, astronomers immediately set about searching for signs of water on those planets.  No water, no life.  The human body can survive for weeks without food.  But you cannot go more than about three days without water.  In a hot desert region like the Sinai wilderness, you can barely last two days.

Thus, water was an important symbol and theme of Sukkot.  According to an ancient tradition, on final (seventh) day of the festival, the high priest would take a golden chalice and walk in procession with the pilgrim throng from the temple to the Pool of Siloam.  There he would fill the cup with fresh spring water from the Pool and then lead the worshipers back to the Temple, where, amidst the joyful shouts of the Jewish faithful, the high priest would pour the water into a silver funnel that would mix with the drink offering at the base of the altar with its burning coals and smell of animal sacrifices.  There were other elements of this celebration, including palm branches and the chanting of the Great Hallel (Psalms 113-118), but it is this water rite that is most relevant for our Gospel.

So it is in this context of Feast of Booths (Sukkot)—“the last day of the feast, the great day (7:37)—that Jesus stood up and made his bold declaration: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-38).  Here Jesus pointed to himself as a greater source of water than the old Jewish ceremonies are any earthly spring.  Jesus was the ultimate source of living water.

Earlier in John 4, Jesus had said something similar to the Samaritan woman by the well: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10).

Of course, she scoffed at him and said, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” (4:11).

Jesus answered: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.  The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:13-14).  (You can picture the same image here in John 4 that Jesus uses in John 7).

The woman’s response to Jesus is simple: “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water” (4:15).  We don’t know if this was a heartfelt plea or a cynic’s sarcastic quip.  But if you read the rest of John 4, you soon realize that Jesus eventually does give her living water, and she drinks long and deep.

What does Jesus mean by living water?  Actually, “living water” was a common phrase in the ancient world.  Living water was flowing water from a spring or river—as opposed to still water in a cistern.  Living water was more healthful, full of more oxygen and nutrients, less likely to taste sterile or become polluted by dead things falling into it.  Living water was cool and refreshing!  (Aside: Even today, survivalists tell us that if you are lost in the woods, you should never drink water from a puddle or pond except as a last resort.  Water from a creek or river is what you want to drink.)

Yet when Jesus speaks of living water in John’s Gospel, he’s obviously not talking about a literal river.  That is why the apostle offers, by way of explanation, “Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (7:39).

Jesus uses water as a symbol of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit had not yet been given on Pentecost.  Not until after Jesus’ glorification—his death, resurrection, and ascension—would he send the Spirit.  Of course, this does not mean that the Holy Spirit did not exist prior to Pentecost.  He is one of the three eternal persons of the Trinity, along with the Father and the Son.  And by the way, yes, the Holy Spirit is a “he,” not an “it” or a “she.”  He is a person, not an impersonal “force” like the Star Wars movies.  And even though the Greek word for spirit, pneuma, is a neuter noun, Jesus and Paul still use masculine pronouns when referring to the Spirit.[2]  God has defined his pronouns in Scripture.  God is a “he/him,” not an “it” or “she/her.”  So don’t misgender God.  That would be very rude, one might even say, blasphemous.

The Spirit had not yet been given.  Again, this doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit didn’t exist.  From eternity, the Holy Spirit has danced in perfect rhythm with the Father and the Son.  He was there at the beginning of creation, hovering over the face of the waters (Gen. 1:1-2).  Throughout the book of Judges, the Spirit of Yahweh, or Spirit of the LORD, rushed upon various saviors God raised up to rescue his people, thus empowering them to do mighty tasks.  But the Spirit did not remain on his people.  He came and went.  The 70 elders of Israel in today’s reading from Numbers 11 only prophesied the one time.  David prayed in Psalm 51 that God would not take away the Holy Spirit from him.

Not until the coming of John the Baptist and Jesus did the Holy Spirit remain with his people (Luke 1:15, 35).  At Jesus’ Baptism, John saw the Spirit descend on Jesus and remain upon him (John 1:33).

Yet now, ever since the outpouring on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit remains upon us—and in us.  Next week on Trinity Sunday, we will hear the rest of Peter’s sermon on Pentecost: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is for you and for your children…” (Acts 2:38-39).  When we are baptized, the Holy Spirit gives us faith to believe in Jesus, and we are saved (cp. 1 Pet.3:21).  Through water and the Word, God pours out his Holy Spirit into our hearts, and we are born again.  “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Tit. 3:5-6).  The apostle Paul reminds us, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16).  Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19).  He lives in us, remains in us, dwells in us in a holy and wonderful and powerful way.

But before the coming of the Spirit into our hearts, we are dead and dry—like Ezekiel’s famous valley of dry bones (Ezek. 37:1ff).  We are withered and dried up because of sin (Ezek. 37:11).  We are like dead branches that bear no fruit and are good for nothing except to be cast into the fire and burned up (John 15:6).  Like the woman by the well, we are full of spiritual thirst and longing, because God has set eternity in our hearts, but we have nothing but muddy water from which to drink until the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection comes into our ears.  We need living water—the Holy Spirit—which only Christ can give us.

Whenever we believe and are baptized, the Holy Spirit fills us and springs up in us like a bubbling brook.  Jesus says that living water will flow out of us, which means that we ourselves become a blessing and a source of the Spirit’s working in the lives of others.  “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture says, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:38).

Jesus’ statement is a difficult one.  No one verse of the Old Testament says precisely what he states, although there are verses with similar themes.  For example:

  • “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3).
  • “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23).
  • “And the LORD will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail” (Isaiah 58:11).


Do not forget Ezekiel’s vision in chapter 47, in which a river of water flows out of the Temple, bringing life wherever it flows.  Thus, Jesus’ statement, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water,” appears to be a summary or application of other Old Testament passages.

But the point is this: once you believe in Jesus and his Word, once you are washed in the waters of Holy Baptism, once you drink deep from the living water Jesus gives, you will never be thirsty again—and you will never want to drink from any other source again.  The Spirit will transform you.  “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation…” (2 Cor. 5:17).  You are no longer dried up.  Your life is a fountain gushing out the good stuff that God wants to give to the people around you.  The Holy Spirit dwells in you—and streams out from you.  And that is a marvelous thing.  In the name of the Father and of T the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[1] All Scripture references, unless otherwise indicated, are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

[2] See the use of the masculine demonstrative pronoun, ekeinos, for example, in John 14:26 and 15:26.