Wind over the water

Spirit Poured out in Living Water — John 7:37-39; 15:26-27; 16:12-15

Kathleen Rushton traces the images of water and light in the Johannine Pentecost readings - John 7:37-39 and John 15:26-27; 16:12-15 or 20:19-23 - as symbols of the pouring of the Spirit.

We had followed the path to the source of the north branch of the Riwaka River where water emerges from the rock via a cave, into a deep, clear, astonishingly beautiful, spring-fed pool. Towering above us were huge moss-covered rocks that had tumbled down the Tākaka Hill perhaps thousands of years ago. Below us was Te Puna o Riwaka. This wāhi tapu or sacred place of the people of Te Ātiawa and Ngāti Rārua has special mana or status, for from here springs waiora, the waters of life. For generations this has been a place of healing. If what can be seen filled me with awe so does what cannot be seen.

Ross McDonald, aged 83, one of five divers who first charted what lies beyond the spring and was among those gathered in 2013 to mark the 50th anniversary of their historic dive, described what they found.

After descending into the pool the divers entered a hole, swam about 30 metres, rounded a corner, surfaced, climbed up a waterfall and dived down again to swim a further 50 metres. Reaching a ledge, they climbed up into a huge cathedral-like space about 30 metres in diameter and 6-7 storeys high. Then they plunged through waist-high water until after about 40 metres the cavern narrowed into tiny unpassable passages. Beyond that spot, cavers starting from an undisclosed place, may enter the larger cavern ahead through a dry entrance.

Water flows out

Rock, spring, source, water flowing, what is unseen … evoke a favourite passage in John’s gospel — the mysterious verses of Jn 7:37-39. Traditional interpretation, such as the Jerusalem Bible, translates Jn 7:38 as if the believer is the source of living water. Another possible translation, called the christological interpretation, sees the living water as flowing from within Jesus.

If we interpret the water symbol within the twofold pattern of symbols in John’s gospel, the first level of meaning concerns Jesus and the second level concerns disciples. For example: “I am the light of the world” (Jn 8:12), applies to Jesus and then follows something about disciples: “Whoever follows me … will have the light of life.”

Festival of tabernacles

Rich symbolism surrounds the Festival of Tabernacles (in Hebrew, sukkoth; in English, shelters, booths, tabernacles or huts). During the Festival time people slept and ate in small, flimsy huts in memory of the forty years the Israelites lived in tents in the wilderness. There is also a special relationship to the Temple in Jerusalem at this time because the dedication of the first Temple built by Solomon took place at Tabernacles (1 Kings 8:2). The natural world and the agricultural rhythm of life were integral as this Festival was celebrated in the northern autumn (September-October) with celebrations which accompanied the grape and olive harvests.

Prayers were offered for winter rains (water), so necessary for fertile crops the following year, and for the renewal of sunlight (light).

If early rain fell during this time, it was regarded as an assurance that God would send abundant rain. This hope was acted out in a solemn ceremony. On the seven mornings of the Festival, a procession set out for nearby temple hill and the fountain of Gihon, the source of the Pool of Siloam. A priest filled a golden pitcher with water while a choir repeated: “With joy you shall draw water from the wells of salvation.” (Is 12:3) The procession returned to the temple through the Water Gate accompanied by crowds carrying Festival symbols: in their right hand twigs tied with a palm (representing branches used to build the huts) and in their left hand symbols of the harvest. Once in the Temple, the priest poured the water into a special funnel from where it flowed into the ground.

Jesus was in Galilee near the time of the Festival of Tabernacles (Jn 7:2). In the middle of the celebrations he went up to the temple and taught (Jn 7:14); he cried out as he taught there (Jn 7:28) and he cried again proclaiming: “If anyone thirsts …” (Jn 7:37). Jesus said to them: “I am the light of the world.”(Jn 8:12). He was teaching in the treasury of the temple (Jn 8:20) and went out of the temple (Jn 8:59). So the Temple and Tabernacles, with its symbolism of water and light, are the background for Jn 7:1-8:59.

Living water

On the last day of the Festival, Jesus cried out: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me.” The imagery of thirst as longing for God is well known (Psalms 42:1-2 and 63:1). In Jn 7:38 translations use “heart” or “side” or “breast” for koila but it means literally “out of his belly”. For Hebrews, the belly was the seat of deep human emotions.

Depicting Jesus as the giver of living water (Jn 4:13-14) and as the rock (Jn 19:34) recalls a whole series of Old Testament images. From the rock God gives water to the people in the desert (Ex 17:6; Psalm 105:41). Water comes out of the Temple (Ezekiel 47:1-12) and heals the holy land. Living water comes out of Jerusalem, the holy city, and heals the whole earth (Zechariah 14:6-11). Against this background, Jesus “cried out” claiming to be the life-nurturing living water for which the pilgrims prayed. He stood and cried out (Jn 7:37) as Wisdom in Proverbs stands and sings out her invitation (Proverbs 1:20 and Proverbs 8:2-3).

Spirit pouring as living water

The gift of the Holy Spirit poured out is identified with “rivers of living water” to be received by believers in Jesus. At this stage in the gospel, however, they were not yet ready because Jesus had not been glorified (Jn 7:39). The Baptist reported that Jesus had received the Spirit already (Jn 1:32-33). Jesus had assured the woman of Samaria that the hour for “worship in spirit and truth” was already at hand (Jn 4:23-24). In the farewell discourses, Jesus promises the Spirit (Jn 15:26-27, 16:12-15) which is given when “he bowed his head and handed over the Spirit” (Jn 19:30) to the women and the beloved disciple near the cross. When water flowed from the pierced side of Jesus on the cross it evoked the “rivers of living water” flowing from the rock. Jesus was giving birth to the new people of God, the Church. Re-creation continues when later Jesus “breathed on them” saying: “Receive the Holy Spirit” (For Jn 20:22 see Tui Motu April 2015).

The imagery of springs of living water flowing from the rock leads deeply into the mystery of Jesus who gives the Spirit. Living water is necessary to sustain all forms of life in Papatūānuku, Earth. As theologian Linda Gibler says: 

“Creation is water-drenched. All living beings on Earth are born of water — in oceans or ponds, within eggs, seeds or wombs.” 

 Every river has its mauri or life force. Māori people identify with their local river. Rivers link with the ancestors.

How does the gift of the Spirit, imaged as the pouring out of “rivers of living water”, inspire Christians to live in ways which value the vital gift of water? And how might Christians understand water as a symbol of their longing for God and as free gift — endangered and yet necessary to sustain all life?

Published in Tui Motu InterIslands May 2015.