On that day life-giving waters will flow out from Jerusalem, half toward the Dead Sea and half toward the Mediterranean, flowing continuously in both summer and winter. And the Lord will be king over all the earth. On that day there will be one Lord—his name alone will be worshiped. [Zechariah 14:8-9 (NLT)]
Is anyone thirsty? Come and drink—even if you have no money! Come, take your choice of wine or milk—it’s all free! … Seek the Lord while you can find him. Call on him now while he is near. [Isaiah 55:1,6 (NLT)]
Living in a country where clean water readily flows out of a faucet, we don’t fully understand the concept of “living water” or mayim chaim. Ancient Israel was an arid land where fresh water was precious. Because it only rained a few months of the year, rain was stored in cisterns and grew stagnant. In contrast, living water came directly from God either by rain or a natural spring. Unlike sea water and the hypersaline Dead Sea, which looked refreshing but were poisonous and made the surrounding land barren, mayim chaim brought life. Throughout Scripture, “living water” was associated with God.
During the harvest festival of the Feast of Booths (Hag Sukkot), the Jews were called to remember God’s providential care for them during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness before coming to the Promised Land. God commanded Israel to observe this festival by leaving their homes and living in temporary shelters (sukkot) as they had done during the exodus.
By the time of Jesus, several rituals had been added to enrich the celebration. As a way of remembering the water God supplied when Moses struck the rock with his staff, the Hoshana Rabbah (meaning “please save”) was performed on the last day of the feast. With great ceremony, the priests filled a golden container with water from the pool of Siloam, brought it to the Temple, and circled the altar seven times. Prophecies from Ezekiel 47 and Zechariah 14 were read and, after three trumpet blasts, the priests poured out the water. The water spilling onto the ground signified God’s salvation through water and the prophets’ promises that, in the time of restoration, rivers of living water would flow from the temple and Jerusalem. As the water poured down, words from Psalm 18:25-26 were chanted: “Please Lord, save us …. Bless the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
It was on the last day of Sukkot, when the courts of the Temple would have been packed with people, that Jesus stood and shouted to the crowds: “Anyone who is thirsty may come to me! Anyone who believes in me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.’”[John 7:37-38] Whether Jesus spoke while the priests poured out the water, during the chanting of “Save Us,” or while people dismantled their shelters, we don’t know but the connection between this ceremony and Jesus’ declaration that He was the living water caused a tremendous disturbance. Referring to the Spirit and eternal life rather than drinking water, Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah.
Some of those who heard Jesus’s words thought Him to be the Messiah. Others, knowing the prophecies but not knowing His birthplace, argued Jesus couldn’t be the Messiah since He wasn’t born in Bethlehem. Some believed Him to be a prophet and others wanted Him arrested for blasphemy. Indeed, if Jesus hadn’t been the Messiah, His words would have been blasphemous.
When Jesus spoke that day, He was repeating God’s invitation to salvation found in Isaiah 55. By saying that rivers of living water flowed from Him, Jesus’ words fulfilled all that the Festival of Booths signified. As the mayim chaim, Jesus would satisfy people’s thirst for God.