Reading: John 7:37-52
Grace to you and peace in Jesus Christ, the river of living water. Amen.
One of the cool things about the Gospel of John is it that the story of Jesus is woven around the coming and going of Jewish festivals. It’s cool, because as we read John, we get to learn a bit more not only about Jesus, but about his faith as a Jewish person as well.
The story we hear today takes place in Jerusalem during the Festival of Sukkoth, which is often translated as the Festival of Booths or Tabernacles. Sukkot was (and still is) a week-long festival that occurs in the fall time. It’s a celebration of the first fruits of the harvest – kind of like the original Thanksgiving, I guess.
The reason it’s called the Festival of Booths or Tabernacles is because everyone came to Jerusalem for the festival, and they set up “booths” or huts to live in during the course of the festival. A family would build their hut, or sukkah, with four walls, and a roof made of palm or olive branches. Sukkot is still observed today by Jews all around the world, and they still build their sukkahs to eat and sleep in.
There were two reasons that you built a sukkah for the festival. The first reason was that they were kind of like the kind of huts that farmers would build out in the field during harvest. But the more important reason was that they reminded the people of the way that their ancestors lived in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt. Because God was leading them through the wilderness, there was no time to build houses of brick or stone. They had to camp wherever they went. So the sukkah reminded the Jewish people of how God led them through the wilderness to the Promised Land.
So Jesus comes to the festival in Jerusalem, and just like everyone else, I imagine that the first thing he did was build his sukkah.
Now another major part of the festival was called the Water Libation. Every morning, the priests would go down to the Pool of Siloam, and they would draw water. Then they’d process through the streets to the Temple, where they’d pour the water all around the altar. It was a big deal, and all sorts of people would have been there, praying and singing as they drew the water, and as they all paraded up to the Temple, and as they poured this water out before God at the altar.
Again, there were two reasons for doing this. The agricultural reason was to ask God to bless the rains for the coming year, so that there would be a good harvest for everyone next year. And the historical reason was that it reminded the people of how, when they were wandering through the desert, they called out to God and said, “God we’re so thirsty!!” And God provided water from a rock, so that everyone would have enough water to drink.
So you can imagine, all these people in Jerusalem for this festival. All of these huts lining the streets. Everyone crowding around as the priests drew the water and carried it to the altar. And in the midst of all of this, Jesus stands up and cries out to the crowd:
“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let all who believe in me drink! Drink from this river of living water!”
So you can imagine this festival, where the people are drawing water and pouring it out around the altar, and they’re remembering how God provided water for them to quench their thirst while they wandered in the desert. And Jesus says, “Whoever is thirsty can come to me! Trust in me, and I will give you living water, and you will never be thirsty again!”
Jesus keeps pointing back to the story of Israel, and saying, “Do you remember what God did for you? Well now God is doing something new. God is doing something new, because the Word has become flesh and is dwelling among you! So, these stories of yours aren’t just stories anymore, they’re not just memories. Now they are promises for all who believe!”
It’s like Jesus is saying, “Remember how God provided manna for our ancestors in the desert? Come to me, and you will receive the bread of life! And remember how God provided water for them from a rock? Come to me, and you will find rivers of living water. Trust in me, and you will never be hungry or thirsty again.”
You know, I have to admit, I struggled with this sermon a bit. I was scratching my head, and saying, “How am I going to talk about this harvest festival in the middle of winter? And how am I going to talk about living water, when everything is frozen?” I got stuck, I couldn’t figure it out.
So I took a break, and I went for a walk outside. And I was thinking, “How can I talk about water in February? There’s no water in sight? All you can see is snow! Snow, snow, snow!
Wait a minute… Snow IS water!
And if there’s one thing we’ve been blessed with this winter, it’s snow! Do you remember the summer? It was a drought! The fields were bone-dry, the crops were failing. But now, we’ve been given this abundance of snow. And when the spring comes, all this snow will melt, and it’ll soak into the earth, and it’ll quench the parched ground! The rivers will run, and the soil will have all the life-giving water it needs.
God IS providing us with a gift of life-giving water! And so maybe, even in the middle of February, all of this snow can remind us of Jesus’ promise of rivers of life-giving water!
As I was thinking about this, a poem came to mind that has always moved me. It’s called “Thirty Names,” by the Canadian poet, John Terpstra:
Thirty Names – John Terpstra
In the land where we live
there are thirty names for snow.
The stars are bright unfallen flakes, poured from a dipper.
The sun is the single star of God, melting our locked tongues.
In the country we inhabit
chinook choruses down the choir loft of the Rockies,
and frees the water locked in ice and snow.
The water hurls down the mountain,
contemplates plain and prairie, muskeg and shield.
The rivers run and hustle,
meander past oak and aspen, corn and bean,
by treeline, trapline, lichen and moss.
A killdeer hurries across the sand,
distracting the grizzly, come for salmon.
Squirrel and elk, rattlesnake and cattle,
the walrus lolling on an ice floe,
cod and narwhal, kingfisher, lobster and loon,
are neighbours in this land of water,
water frozen and free;
are neighbour to the raven, a black crow,
a murder of crows in the neighbourhood tree;
our neighbour is a rampant raccoon, lamprey eel, zebra mussel.
Our neighbour is non-native, migrant, immigrant.
Our neighbour is Inuit, Ojibwa, Cree.
Our neighbour dances the Sun Dance, observes Hanukkah, Ramadan,
the days of the Saints, Easter.
Our neighbour waits and watches, at the window,
three thousand miles away.
In the land where we live,
we journey through white-out conditions to the fixed pole,
the goal of our arctic expedition;
we swing and spin round a second pole, called magnetic,
which changes position, confusing our compass.
As children falling in drifts and banks,
we dream under northern lights,
singing Snowmaker, Icebreaker, who frees the waters,
Earthshaper, Poleshifter, True North of our yearning,
God of thirty names,
thirty thanks, times three.
Again, more loudly: