It’s amazing how often Jesus does or says something unexpected in the New Testament. These actions are usually surprising because we don’t understand the surrounding historical context.
For example, did you ever wonder why, “On the last and greatest day of the feast, Jesus stood up and exclaimed, ‘Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink’” (John 7:37)?
What? Were the feast-goers thirsty? Why say such a thing at this point in time? And even more strange, why did the people after Jesus’ words begin to ask whether he could be the Messiah (John 7:40-43)? What does the Messiah have to do with water? But the feast itself might provide us with some clues.
The feast being celebrated was the Feast of Tabernacles, also called the Feast of Booths (Hebrew, Sukkot). It’s a major feast that is celebrated in harvest season when the grain is threshed and grapes are pressed. All three elements echo themes in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus likened the gathering of converts to a harvest and the bread (grain) and wine point to the Eucharist. But where does the water come in?
Each day of the feast had a water ceremony. According to rabbinical sources, water was drawn from the Pool of Siloam and taken in procession to the water-gate of the Temple while a trumpet was blown amid shouts of joy. On the east side of the altar was a silver bowl for the water and the west had another for wine. Both bowls were poured out simultaneously on the altar.
OK, there’s nothing about the Messiah here — that is, until you look into the historical background of this water.
The water in the Pool of Siloam did not originate there. It came via a tunnel constructed by King Hezekiah from a spring in Gihon. This spring is known as “The King’s Pool” (Nehemiah 2:14) or “Solomon’s Pool” (Josephus). The King’s Pool? How did it get that name?
When King David decided that his son Solomon should become king after him, he did something strange. He didn’t have Solomon anointed king in Jerusalem, but sent him out with a priest (Abiathar), a prophet (Nathan), and the king’s official (Benaiah) to anoint him king in Gihon. Rabbinical tradition notes that “Kings are anointed only at the side of a spring, so that their rule may be prolonged” (b. Keritot, 1:1, v. 18b). Therefore, the son of David was anointed king next to “the King’s Pool” in Gihon. Afterward, the king made a procession to Jerusalem amid trumpet blasts and joyful cries that followed him to take his throne (1 Kings 1:32-34). Solomon’s anointing and enthronement sound awfully like the water used during the Feast of Tabernacles.
But the water ceremony of the Feast of Tabernacles wasn’t a commemoration of Solomon’s enthronement, but an anticipation of the long-awaited son of David, the Messiah King. Therefore, when Jesus says, “Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink,” he is essentially saying “I am what the water symbolized; I am the Messiah.”
But there is more. Jesus also says, “Whoever believes in me, as Scripture says: ‘Rivers of living water will flow from within him.’” (John 7:38). John notes that this refers to the Spirit that will be given to believers.
The giving of the Spirit is certainly symbolized by the pouring out of the water and wine on the altar, as Scripture often speaks about the Spirit being “poured out” (Proverbs 1:23, Isaiah 32:15, et al.). But what Scripture is Jesus quoting? Scholars are divided. There doesn’t seem to be an exact match. One possibility might be Zechariah 14:8-9, which says “On that day, living waters shall flow from Jerusalem … The LORD shall become king over the whole earth …”
Notice how Zechariah links the flowing of living water with an enthronement. If this is so, then Jesus is saying much more than that he will provide refreshment for people. He’s really suggesting that he is indeed the awaited Messiah King, who, at his enthronement, will pour out living water. It would explain why, after hearing Jesus, the people asked whether he could be the Messiah, the son of David.
Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.