What exactly is Jesus suggesting in John 37 and 38 when he says “If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”
Let’s put the verse into context. Jesus had slipped quietly into Jerusalem hoping to enjoy some of the Festival of Tabernacles excitement. Not surprisingly, he couldn’t pull off anything resembling anonymity. He found himself instead in the Temple teaching, and saying things like, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.” That certainly got the attention of the very people plotting his death! That is also when he identified his own heart as the source of rivers of living waters. Which brings me back to my question, what is Jesus suggesting here?
I have tried to visualize what Jesus is asking of us. I understand the symbolism of water. Water was the primal ingredient of our existence over which the Holy Spirit moved at the beginning of creation. It was the medium through which Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit. It is how in baptism we share in the burial and resurrection of Christ, and how we are reborn, cleansed, and made precious in the sight of God.
It is the same water Jesus offered to believers in our scripture for today. When they came to him thirsty for the water pouring from his heart, they would be filled with it. They would become rivers of living waters from which the next generation of thirsty believers quenched their thirst, generation after generation of rivers and tributaries weaving their way through mountains and valleys of centuries even now to this time, to this place.
A beautiful image, is it not? Well, actually, from the perspective of this Texas woman, maybe not so much. It is why I have trouble visualizing what Jesus is asking of us. We know rivers here in Texas. They are moody and unpredictable. Their water levels go up and down with equally moody weather and rain patterns. We are familiar with long periods of drought followed by torrential downpours that turn dry creek beds into rampaging, swollen rivers of destruction.
So while I am inspired to be a vessel, a conduit for the living waters of Christ, I am not particularly comfortable with the analogy of the river. Like Texas rivers that run dry during drought, so can our lives. Pain, illness, loss, and fear leave us parched, feeling too tired, too sick to be there for others. Our rivers slow to a trickle as they dry into dusty creek beds. Sometimes our rivers flood out of their banks, and we find ourselves pushy, intolerant, disrespectful of others’ boundaries, hurting instead of quenching the world’s thirst for understanding, love and compassion.
As I think about Jesus’ invitation and admonition in this season of Lent, I hope it will be all right if, instead of a river, He might let me be a golden jar like the ones in our scripture. As part of the Feast of the Tabernacle rite, golden jars were filled with healing waters from the Pool of Siloam and carried to the temple on the last day of the Feast. The rite symbolized appreciation for the miraculous life-saving water gushing from the stone in the wilderness and a yearning for the coming of the Messiah. Yes, I want to be a golden jar like one of those, carrying just the right amount of water to quench thirst, cleanse wounds, and soothe the despair of drought.
I like the idea of being one of Jesus’ prized and costly golden jars. When we are a jar, we don’t have to worry about unpredictable river waters. Jesus keeps us filled to just the right level, the droughts and storms of our life, notwithstanding. He never makes the jar so heavy that we fall under its weight. And even when we think it is empty, and we are dried away, Jesus touches us with a drop of that living water as a reminder to look to Him where we will find more of the same, where there is plenty for us and for others.
Yes, a golden jar is more my speed these days. Besides, I do love gold and the way it sparkles in the light of the Son.