The Promise of Rivers

John ArmstrongContemplation, Prayer, Spirituality

In John 7 our Lord visits Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles. John 7:1-10:21 covers a period of only eight days. But what an amazing eight days it was in terms of our Lord’s mission and what he revealed. People had all kinds of responses to Jesus during these days of his flesh. Some thought him mentally deranged (7:20) while others thought he was the promised Messiah (7:31, 40). Verse 1 says the religious leaders sought to kill him. We should not read this as if all the Jews, in some general way, wanted him dead. Jesus taught in the temple and attracted a great deal of public attention. The response was truly varied as the text indicates.

The Feast of Tabernacles was an eight-day harvest festival commemorating the time when Israel walked in the wilderness of Sinai and lived in tents. Along with Passover and Pentecost this was one of the big three in Israel’s liturgical remembrance. In later times water would be mixed with wine and poured at the base of the altar, both as purification and as a remembrance of the water flowing from the rock that Moses had struck. In the midst of this celebration John records the following:

37 On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” An alternative way of reading 7:38 (in the NIV 2011) is: “Or me. And let anyone drink who believes in me.” As Scripture has said, “Out of him (or them) will flow rivers of living water.”

I’ve thought about these words for at least fifty years, maybe more. I believe the correct way to understand this promise is to grasp the practice and importance of contemplation. Simply put, only those who thirst will be given this living water which will flow out of their innermost being. In the same way those who hunger will receive the imperishable food that satisfies. But this desire must be right desire. Right desire is human desire that is stripped of self, or better put, stripped of all self-seeking. Heartfelt desire for God can overcome our weakness, even our negligence. This seems to be what Jesus means by his words to the woman in Luke 7:47 who gave an extravagant gift to him. Without deep desire little progress can be made in the realm of the spirit. Without thirst we will not desire the water of life, the inner working of the Spirit. And without desire we will never contemplate the mystery of the Trinity who lives in us.

We stifle this desire in many ways. For most of us it is busyness. Constant talking and endless activity hinders us and we become satisfied with a sip of water here and there. For me my activity became a form of escapism over the years. I feared silence and solitude precisely because I feared seeing my inner poverty for what it really was. But God gently and lovingly drove me to seek him more and more. Psalm 42:1 is a growing experience: “As the deer pants after the living water, so my soul pants for you, O God.”

In ancient Palestine “water” was understood as living if it was “alive” with freshness and purity. In the ancient Scriptures living water was the symbol of the Holy Spirit. The apostle says that the Spirit has been “poured forth into our hearts” (Galatians 4:6). The saints and mystics have always understood this living water as the gift of the Spirit in creating contemplative stillness and prayer within us. When this happens then the water that Jesus put within us will “flow” freely out of us.
Saint-teresa-of-avila-04Theresa of Avila said we will become thirsty for this thirst. Thomas Aquinas said Jesus does not give us the higher gifts of the Spirit (love comes to mind here) because we do not desire them deeply enough nor do we truly ask for them. He will not withhold the Spirit from those who ask and pray for such rivers to flow. I wish I had understood this much sooner. But then I am not so sure that some decades of life experience were necessary to reach this place in the journey.