Sadducees and Pharisees were two Israelite Judean parties that were very often at odds with each other. Sadducees were the staunch conservatives who saw Pharisees as dangerous innovators and revisionists. They fought over many issues. One of them concerned a water ceremony that was held during the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkoth). The Sadducees opposed the ceremony but the Pharisees supported it. We do not know how or where exactly the water pouring ceremonies were conducted since all of our sources are for this information come to us from a later period. In these sources, we are told that priests drew water from the Pool of Siloam. With the high priest leading the way, they carried a golden pitcher full of the water to the temple and then processed around the altar. As the priests neared the water gate, the shofar was blown, followed by the singing of psalms of praise and thanksgiving to God for the harvest.
As the ceremony developed, the Pharisees insisted that a significant emphasis should be placed on the petition for rain. Such symbolism carried the meaning of the festival beyond the traditional emphasis of the desert experience (being protected while living in temporary dwellings – tents). The harvest was symbolized in the citrus fruits that were raised in thanksgiving to God for the recently gathered fruits (m. Sukk. 5:1).The Sadducees in general resisted such a changed emphasis in Sukkoth as revisionist. The conflict developed further when Alexander Janneus, the Sadducean high priest and king, angered by the Pharisees, poured out the water at his feet rather than making an offering of it and raising his arm in solemn affirmation of having delivered the petition on behalf of the people.
When Janneus died, his wife, Alexandra Salome, made peace with the Pharisees in exchange for their support for her to remain queen of the land and for her son’s being made high priest. The triumph of the Pharisees in this event meant that by the time of Jesus, the Pharisaic water prayers were firmly established in the festival.
37b Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.
For six consecutive days, the water procession took place once each morning. On the seventh day, it was repeated seven times in order to show the emphasis and concentration on prayer and worship. On the eighth day, there was no water ceremony, but a solemn time of reflection and prayer was held.
It is interesting that Jesus could have cried out on both the seventh and the eighth day. Either one could be technically called “the last and greatest day” (7:37). However, what is really important here is not when Jesus said it, but what he said and what he expected the people to understand. Without getting into the Sadducean-Pharisaic debate discussed previously, Jesus declared that all those who are thirsty must come to him! The connection between what had just taken place (an incredibly festive water pouring ceremony) and Jesus’ words are obvious and do not need much explanation. The surrounding context offered a dramatic backdrop for these brief, but powerful, words.
38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ ”
There are times when it is not at all clear what portion of the Old Testament scriptures is being referred to in the New Testament. This is the case with this text.
What Old Testament reference does Jesus have in mind here? The choices are plentiful; all having to do with water and salvation-related passages. However, before we select the most likely reference/s, we should ask one more question which will provide us with a potential key for solving this riddle. Does the scripture quoted/alluded to make a point that the rivers of living water will flow from a believer in Jesus (one commonly believed option) or from Jesus Himself (this is more consistent with the rest of the Gospel options)? I believe that Jesus is referred to here and not a believer in Him.
Let us take this idea a bit further and see where this train of thought may lead. If Jesus is the one of whom the Scripture spoke (“out of his inner being ‘heart/belly’ will flow rivers of living water”) we must look for connections in the context of what had already happened (chapters 1-6) and also to what is presently occurring (chapter 7) in the Gospel of John. Jesus is portrayed in this Gospel (among other things) as both tabernacle (John 1:11) and temple (John 2:13-25). This should give us a clue that the likely reference alluded to here may have something to do with the temple. We should especially be interested in the text that connects the Temple with the Feast of Tabernacles where this discussion is taking place.
Once we consider Old Testament water and salvation-related themes explicitly connected with the Temple, one reference in particular becomes a promising interpretive possibility – Ezek. 47:1-13.
Let me explain. The text of Ezekiel describes (and this is only one of many references to Ezekiel in John’s Gospel) the future temple out of which is flowing a river of flowing/living water (Ezek. 47:1). The angelic figure accompanying Ezekiel measured the water that became increasing deep (Ezek.47:3-6). Then a vision of the blessed future is given. The desert region together with the salty Dead Sea will flourish. Because of this river of living water, the deadness of the desert will be turned into a place of life and healing (Ezek.47:7-12). What is even more exciting is that a parallel passage to this Ezekiel text is found in Zech.14:14-20. There we read about an eschatological battle during or after which the rivers of living water begin to flow in two directions (west and east) from the Jerusalem Temple. When the battle would finish and Israel’s God would emerge a clear winner, the defeated and surviving nations (who fought against Jerusalem) will come each year to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles before the face of the Lord (Zech.14:16).
In these two references you have all the themes which firmly connect the two passages with the events described in John 7.37-39. Incidentally, there is some indication that these texts were actually read aloud as part of the water ceremony that took place in John 7. It is highly logical that it was following the reading of these very words, that Jesus got up and proclaimed that it is in Him that the words of the prophets stand fulfilled.
Jesus evoked the imagery of the eschatological temple (providing running/living water to Israel) from within its own depths! As most things Jesus says in the Gospels, and especially in the Gospel of John, these words are simply earth shattering in their meaning and implication.
39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
This verse then becomes clear. What Jesus said about the rivers of living water (according to John’s editorial and retrospective comment) had to do with the giving of the Spirit during the festival of Shavuot (Pentecost). According to John, the believers had no knowledge of this simply because the Pentecost events described in Acts 2 were still in the future.