The Feast of Tabernacles was one of the pilgrim festivals that could only be celebrated in Jerusalem. It was a feast of thanksgiving which concluded the time of harvest. It was observed over a week – the first day with a holy convocation on which no work was done, like the Sabbath. On the last day, called the Great Day, another holy convocation took place without work but with an offering by fire. It is characterized by booths or tents in which the pilgrims lived throughout the feast, commemorating their sojourn in the wilderness as nomads heading from slavery to the land of God’s promise.
Solomon’s temple was built during the Feast of Tabernacles. It was the destination to which the tents or booths had looked as they journeyed toward their home. The activities were dependent upon rain – without it there was no planting or harvest. Solomon explained that the absence of rain was God’s judgment against sin. The gift of rain the sign of God’s favor and forgiveness. So a major feature of this feast was the drawing of water – an act associated with great joy for the favor of God was upon His people and their future in His hands.
Isaiah captured this thought. With joy you shall draw water from the wells of salvation (Is 12:3). But Jesus brings all of these motifs together in the Gospel for today. The Spirit that hovered over the waters of creation, the water that flowed from the rock when Moses struck it, and the rain signifying God’s favor. Jesus pulls these all together in Himself. He, the crucified and risen One, is the source of the living waters. He is the One from whose side flow blood and water. It is the unmistakable sign of baptism and of the the Eucharist now united with the Spirit whom the Father sends in Jesus’ name.
Though we associate the Spirit with the wind that blows when and where it wills, our Lord has tied the work of the Spirit not to your mind or to your heart but to the means of grace. The water that turns the desert heart of unbelief into the wellspring of living water is the Spirit working in the baptismal miracle. He turns the font into a womb in which the dead go down into the water and are brought forth alive – with the life of Christ stronger than death. He turns the font into a bath that washes once forever the dirt of sin away and bestows forgiveness bigger than every sin. He brings forth the sinner from the prison of guilt and shame with the cover of His righteousness. Now He promises the Spirit to believe this grace.
Jesus was speaking on the Great Day, the holy convocation of God’s pilgrim people now rooted and planted around the temple where God forgave sin, where He heard their prayers, and where He brought to their remembrance the mighty acts by which they have been saved. When Jesus was speaking it was prophecy. He had not yet been betrayed into the hands of sinners, marked by Pilate for death, punished by the whip, nailed to the cross, shed His blood, or breathed His last. The cross was the key to the promise becoming reality. The gift of the Spirit could come only when the Lamb of God had been sacrificed once for all. But what we see here in unmistakable terms is the unity between the cross and the Spirit, between the cross to which we have been joined in baptism and the Spirit that raises us to new life by faith, and between the cross and the fruits of His redeeming work which we now eat and drink in His flesh in bread and His blood in wine.
Where the cross is, there is the Spirit. Where the means of grace are, there is the Spirit. Where the Spirit is, there the dead are raised, the sinners forgiven, and the mortal given immortality. Where the Spirit is, there is faith to behold, believe, and rejoice in this unimaginable gift of grace. On the Great Day of the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus sees the future that none of us can see until He fulfills it, until He is crucified for us, until He is raised to life stronger than death, until He commands baptism in the name of the Triune God, and until He sets His table among us and calls us to do this as His remembrance, the holy participation in that Passover fulfilled and the promise of the Marriage Feast of the Lamb to come.
If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. That is His invitation. He is standing here among us just as He promised. He has fulfilled all things for us and our salvation. He has bestowed upon us His Spirit that we might believe and believing might see, and seeing might live forevermore. This is that Great Day – not the day of promise but of promise fulfilled, not the prophecy of what will come but the declaration of what has come. This is your feast and mine. We have been bidden by the voice of God to come, to eat, and to drink. We have been assured that in this hearing, washing, eating and drinking the Spirit is at work in us the harvest of souls to everlasting life. We have been pledged that Spirit to bring forth in us a wellspring of living water so that we might give witness to all that our Lord has accomplished for our salvation and for the salvation of the whole world.
Are you thirsty? Sure, we are thirsty – we live in an age of incessant water bottles and drink cups and designer coffees. We are always thirsty. But for what? It is a sad and painful truth that many of us desire the things of this life more than eternal life, that we yearn more for the fulfillment of our wants than God’s saving will, and that we are more interested in holding God accountable than in being held accountable. Look around you. Empty pews. Easter they were full. Christmas too. Like Israel of old, we grumble that the Lord expects too much of us. We have lost the joy of remembering all that God has done for us and too many of us remain in the prison of our self-centered hearts. Instead of a wellspring of living water, what proceeds from our hearts is a litany of complaints and an endless list of wants directed to God.
The promise to you is Christ, the crucified, who alone delivers to you the water of life, the bread of hope, and the cup of salvation. The promise to you is the Spirit who is always where Christ has said He would be, doing what Christ has promised He would do, and bestowing all that Christ said He would give. Are you thirsty? Are you thirsty for the things of God that are His joy to give and our joy to receive? Are you thirsty for the holy life of God’s own, delighting in His Word and the gift of a clear conscience? Are you thirsty for the eternal life which this world cannot even imagine? Our Lord is more anxious to bestow than you are to want. That is the dilemma of Pentecost. The traveler has found a home, the sojourner not a tent but a mansion with many rooms, the guilty a pardon, the lost a place where we belong, and the dead have been given eternal life. Come. Drink. And out of you will flow rivers of living water. In the Holy Name of Jesus. Amen
*with special debt to Dr. Bill Weinrich and the recent second volume of his commentary on John published by Concordia Publishing House.