On the day of Pentecost in Year A, the alternate Gospel reading is John 7:37-39.
This year, Pentecost happens to fall on May 31, which is the annual celebration of pregnant Mary’s visitation to pregnant Elizabeth, and I’ve written previously and at length on that text too.
So if you are praying, studying, meditating, or preaching on those, and want to get my take on them, just follow those links.
This leaves us with a tiny little text. And herewith I offer you my tiny little meditation.
An Earlier Festival
There is a mild confusion of events when you think about the Jewish and Christian calendars this week.
In the Christian calendar today is Pentecost, which most of us take as a completely Christian event — this day commemorates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit 50 days after the Resurrection, and the massive growth of the Christian community.
However, the outpouring of the Spirit didn’t create Pentecost. Pentecost was already a Jewish celebration, “Shavuot,” 50 days after the Passover. It was the annual celebration of the first fruits of the harvest.
When God decided to have the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, it was an intentional, meaningful, symbolic choice.
- The old Pentecost celebrated the harvest of the fields.
- The new Pentecost celebrated the harvest of the nations.
All that is by way of context.
The Gospel text, John 7:37-39, takes place on a great day of a great festival. However, it was not Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks in the Spring. It was “Sukkot,” the Feast of Booths, celebrating the ingathering of the harvest at the end of the year.
I suppose the two feasts are kind of connected logically. To the extent that they are both agricultural feasts (and they have other meanings in Scripture too) they would seem to bookend the harvest. And so maybe it isn’t a huge leap on the part of the compilers of the lectionary to place a Gospel text about Sukkot/Booths on a day when the Church is celebrating Pentecost/Shavuot.
The connection, however, is more in what Jesus says at the feast, and what John says about what Jesus says. More on this below.
A Sneaky Savior
Before I comment on the Pentecost connections of this text, however, let me say that there is a striking oddity in the larger passage from which this is taken. This is the only bit of John 7 that the Lectionary gives us, so only by looking back do we find that this is the Feast of Booths, and that Jesus had a conversation about it with his “brothers” before going up to Jerusalem.
Jesus’ brothers (whom, John says, did not believe in him) encouraged Jesus to go up to the feast in Jerusalem and do his miraculous signs there were everyone—especially Jesus’ disciples—could see.
Jesus wanted nothing to do with it. Jesus flat out told his brothers that he wasn’t going to the feast.
Then, after his brothers headed off, Jesus went to the feast. He was sneaky about it. He went incognito. Was he wearing some of those Groucho glasses?
Anyway, first he heard what people were saying about him behind his back. Then people figured out it was him, and they started talking about whether he was the Messiah.
But the thing that is fascinating is that he told his brothers that he wasn’t going to go, and then he went anyway, hiding his identity.
This explicit bit of deception on the part of our Lord and Savior should give us at least a bit of pause. We assume the One who is, as he says elsewhere, “the Truth,” can be expected to behave and speak truly at all times.
But no. Jesus sees being the Truth as clearly something that comports perfectly well with deceiving those he’s closest to.
So ponder this in your heart, my friend. Don’t expect Jesus to meet your personal standards of clarity, or simplicity, or apparent honesty.
- He is the Truth, but he isn’t going to be subject to our judgment.
- As God, he is utterly faithful, but not predictable.
- As God, he is ultimately love, but allows and does things that feel far from it.
If we want Jesus, we get him on his own terms, by his own definitions of truth, and love, and justice.
A Promise of Life
But all of this was before the snippet the lectionary gave us.
There at the feast, after some teaching, some discussion, and I’d say some argument, Jesus stands up and shouts:
Let anyone who is thirsty come to me,
and let the one who believes in me drink.
As the scripture has said,
‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:37-38 NRSV)
It seems like these are themes that we’re on Jesus’ mind a lot. Remember how he told the Samaritan woman beside the well that if she had asked,
…he would have given you living water.
… those who drink of the water that I will give them
will never be thirsty.
The water that I will give
will become in them a spring of water
gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:10, 13-14 NRSV)
If you have it in mind, it sort of echoes through John’s Gospel, in the various references to water and to eternal life, as well as in passages like John 15 where he teaches us to abide in him like a branch that draws its life from him, the vine.
The interesting thing to me is John’s commentary, explaining to you and me, the readers, that Jesus was not talking about himself, but about the Holy Spirit.
Now he said this about the Spirit,
which believers in him were to receive;
for as yet there was no Spirit,
because Jesus was not yet glorified.” (John 7:39 NRSV)
It seems like John is basically contradicting Jesus in this:
- The Lord said to come and believe in him, and he would give these good things. It sounds personal, and it sounds present.
- John says Jesus meant that the Spirit would be given someday. It is about someone else, and it is future.
It also sounds odd when John says “there was no Spirit.” All of Scripture would seem to indicate that there was indeed already a Spirit. See Genesis 1:2 (in most translations) for the obvious reference.
Near the end of John’s Gospel the risen Jesus breaths on the disciples saying
Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:22 NRSV)
That must be what John was thinking of when he said that in John 7 “there was no Spirit.” It isn’t that the Spirit didn’t exist. It was right there in Jesus, in his very breath. The Spirit just hadn’t been given to the disciples.
And all of that happened before Pentecost, where the Spirit was sent with overflowing power to equip the Disciples and build the community.
But that’s why this Gospel text comes up on Pentecost.
Because Jesus promised to fill us with living water, not ordinary water that we would need again and again to quench each new moment of thirst. Rather the Spirit would come and dwell in us, causing the water of life to bubble up within us day after day and into eternity.
May it be so for you, dear reader, this Pentecost, in this hard season of pandemic distress, when 100,000 lives have been lost to COVID-19 in this country alone, and when we struggle with isolation, and fret with confusion over the best route to health for ourselves and for all.
May God’s Spirit dwell in you, and cause the living waters of Christ’s own life to bubble up within you to sustain you, to cause you to flourish. May he make you aware of the new and eternal life that Jesus has poured into you.
My online reading group will soon begin reading and discussing Gregory of Nyssa’s “Life of Moses.” It’s a great 4th century theological text that can really reboot your thinking about your spiritual life. If you think you might be interested, see my Patreon page and sign up at the level titled “The Education.”