37 On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, "If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. 38 He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, 'Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.'" 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (Jn 7:37-39)
This text is curious, because it contains three phrases that many have trouble understanding. First is the scripture text Jesus quotes, which cannot be found in scripture. Second is a curiosity regarding why the Spirit could not be given until Jesus was glorified; why couldn't the Spirit be given then and there? Third is a difference of opinion regarding our translation; as the original Greek punctuation is lost, there are two different possibilities regarding the identity of the one from whom rivers of living water flow - it sounds like it's the Christian believer, yet most understand this to be Jesus.
Let's start with the setting and context. It was the "last day of the feast, the great day." What feast? It was called the Feast of Tabernacles. The origin is from Leviticus.
33 And the LORD said to Moses, 34 "Say to the people of Israel, On the fifteenth day of this seventh month and for seven days is the feast of booths to the LORD. 35 On the first day shall be a holy convocation; you shall do no laborious work. 36 Seven days you shall present offerings by fire to the LORD; on the eighth day you shall hold a holy convocation and present an offering by fire to the LORD; it is a solemn assembly; you shall do no laborious work. 37 "These are the appointed feasts of the LORD, which you shall proclaim as times of holy convocation, for presenting to the LORD offerings by fire, burnt offerings and cereal offerings, sacrifices and drink offerings, each on its proper day; 38 besides the sabbaths of the LORD, and besides your gifts, and besides all your votive offerings, and besides all your freewill offerings, which you give to the LORD. 39 "On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall keep the feast of the LORD seven days; on the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest. 40 And you shall take on the first day the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. 41 You shall keep it as a feast to the LORD seven days in the year; it is a statute forever throughout your generations; you shall keep it in the seventh month. 42 You shall dwell in booths for seven days; all that are native in Israel shall dwell in booths, 43 that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God." (Lv 23:33-43)
This Feast of Tabernacles (or 'booths') was both a harvest thanksgiving festival, as well as a commemoration of the Exodus, when the Israelites lived in temporary dwellings; such dwellings were symbolized during the feast by living in temporary booths or tabernacles. This feast was a pilgrim festival, when Jews travelled to Jerusalem to participate in this grand eight day festive holiday. On each day of the festival, the Levite priests processed to the fountain of Gihon on the southeast base of Temple mount (the source of the pool of Siloam), filled a golden pitcher with water, and carried it in procession to the Temple. There they poured it out as a libation next to the altar of sacrifice, while the priests prayed for winter rain, the essential water for the next year's crops. This was the backdrop to Jesus' words about a river of living water. It was during this festival, while all Jewish believers were gathered in Jerusalem, that Jesus 'stood up' and 'cried out' to them with this message. We should also note that during this procession, a 'hymn' from Isaiah was sung:
1 You will say in that day: "I will give thanks to thee, O LORD, for though thou wast angry with me, thy anger turned away, and thou didst comfort me. 2 "Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the LORD GOD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation." 3 With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. 4 And you will say in that day: "Give thanks to the LORD, call upon his name; make known his deeds among the nations, proclaim that his name is exalted. 5 "Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. 6 Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel." (Is 12:1-6)
This text includes mention of drawing water from the wells of salvation, of thanksgiving, of evangelizing the nations (Gentiles) and finally of the Messiah, the Holy One of Israel Who is in the midst of the city of Zion (Jerusalem). Of course this refers to Jesus, standing then and there in their midst, in Jerusalem - the Messiah who would bring salvation to the Gentiles.
Also sung at this feast was this verse from the prophet Ezekiel:
1 Then he brought me back to the door of the temple; and behold, water was issuing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east); and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar. (Ez 47:1)
This 'directional' text follows the procession from the pool at Siloam to the Temple. (The phrase 'from below the south end' is more properly translated as 'from the right side at the south end;' this is the Vidi Aquam text of the Easter season liturgy.)
Next, Jesus states that He has water and that his believers shall have living waters flow from their hearts. This is curious, as we would prefer to think that 'the waters of salvation' flow from Jesus' heart, not our own. A bit of grammar is needed here to make sense of this text. The original punctuation is unknown, so we have two possibilities. The first, called the Alexandrian reading, is the punctuation shown in our RSVCE translation:
"If any one 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.'"
This reading was favored by the Church Fathers Origen, Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome. In this Alexandrian reading, the heart belongs to the one who believes in Jesus. A second punctuation scheme is called the Ephesian reading and is the found in the New American Bible (NAB):
"If anyone thirsts, let him come to me; let him drink who believes in me. Scripture has it: 'From within Him rivers of living water shall flow.'"
This reading was favored by the Church Fathers Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Justin, Apollinaris, Cyprian and Tertullian. Same words, but different punctuation - now the identity of the heart is not tied to the believer. In this reading, it is the heart of Jesus which is the source of living waters, which Jesus offers to anyone who is thirsty. In fact, the very literal fulfillment of this statement occurred on the cross, when Jesus' heart was pierced by the soldier's lance and water (and blood) poured out, the symbols of the sacraments. This image of grace flowing out of the heart of Jesus is the basis of devotion to His Sacred Heart.
The next difficulty to tackle is the Greek word for heart. John's Gospel uses the word koilia, which more commonly means belly or womb. The usual Greek word for heart is kardia, which is used very often in the Gospels. Many translations apply the word belly here: "Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living waters." Nevertheless, the word koilia can mean heart or soul, although it is not common to apply it as such; some translations, such as our RSVCE, apply this word. For Catholics, this is an interesting case of Tradition as applied to Scripture. As the Ephesian reading of this text is the basis for devotion to the Sacred Heart, and as such devotion to the Sacred Heart has been taught by Sacred Tradition, that is, by the Sacred Liturgy (in that we have a feast day devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus), then we can make a case for the Ephesian reading being correct and the meaning of koilia as heart being correct.
On the other hand, support for the Alexandrian reading can be found by comparing with Jesus' words to the Samaritan woman at the well, a few chapters earlier:
13 Jesus said to her, "Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." (Jn 4:13-14)
Here it is clear; Jesus speaks to the woman of 'living waters' that he can give to the thirsty, as in our text, and they will become a flowing spring in the receiver.
But let's move on from this grammatical conundrum and look at the scripture text that Jesus quotes. It is a fact that no one has been able to identify what scriptural text Jesus was quoting. There is nothing like it in the OT. The closest most commentators have found is Zech 14:8, the only OT reference to 'living waters.' The entire passage of Zechariah refers to the Lord coming to Jerusalem, of living waters flowing from Jerusalem, and of the nations going up to Jerusalem annually to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. The themes are quite similar to our text, in light of the water ritual and the texts of Ezekiel and Isaiah, above.
The next line is a commentary by John: He says what Jesus was really talking about was the coming of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, this Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus had not yet been glorified. So, we can understand that the living water Jesus spoke of was actually the Holy Spirit, and it came from the wellspring of Jesus' heart. That the Spirit flows like water is found in other texts, also. For example, at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came in power, Peter addressed the crowds, first quoting the prophet Joel:
17 And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh. (Acts 2:17)
33 Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he (Jesus) has poured out this which you see and hear. (Acts 2:33)
The Spirit is poured out, as the water at the Feast of Tabernacles is poured out at the altar. Likewise, as we noted earlier, the water which flowed from the pierced heart of Jesus on the cross was symbolic of the sacraments; our sacraments are the channels of grace, and grace is nothing more than the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into our souls, where He takes up His dwelling, living in our little souls as the Jewish pilgrims lived in their tabernacles during the great feast.
Finally, we come to the question of why the Holy Spirit did not come until after Jesus was glorified. John says this here, and again later in his narrative of the Last Supper. Why was such an order of events needed, where Christ was first glorified, then the Spirit sent? Because the goal of Jesus' "work" - of His passion, death, resurrection and ascension - was the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. That God lives in our souls and shares His nature with us is what Christianity offers. It is possible only because of Jesus' work of redemption. Therefore, until Jesus completed His work of redemption, the Spirit could not be sent. The final step of Jesus' redemptive work was His glorification by the Father at the Ascension. When that happened, the Spirit was sent.
The eloquent preacher Dom Anscar Vonier, Abbot of the Benedictine Buckfast Abbey in the early 20th century, put this beautifully:
Let us consider for one moment the expression, 'And having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost (Acts 2:33).' It is evidently the Son who has received from the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost; this can only mean that the Son was then empowered to pour forth on the earth that glorious thing which was the promise of all times - the Spirit. And in this He showed His exaltation, that exaltation which He had refused to show in His own Person to the eyes of the world. The Spirit, then, is truly the Spirit of Christ's exaltation. (The Spirit and the Bride, Dom Ascar Vonier, Burns, Oates & Washbourne, London, 1935, p 45).
The pouring out of the Holy Spirit is one and the same with Christ's exaltation. By the mystery of the Trinitarian unity, that first Pentecost was Jesus' glorification by the Father. It was the culmination, the end goal of Christ's work. We can say that our own baptisms, when the Spirit is poured out into our souls, is the continuation of Christ's glory. As such, we can now understand Dom Vonier's conclusion of our Scripture text, of what it really means to enjoy those rivers of living water flowing from the Sacred Heart:
We are not the disciples who follow the Lord on the dusty road during His public ministry, we are not even the disciples who eat and drink with Him during the Forty days that follow Easter, but we are the elect of God, who walk with the risen Christ in newness of life, that newness of life which the Apostles themselves did not possess till the Spirit came down to them at Pentecost. (ibid, p 51)