In Exodus 16-17, we read of the Israelites meeting their first challenges of life in the wilderness after Egypt. They grumble that there’s nothing to eat or drink, but God provides. Daily manna, the bread from heaven as Jesus calls it in John 6, and water from the rock. It’s not a glamorous existence, but it is enough. It is neither too much nor too little. This wilderness chapter of Israel’s story would last for 40 years before finally settling in the homeland God had been promising to them since their ancestor Abraham.
By the time of Jesus, Israel had made a yearly habit of remembering and celebrating this particular chapter of Israel’s history, called the Festival of Tabernacles (or Tents, or Booths). Israelites would travel from their homes to Jerusalem and construct a small tent in which to dwell for the week-long festival, remembering their ancestors who lived thus not for a week, but for 40 years. In front of the Jerusalem temple, the priests would take water from a basin and pour it around the altar, signifying the water God provided from the rock. The whole week was Israel’s way of celebrating the God who provides for his people even in the wilderness.
This festival is the setting for John 7. Except, where there should be joy and gratitude and beauty, there is only resentment and hostility. Jesus is present, and by John 7 he’s already made an enemy out of those with power and influence in Jerusalem. He’s drawing more and more people to himself, people who are happy to confess their faith in him, all the while breaking rules like Sabbath observance (John 5:1-18). So, throughout a week that is meant to evoke glad remembrance, Jesus experiences only the hostility of those who want him dead.
As Jesus watches the ceremonies unfold, the tents constructed, the water poured at the altar, the stories of Exodus 16-17 retold, he’s had enough with the hypocrisy of it. There is no glad remembrance here, but only the vain hope of maintaining power and comfort, and Jesus is sick of it. Is this all the religious structures of Jerusalem are good for? Are they really going to be this much more concerned with rule-following than with the actual healing that’s happening everywhere Jesus goes? So on the final day of the weeklong festival, having had enough of this, Jesus stands up and shouts our for anyone within earshot, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink! And out of the believer’s heart will flow rivers of living water.” (John 7:37-39)
The Church can be just as guilty of the same things we’re seeing here in John 7. We can be too in love with rules and our religious preferences. We can carry out our religious practices with expertise, which speak of joy and gratitude, all the while harboring resentment and division underneath. I wonder how often Jesus wants to say to the Church, “It’s all an act, my friends. You want to be righteous, but not at the expense of your comfort, not at the expense of listening to someone who challenges you, not at the expense of someone who would prioritize healing over your religious preferences.” How often would Jesus want to stand up in the middle of our worship services and shout, “The human soul is desperately thirsty and you’re doing nothing about it.”
Jesus says something similar in Matthew 11, and in response to a similar problem. As the Pharisees are harping on him for not being a good enough rule follower, he says, “Come to me, everyone who is weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) We religious insiders have a way of making religion a heavier burden, not a lighter one. Oftentimes, religion makes the human soul thirst more, not less. Rules give us the illusion of control. They tell us who belongs and who doesn’t, who’s behaving and who isn’t. And we are often happy to indulge in this, while the question of “where is the actual healing taking place?” passes us by unnoticed.
When religion gets in the way, when religion is not a path to healing but an obstacle to it, Jesus stands up and says, “Come to me, then, everyone who is thirsty, everyone bearing the burden of oppressive, joyless religion.” The soul is thirsty, church, and there is nothing that’s going to help that short of coming to Jesus himself for a drink. It was never the church’s job to draw people to the church. It was always the church’s job to draw people to Jesus and only Jesus. I hope we can love Jesus more than our religious preferences. I hope we will let Jesus take us places that bend our sense of what’s acceptable and what’s not. And I hope that what we as the Church, become better at than anything else is saying, “Anyone who is thirsty, come to Jesus and drink, and out of your heart will flow rivers of living water.”