The Defense Department employs a group of analysts who specialize in scrutinizing religious language and behavior in order to authenticate terrorist communications. These Arabic and Islamic theology scholars recently recognized language in one terrorist screed to be subtly derived from the philosophy of a late 13th century Syrian religious leader who declared jihad on fellow Muslims. This Syrian philosophy is the sort of thing Muslim insurgents might read to justify their own attacks on fellow Muslims in places like Iraq, Afghanistan or now in Syria itself. This helpful ability to understand ancient doctrine and its current implications has been labeled “forensic theology.” It’s been used to pinpoint groups or individuals who pose the greatest threats to national security.
In a way the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were forensic theologians. Experts in Hebrew theology and Mosaic law, they specialized in scrutinizing religious language and behavior. Not only did they adjudicate authentic conformity to the Law, they pinpointed those individuals and groups who posed the greatest threats to Israel’s national security. To them, Jesus was especially dangerous. His sacrilegious speech and rabble rousing warranted arrest. So they sent the Temple police out to pick him up. Yet Jesus cagily eluded their grasp—without actually going anywhere. He said: “I will be with you a little while longer, and then I am going to him who sent me. You will search for me, but you will not find me; and where I am, you cannot come.” The Jewish leaders could only scratch their heads.
If you’ve done much reading in John’s gospel, you know it to be loaded with irony. Here the Jewish leaders wondered where Jesus thinks he’s going that they would be unable to find him. They mockingly surmised about his going to teach Gentiles, an absurd notion for any rabbi claiming to be sent from Israel’s God. Jews don’t talk to Gentiles. But ironically the gospel did extend to Gentiles who embraced it in ways most Jews refused. Jesus also declared that his time was short. This would have been welcome news to the Pharisees who were so eager to be rid of him that they plotted his death. But killing Jesus only spelled their own demise. After rising from the dead and sending His Spirit, Jesus became more vitally and universally present than he ever was while walking the earth.
The Pharisee Nicodemus (of John 3:16 fame) shows up to ask whether legally they could judge Jesus without a hearing. Again irony is at work: Those who demanded strict adherence to the law were not themselves obeying it. The rest of the Pharisees cut Nicodemus off and accused him of “campaigning for that Galilean.” “Examine the evidence,” they demanded, “See if any prophet ever comes from Galilee!” But, of course Jesus was not from Galilee, as anybody’s who’s ever read the Christmas story knows. Not that the pretentious Pharisees would taken the time to check—they were so sure they were right.
I was out in Boston this week for a faith-science discussion that met at the Harvard Faculty Club. I have so say that Harvard does pretentiousness better than anybody. I miss it. Anyway, on my way back I stopped off in the Logan airport Men’s Room. A woman came barreling in behind me, her bags confidently slung on her shoulder. She looked at me and gave me this sly grin, then condescendingly asked, “Still having trouble telling an M from a W?” Naturally there was no need for me to respond. I only had to wait. 3, 2, 1… I’m so sure that the entire terminal heard her scream. Certainty can be a dangerous thing.
The commoners who heard Jesus speak were not so sure—though they all agreed Jesus was somebody special. Some hoped he might be the Moses-like-Prophet-to-come promised by God in Deuteronomy. Others hoped he was the King David-like-Messiah-to-come promised by Isaiah and Micah and others who would restore Israel’s political and national fortunes. Even the Temple police were inspired. “Never has anyone spoken like this!” they said. The forensic theologians berated them for coming back empty handed. The temple police acted as naïve as the ignorant, unenlightened rabble whom Jesus also hoodwinked. Only fools believe. Which ironically, is also true. As the apostle Paul wrote, a former Pharisee himself, “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”
The context for all of this was the Jewish thanksgiving-like Feast of Tabernacles; so named for the tents or “tabernacles” built to commemorate ancient Israel’s trek across the desert on their way to the Promised Land. Jews, then as now, camp out in temporary shelters to remind themselves of God’s promise of a permanent housing in the face of fleeting earthly life. I remember an observant Jewish neighbor of mine in the city who would pitch her tent in the middle of a parking lot, abandoning the comfort of her condo in good Tabernacles tradition. Later I watched as a suburban gentleman erected a tabernacle on his back deck; only his opened up into a posh living room. I couldn’t help but feel that he was cheapening the intent of Tabernacles. I also couldn’t help but mention this out loud in his presence—in a joking way naturally. Knowing that I was a Christian, he came back at me with four simple words: “plastic blinking nativity scenes.” Good point.
Of course the main point of Tabernacles was not to remember Israel’s time in the desert (they didn’t spend forty years wandering around as a reward for good behavior). The main point of Tabernacles was to remind how in time God will usher his people into a new heaven and a new earth where He will abide with them forever. On second thought, maybe that tent on the deck did prove more apropos; inasmuch as it was connected to something better. Tabernacles envisions that day when all of our temporary, shabby shelters will be shed; a day when redeemed creation will thrive in sync with heaven.
Tabernacles coincided with the grape and olive harvests and included rituals geared to promote harvest success. Prayers for needed rain were prayed in grand liturgical fashion. On seven days of the eight day festival, and seven times on the seventh day, a priest would carry a golden flagon down to the pool of Siloam (where legend held that angels stirred the water). Then with a flagon full of water, the priest would lead a pomp-laden parade back up to the Temple complete with singing, palm-waving and trumpets. When the priest reached the altar, he’d circle it seven times and pour out the water as a sacramental entreaty.
Needless to say, these prayers inferred more than plain rain. As we have seen over and over this fall, water is more than water in the Bible. At Creation, water was the chaos over which God’s spirit spoke light and life into being. With Noah’s flood and the Red Sea, water was God’s justice against evil. In the desert, the water Moses drew from a rock proved God to be faithful even when his people weren’t. Ezekiel’s miracle river of life pouring out from the Temple into the Dead Sea forecast God’s redemption of all things. Here at the Feast of Tabernacles, water poured out in the Temple stirred memories of God’s faithfulness in those original tabernacle years which stirred hope for the future. “On that day,” Zechariah declares, “living water will flow out from Jerusalem…The LORD will be king over the whole earth. All nations … will go up to worship the LORD Almighty, and to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles.”
Imagine the energy and excitement this feast inspired; especially for people currently oppressed under Roman occupation. If but for a moment, their minds were free to dream of that day when their suffering would be washed away, their storehouses filled, their joy complete and all their prayers answered. Picture being in the midst of all of this intense expectation, enraptured by the celebration, filled with passionate longing for God’s salvation. Add the promise of a new Moses who single-handedly saved an enslaved people from tyranny. Mix in an ardent thirst for a King David-like warrior in whose presence all nations would cower. Whip all of this up to a fervent pitch—only to have some homeless, working-class, dingy ex-carpenter stand up and shout: “It’s me! I’m the one you’ve been hoping for!”
Seriously. That’d be like somebody who’d prayed her whole life for prince charming, who’d packed a hope chest full of baby clothes, who’d for years wistfully waited for Mr. Right to appear, only to reach her Quarter Life crisis and have some homely, good for nothing Mama’s boy waltz up and announce, “Hi honey, I’m home. Your prayers are answered.”
But what if it turned out to be true? Wouldn’t that be ironic?
In good Gospel of John fashion, on the last and climatic day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said (referring to the Old Testament), ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” Jesus proclaimed himself to be Ezekiel’s river of life. He is the Exodus Rock from which water gushed for the parched. He is the Temple in whom God fully resides. Jesus embodied all of God’s great deeds of the past and his great promises for the future. He is the body of water poured out, who gives life to all who are thirsty, to any who will come to him and drink.
There is no life without water. Water participates in a incredible array of processes every minute of every day—you need it to make soup and clean computer chips, it drives the weather and shapes the face of the earth. The human body is more than 60 percent water; it holds our body temperatures at 98.6 degrees. Your body’s water-balance mechanisms are tuned with the precision of a digital chemistry lab, which is a bit of bad news.
You not only don’t need to drink eight glasses of water every day, you cannot in any way make your complexion more youthful by drinking water. As author Charles Fishman writes, you cannot possibly “hydrate” your skin from the inside by drinking an extra bottle or two of Perrier. All that does is make you have to go more—albeit it in French.
Clearly this is not what Jesus meant by rivers of living water flowing from inside you. His water flows from your heart—which John tells us has to do with the Holy Spirit. It’s a throwback to that John 3:16 conversation with Nicodemus where Jesus said no one can enter the kingdom of God without being reborn of water and spirit. Water and spirit go together at new creation just like they did at creation—just as they did at Jesus’ baptism, just like they do at our own baptisms. However “entering the kingdom of God” is not solely about securing a reservation for the Pearly Gates. Like in the rest of the Bible, genuine thirst-quenching faith reaps well-watered fruit of that faith. Not only will we drink in the Spirit of Jesus, but the spirit will pour out of us too.
What does it look like to have a river of life flowing out of your heart? No doubt it looks like love and joy and peace, patience and gentleness—virtues understood to be fruits of the Spirit. But I wonder if Jesus has another virtue in mind—especially given the contentiousness his Tabernacles declaration incited. To enter the Kingdom of God was to reject the kingdoms of the world. To declare yourself the fulfillment of Scripture, unless it was true, would be tantamount to blasphemy. It takes a lot of guts to say all of that. It takes a lot of guts to believe in somebody who says all of that. I mention it because the word Jesus uses to describe the source of living water in us is actually not the heart, but the belly. As the King James has Jesus saying it, “whoever believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.”
Of course we can appreciate why Bibles go with heart instead of belly. “Heart” does work as a synonym since the Greek word itself is about motivation rather than anatomy. In ancient culture the seat of one’s motivations was often the stomach, but in our culture, to talk about anything flowing out of your belly can come off as a bit too, well, intestinal. And yet I wonder if the word heart has suffered from overuse—like when people say, “I mean it from the bottom of my heart.” To be frank, “I mean it from the bottom of my heart” is probably the last thing anybody would ever say who really does mean something from the bottom of his heart.
Unfortunately, Christians who say they follow Jesus with “all of their heart” are often those same Christians who when confronted by that hard line Jesus draws between money and God, will say, “You don’t seriously have to sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, just need to have a right attitude toward them. Jesus said we’d always have the poor with us.” Or when confronted by that hard line Jesus gives about loving your enemies, will insist that Jesus only said pray for them, he didn’t say speak to them ever again.
Maybe that river of life needs to flow out of our bellies. Out of our gut. It does take courage to truly follow Jesus. It takes guts to be honest about your faith, guts to endure ostracism from the skeptic and the socially careless, guts to speak honestly against injustice and cruelty when you’d rather keep quiet and not draw attention; it takes guts to renounce materialism and free up your resources for the poor, guts to bypass lucrative, personal fame in order to serve other people, guts to serve without being thanked for it. It takes guts to forgive those who’ve wronged you, guts to confess your sin to those you’ve wronged, guts to work on your marriage, to hold your tongue from gossip, to press on when troubles make God seem distant, it takes guts, it takes courage, to seriously take up a cross and follow Jesus with all of your heart.
British author and Christian GK Chesterton described it, ironically, like this: “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice … [Christians] seek life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; we desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.” Indeed. The water of life is ultimately wine of resurrection. It’s always served in a cross-shaped cup.