Just about 10 minutes from our home, there is a national park with a beautiful (if steep) hike down to waterfalls and rapids, which originate from fresh springs bubbling out of the ground just about half a mile away at ancient Caesarea Philippi. We try to do an early morning hike (to avoid the heat) once a week just to get in some exercise, but also to enjoy the beauty.
The refreshing spring water reminds me of something that happened on the final day of Sukkot—the Feast of Booths—about 2,000 years ago. Since the final day of this year’s Sukkot occurred earlier this week, it seems like an appropriate time to discuss something that happened on that long-ago day.
But first, we need to set the stage.
During this weeklong feast, the priests would set up four huge menorahs in the courtyard of the temple, with each branch of the menorah being the size of a large torch. It must have been an amazing thing to see, with the courtyard full of people from around the known world, as this was one of the three annual feasts during which the Israelites were required to go up to Jerusalem to celebrate.
At the beginning of the celebration, the priests walked from the temple in Jerusalem down to the pool of Siloam in order to fill up a golden container with water from the natural spring which filled it. As they returned, ascending the long path from the pool up to the temple (which is probably the same road that one walks up today after hiking through Hezekiah’s tunnel), the shofar was blown, and the people waved their palm fronds along the route reciting portions of the Psalms of Ascent (chapters 120-134). After returning to the temple, the priest on duty would pour out a bit of the collected water each day as a libation to the LORD. It was a way of beseeching God for abundant rain in the upcoming rainy (winter) season.
On the last great day of the feast, the priests would circle the altar seven times and then pour out the remaining water from the golden pitcher onto the base of the altar. This was called the Hoshana Rabbah, which is translated, “the great save us now.” Water in this region was—and still is—scarce. So this was a great plea from the people for God to send plenty of rain in the upcoming winter season, because without water to replenish the rivers and the natural underground springs, the people could not survive.
The apostle John tells us that on the last day of the Feast of Booths, Jesus, who initially told his family that he wasn’t going up to Jerusalem for this feast, did indeed go to Jerusalem, where he stood up–and with a very loud voice–said to everyone there in the temple area, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” One can easily imagine that he made this pronouncement immediately followed the pouring of the Hoshana Rabbah water libation.
Imagine the controversy this would have started! The priests had just poured out the final water libation to the God of the universe asking for water, and Jesus was the one who immediately answered them. It was as if God spoke in a loud voice saying, “I hear you!” In fact, it actually was the Creator speaking to them.
From this point, we see the argument among the people and the priests and Pharisees. They wanted to arrest him. After all, Jesus was proclaiming himself to be the one who could quench their spiritual thirst.
Interestingly—especially considering the controversies in our country right now—one of the Pharisees, a man named Nicodemus, asked those who wanted to arrest Jesus, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?”
And then, the other leaders threw Nicodemus under the bus for upholding the law, saying, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.” The contempt bleeds through the text.
It seems as though the more things change, the more they stay the same. The wheels on the bus go…