I wonder how many preachers will elect on Pentecost this Sunday to preach on John 7:37-39.

Of those who do choose to tackle John 7:37-39, I wonder how many will direct their congregation’s attention to the second half of John 7 verse 37, where John adds his own editorial observation saying,

as yet there was no Spirit.

I looked back into my sermon archive to see if I had ever taken on this challenging Gospel passage. I discovered that on Pentecost 2008, I tackled John 7:37-39.

It turns out that nine years ago, when I preached on John 7:37-39, I did not entirely duck John’s difficult statement that “as yet there was no Spirit. But, I am not sure now that my handling of this peculiar statement feels particularly satisfying. I will deal with it differently this year, when I try to find my way through John’s statement that “as yet there was no Spirit.” But here is what I said in 2008 (warning: I preached long sermons back then):

JOHN 7:37-39

The Gospel reading appointed for this Sunday is only three verses. But John 7:37-39 portrays a powerful scene and contains an important teaching from Jesus.

Jesus has gone up to Jerusalem and entered the Temple. It is the Feast of Tabernacles, one of the three major feasts in the Jewish calendar. During this feast the Jews remembered the long years of their ancestors’ wandering in the wilderness. They remembered the emptiness of that parched terrain in which the Hebrew people had wandered for forty years.

In the Feast of Tabernacles the Jewish people were reminded that there are desolate times in all our lives. They acknowledged that there are times when we feel empty and thirsty.  This is not strange or unnatural. Wilderness journeys are part of the human experience.

But, the Feast of Tabernacles was ultimately a joyful celebration of thanksgiving and praise to God. While the Jews remembered the years of struggle in the wilderness, they also celebrated God’s faithfulness in the difficult times.  They recalled that again and again in the lean years, God provided sustenance.

To dramatize their wanderings in the wilderness at the feast of Tabernacles the Jews of Jesus’ day travelled to Jerusalem where they constructed small temporary dwellings called Tabernacles or booths (Sukkot) out of olive, myrtle, palm, and other branches.

All over Jerusalem, in the streets and on rooftops, there were thousands of little huts in which observant Jews were temporarily housed. Every day through the week they would go to the Temple and participate in the sacrificial Temple rituals. They would hear the public reading of the entire law of God. And they would watch as each day the High Priest went in a great procession from the Temple to the Pool of Siloam to fill a golden pitcher full of water. Then the High Priest would reenter the Temple through the Water Gate where he would be met by another Priest carrying wine for a drink offering.

The two priests poured the water and the wine into silver funnels so that they flowed down over the base of the altar. As the water and the wine were poured singers sang the words of Psalms 113 to 118.  At the end of the singing the worshipers would give a great shout and wave palm branches over the altar.

It is likely that it was at this moment in the ritual that Jesus stood up in the temple by the altar and

cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.’  (John 7:37,38a)

It must have been a dramatic moment. You can imagine a deathly hush falling over the crowd. This Tabernacle liturgy has been conducted for hundreds of years. Jesus’ action is not part of the prescribed liturgy. His interruption is inappropriate, even offensive to the Priests and the Temple pilgrims who have traveled to participate in the sacred rites of their people.

What could Jesus possibly mean by this dramatic action?

His message is actually remarkably clear. The ritual of the feast of Tabernacles dramatizes the fact that when we travel in barren places, when we feel alone and without adequate nourishment for the journey, God does provide. The water and wine pouring over and running down to the base of the altar were for the Jewish worshipers in the Temple a sign of God’s faithfulness, a sign of God’s provision.

In his dramatic claim Jesus is saying, ‘I am the fulfillment of this sign.’ He is saying, ‘If you believe in me, you will not have to go down to the Pool of Siloam to get water. In me you will have a never-ending supply of everything you have ever needed for the journey through the barren empty spaces of your life.’  Jesus is saying, as he said to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4,

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 4:14)

You can imagine the hearts of the pilgrims warming to this message – imagine water that “gushes up to eternal life.”  Imagine a drink that makes it possible to “never be thirsty.”  Imagine a well-spring that never stops even in those wilderness places.  How can this be?  Where can we get this water? How can we possibly know this experience of never ending refreshment and life?  This is where Jesus becomes really radical.  He says that this water is not found in the Temple ritual. This wellspring is not experienced by following the laws of God, not even by obeying the priests. Jesus points to the source of this water saying,

Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water. (John 7:38b)

The word translated “heart” is the Greek word koilia. Heart is a possible translation, but not the most natural or common English word to use. More commonly koilia would be translated as “belly” or “womb.” The King James Version of the Bible preserves the original sense translating Jesus in verse 38 as saying,

He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.

We have within us a place that is in touch with God. Jesus calls this place our koilia. Our koilia is that part of our being that knows God, that experiences the presence of God, that is connected to the reality of the divine presence and power at the source of all life.  This is the well-spring about which Jesus speaks. This is the never-ending supply of God’s living presence that will not run out, will not let us down. We are born with this koilia, this capacity to know God, to be sustained by God’s presence in our lives.

This is the reason in Anglican tradition we baptize infants.  What we are saying in the baptism of an infant is that this child is born with a “belly.” She is born with a koilia, a capacity to know God.  In fact, she is much more koilia as an infant than most of us. She is close to her original beauty and innocence that is the image of God in which we were all created.  She has not lost touch with that purity and light that is the presence of God within her being.

The problem with the human condition is that we have become cut off from our capacity to know God. We have lost touch with our koilia. We have wandered into the wilderness and allowed the parched land and the unfriendly landscape to convince us that we are alone. And the more we have become convinced we are alone, the more we have struggled to find ways to make ourselves feel better.  We have tried to find ways to feed ourselves.

Some of us get busy and get our careers organized hoping this will nourish us. Others go looking for the perfect partner who will meet all of their needs.  Or we try to keep fit or get rich, or be popular and on and on it goes.  Some of us even go to church and try to get religion hoping that this will satisfy the deepest longing of our heart.  And we keep pouring that water and that wine over the altar and we try to be good and do right and behave properly and keep the law. But over and over we come up empty.

Jesus says simply, stop trying.  Give up pouring water over the altar.  Just open up to the centre of your being and find me there. Find me and know that in me you have everything you could possibly want or need.

Fifty days after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus’ disciples were gathered in a room. The writer of Acts says that on this day

Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. (Acts 2:2,3)

On this Pentecost Day the Spirit of Jesus was released in a new way.  The tongues of fire were an external sign of the internal reality of God’s presence burning within the innermost beings of Jesus’ followers. Jesus points forward to this event in John 7 when John writes,

Now Jesus 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)

What can it possibly mean for John to write, “as yet there was no Spirit”?

There is a textual difference in the ancient Greek manuscripts. One reading, instead of saying, “as yet there was no Spirit,” says, “as yet the Spirit had not been given.” But I am not sure this helps a lot.

Whichever reading is closer to the original John seems to be making reference to Pentecost and the Christian belief that, at Pentecost, the disciples experienced God’s Holy Spirit in a special and powerful way. So the important part of the verse is the attitude the disciples were instructed to take towards the Holy Spirit. John says that Jesus,

said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive.

The Greek word translated “receive” is lambano; it is difficult to translate into English.  The most common usages of lambano relate to taking something. One possible translation is “to take upon one’s self,” or “to take what is one’s own.”  It could also be translated as “admit,” or “not refuse or reject.” In any of these translations it seems that what is being suggested by lambano is not that at Pentecost the disciples would receive something from outside of themselves, as if the Holy Spirit were a foreign substance that they previously lacked. Rather lambano could be suggesting that the disciples simply took, or appropriated, what they already had. They opened their koilia and surrendered in a deeper way to the fullness of God’s presence.

In John 20:22 long before Pentecost, John tells us that

Jesus breathed on his disciples and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’

The same word is used here.  Jesus says, “lambano the Holy Spirit.” So, it seems to be possible to lambano the Holy Spirit more than once.  If you understand lambano as opening to that which is within you, it makes perfect sense that this is an ongoing process in our lives.  And it is this process that makes it possible for us to experience the presence of the living water of God’s Spirit in the depths of our being.

As we open, we are filled with a consciousness of God. As we surrender to God, letting go of our old obsessions, the well-spring within turns into a flood. The tide rises. The ocean of God’s Spirit wells up and we are carried along in the flow of light and truth that is God’s presence. This is Pentecost. This is the baptism, immersion in God’s Spirit that is our destiny as God’s children.

That Spirit which was breathed into creation at the beginning of time is released afresh in our bellies. We are filled anew with the life-giving water of God’s presence. There is nothing more for which we long. There is nothing that can serve as a substitute for this inner presence. It is within us. We do not need anyone to give it to us or to mediate it for us. The presence of God is given by Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.

This is what drove the priests in the Temple completely nuts. If Jesus was right, and the living water of God’s Spirit was available in the belly of every believer, then who would bother coming to the Temple? If the Spirit is available every time believers opened to the depths of their being, why would anyone go to all the trouble of coming up to Jerusalem and living in a little hut made of branches?

If the Spirit of God dwells in the centre of our lives, what need do we have for churches and preachers and theologians and busy church activities? The whole religious infrastructure is threatened.  This is much too dangerous.  We better not talk about it.  We better put God back in the box. We better shut Jesus up. We better pretend that religion is about keeping rules and living up to the expectations of some humanly developed external code of conduct.

Surely, it is not safe to let people believe that the Spirit of the living God might actually dwell within them and be accessible to them at any time, through the simple act of surrendering to God’s love.

But if we know what it is like to find ourselves in a parched land, we know there is a deep longing at the centre of our being. If we will listen to that longing, allow that space to be without trying to fill it with some distraction, we will know God’s presence. We will find the fullness of God’s Spirit, the life-giving water flowing in our being and refreshing us in the wilderness. Pentecost promises that this relationship with love is always present. We can live in this flow of the Spirit no matter how dry the landscape may seem.