From the Gospel according to John:
On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.'”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 7:37-38 (NRSV) – March 5, 2013.)
Scholars and commentators seem to agree (and a computer search of various translations confirms) that there is no single verse of the Hebrew scriptures saying what John says Jesus quoted. It seems to be an amalgam or summary of several different bits of the prophets. When I read this story of John’s, however, it isn’t a prophet that comes immediately to mind. Instead, I think of a portrayal of Lady Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs:
Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls from the highest places in the town, “You that are simple, turn in here!” To those without sense she says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” (Proverbs 9:1-6 NRSV)
John’s picture of Jesus standing in the streets of Jerusalem calling out an invitation to all comers is very reminiscent of Proverbs’ picture of Wisdom calling “from the highest places in the town.” They may be using different metaphors for spiritual nourishment, but the offer is the same. And, since John has clearly dipped into the Wisdom tradition in Jewish thought in his Prologue (John 1:1-18), the parallel imagery is understandable.
Of course, a prophet, Isaiah, also comes to mind especially when this Gospel is read in the context of Morning Prayer. The canticle called The First Song of Isaiah (Isaiah 12:2-6) includes these words:
Surely, it is God who saves me; *
I will trust in him and not be afraid.
For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, *
and he will be my Savior.
Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing *
from the springs of salvation. (BCP translation)
When I consider the words of this Gospel together with Isaiah’s song, I come to the conclusion that the springs of salvation are in the believer’s heart, that we draw living waters from deep inside ourselves. I must confess that I am predisposed to that conclusion. Several years ago I was introduced to the observation of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, “Everyone has to drink from his own well,” by the writing of liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez. In his book We Drink from Our Own Wells, Gutierrez wrote, “Spirituality is like living water that springs up in the very depths of the experience of faith.” From that deep experience we “live, and walk in the way of insight.”
Frank Griswold, a former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, once said that Anglican spirituality emphasizes the progressive nature of grace, carefully considering our human experience of the divine. “Christ happens to us over time,” he wrote. “The One who makes use of water, bread and wine to mediate his presence can make use of the stuff of our lives and relationships to address us and draw us more deeply into his life, death, and resurrection.” From being drawn deeply into the on-going life of Christ we drink from that well, we develop insight, and “the stuff of our lives” becomes the spring from which the living waters of grace flow out to others.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.