Note: Please read John 7:1-43 before reading this final post on the Feast of Sukkot
The background given in our previous two posts on the Jewish Feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles) has set the stage for the story of Jesus that we now turn to in John 7. Remember that this feast, ordained by God in Leviticus, is in the fall and is one of the three that every Jewish male is required to attend. It celebrates not only God taking care of the Israelites during their forty year wandering, but also celebrates the fall harvest. A half a million people or more (Josephus says two million) crowded into Jerusalem for this important holiday. Every morning for seven days, starting at daybreak, people would try to secure their spot to watch the upcoming daily ceremonies in the Temple Courts. Well before the 9:00AM ceremonies would begin, the Temple grounds would be completely full of worshipers. At 9:00AM, the shofar blew to announce the beginning of the day’s ceremonies. The service began at the steps in the Women’s Courts, in front of the Nicanor Gates. The crowd would begin by chanting Psalm 113-118, called the Hallel. The Levitical choir would be up on top of the steps where everyone could see and hear their voices. There was no silence in Jewish Temple worship – they were loud and passionate! Rabbinic sources say you could hear the crowd from Bethlehem, several miles away. Spontaneously, the crowd would chant almost continuously from 9:00AM to 3:00PM, while various ceremonies were undertaken.
Every day for seven days there was a special ceremony performed just before the 3:00PM sacrifices, called the “Water Drawing Ceremony”. This ceremony had its origins in 1 Samuel 7:2-6 where Samuel poured out water on the ground and asked God to forgive and save the Jewish people. The ceremony also drew off Isaiah 12:2-6, where it says, “with joy, draw water from the well of salvation”, and Zechariah 14:8-11 that says, “on that day, living water will flow out from Jerusalem (which referred to the Messiah). Let’s take a look at what took place in the water drawing ceremony. Just before 3:00PM, a shofar would blow to announce the start of the ceremony and the crowd would begin chanting the Hallel. When they got to Psalm 118:25, they would chant it over and over. The high priest would come out of the Temple and go down the steps to the water gate. He would be carrying a large golden ceremonial pitcher. Fighting his way through the crowd, the priest would proceed to the Eastern Gate and exit the temple grounds. Then he would turn right, down the Kidron Valley, to the Pool of Siloam that contains water from the Spring of Gihon, Jerusalem’s water source. The priest would then dip the golden pitcher into the water and take the full pitcher back up the hill to the Temple.
When the crowd spotted the priest coming with the pitcher of water, they would begin to chant even louder and with more fervor. “Save us, Save us, Save us” they would say, over and over. As the priest approached the altar, the shofar again would sound. The priest would climb the ramp of the altar and pour the living water before the Lord. When the pitcher was empty, the priest would hold the empty pitcher high in the air to the roar of the crowd. The huge menorahs in the Temple were then lit and the worshipers filed out of the Temple and the services were over for the day.
The water drawing ceremony was done every day of the Feast, but on the last and greatest day called Hoshanah Rabbah, the ceremony was a little different. When the priest arrived with the golden pitcher and climbed the altar, the crowd would be ecstatic. Slowly, the priest would walk around the altar seven times, carrying the pitcher full of water (this was probably done to repeat what had happened at Jericho, with the promise of the Promised Land). Seven times the priest would hold up the pitcher and on the seventh time, the shofar would sound and the crowd would go deathly quiet in anticipation of him pouring out the pitcher of living water on the altar.
Now, let’s refer back to John 7. Jesus was in the crowd, on this last, greatest Feast Day, chanting and praising God and waving His lulav. When would he have shouted, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said (What scripture? See references above), streams of living water will come from within him.” His speech had to be during the water drawing ceremony and at the time the shofar blew to quiet the crowd before the priest raised the pitcher to pour out the living water! This would have been the only time that he could have been heard above the noise of the crowd! What did the people think? What would you have thought? Jesus was saying, “I am the fulfillment of Zechariah 14! I am the promised Messiah, the living water the scriptures have spoken of!”
Doesn’t knowing about the Sukkot Festival and the Water Drawing Ceremony make this passage of Scripture in John mean so much more? We can draw at least two faith lessons from this interesting story. First, we can learn something from the Jewish people about being able to celebrate and rejoice. We are so reserved, so stoic in our approach to God. There is a time and place to be ecstatic in our love for God! Secondly, the whole theme of the Feast of Sukkot was to petition God to ask Him to send the living water (rain) and to forgive us of our sins, so that we can prosper. After Pentecost, we are the Temple of the Holy Spirit and as the prophecy proclaims, living water will flow from us to other people. God give us a taste of Sukkot, so that we may be Sukkot to others in this dry and thirsty world!