It’s early May. Two weeks ago it snowed. But today skies are blue and the temperature is 28 degrees. Classically British, we have pounced on this ‘summer day’, fearing that it might be the only one we get and trying to make sure we do all those summer things in one day – beach, barbecue, park, ice lollies, get sunburnt…
And then we’re in church singing loudly. Asking God to make it rain. Comedy. Totally not in a rainy kind of mood. But we’re probably not talking weather systems…
“Looks like tonight, the sky is heavy
Feels like the winds are gonna change
Beneath my feet, the earth is ready
I know its time for heaven’s rain, it’s gonna rain.
’cause its living water we desire to flood our hearts with holy fire “
Christian water imagery is thick and liberally applied. But are we really talking about?
As we stamped and shouted to these lyrics, I remembered something I’d read recently about The Feast of the Tabernacles. Now a ‘tabernacle’ sound like one of your granny’s mantelpiece ornaments… or maybe something that might grow in a sweaty crevice in your foot, but bear with me… The Feast of the Tabernacles is when Jews build rickety temporary shelters (‘sukka’ or ‘tabernacles’) to remember how they lived during their years wandering in the wilderness during the exodus from Egypt, whilst they waited to enter The Promised Land. The point was to remember that security does not come from the walls you build, but from God himself. To remember the intimacy they had with God each day as they relied on him for manna to sustain them.
The festival falls in early autumn when the land has been dry and parched all summer (the setting for this feast is clearly not Manchester, but use your imagination). On the final day of the festival the priests performed something called a ‘water liberation ceremony’. These guys went nuts – singing, dancing and passionately praying for rain. The theme was joy. Expectant joy at what was to come; the rainy blessing God would bestow on them.
We in the rainy UK might struggle to understand the need for rain. Growing up in the west of Scotland and then relocating to the North West of England, it’s never something I’ve felt the need to beg God for. But yet there are still tens of millions around our planet who know exactly what these priests meant as they cried out. If the rains fail, they don’t eat. Their children starve. We don’t hear about it often, but it is still happening. In January 2016, UNICEF estimated that 10.2 million Ethiopian people were in need of food aid due to the failure of two consecutive rains.
So imagine these priests stamping and shouting and clapping and dancing for the rain they needed on the last day of Sukkot. They’ve just been living in their huts made of twigs during the festival. It hasn’t rained in months. And there’s a real threat that the rains might fail. They know they need God.
And in walks Jesus.
John chapter 7 describes Jesus going to the temple on this very water-divining-foot-stomping day.
‘On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.’
What was he saying? To the Jews listening, this statement was massively controversial. Some said he was a prophet. Some said he was the Messiah. Some plotted to kill him. Why? He is saying that he can provide the very thing they need. Water. And water equates to life at this point. And as far as they know the only person who can provide that is God Himself. So… Heresy? Or pure wonder at God in the flesh standing before them…?
But more than that, Jesus is foretelling a time to come. A time when his death and resurrection make it possible for him to leave the Holy Spirit with his followers forever (Acts 2:1-13). From then on, there would be no need to build temporary shelters in the wilderness to dwell with God. The chasm between man and God is crossed, and God comes to dwell within us.
The living water from Him… within us… flowing out again…
Unlike the changing fortunes of a British summer, this is weather we can trust.