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 him.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified. (John 7:37-39)
In a letter to young people written by Brother Alois some years ago, we find the following words: “In all of us there is the desire for an absolute; we aspire to it with our whole being—body, soul and mind. A thirst for love burns in each person, from infants to the elderly. Even the greatest human intimacy cannot completely satisfy it.”
These words both comfort and challenge us. Each one of us can recognise ourselves in the language of desire and thirst. We’ve all experienced days when a glass of cool water has refreshed us. What seemed an insatiable thirst had at last been quenched. Yet we’ve also experienced times of inner thirst, a deep-down longing for something greater than anything that we can sense in that particular moment. A feeling of dissatisfaction, or even frustration, leaves a sort of emptiness which we strive to fill. But when we try to fill it, so often the emptiness increases.
At the beginning of the fifth century St Augustine wrote “You, Lord, have created us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” God gives us a thirst which cannot be quenched by anything other than himself.
In this passage, Jesus is speaking on one of the great festivals of his people. It was the feast where God’s people remember how they had crossed the desert, set free by God from slavery. What you need most in the desert is water. And God provided that one indispensable thing when his people were in need. Moses, who was leading them through the desert, struck a rock and out flowed water.
Here, Jesus cries out in a loud voice and invites everyone who is thirsty to come to him. Jesus does not limit this thirst to anything specific. It does not matter what we are searching for. He meets us in our thirst. He welcomes us with our thirst.
Jesus continues: “rivers of living water will flow from within him.” In the text, it is not clear whether the words refer to Jesus or to the believer. The expression “within him,” which is sometimes translated as “heart,” means in fact a hollow space, an emptiness. It is not a bubbling over, self-expressive heart. We are given a hint of the cost of releasing this living water.
For just as Moses struck the rock and water came out for God’s people to drink so that they could continue their journey, so will Jesus himself be struck down. On the Cross, he will give his life. In John’s language, he will be “glorified,” in other words he will reveal God’s identity as love, and show the absolute nature of this love. And from his side, from his emptiness, water will flow—the symbol of the Holy Spirit in John’s Gospel.
“God is Love” (1 John 4:8) and love is his first gift, containing all others. “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5), St Paul will write later. A source is very different from a cistern. A cistern needs to be continually filled. A source continues flowing.
So, because of the gift of Jesus’ life on the Cross, out of our own emptiness a source of loving will flow through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Love is something that is outgoing, that pushes us to share what we have with others, that leads us to give our lives for others.
And when that begins to happen, and it doesn’t matter if it’s just a beginning, then we encounter the absolute of Christ. We discover that the absolute we were striving for is nothing other than letting the Holy Spirit love within us. It is from our own inner poverty that that source flows out.
Do you remember moments in your life when an experience of frustration has led to a feeling of fullness? What were the things that helped that to happen?
What am I thirsting for? Do I feel that my thirst could ever be quenched?