John tells us that Jesus said this to predict the coming of the Holy Spirit. But the people who heard the statement did not understand this meaning. Still, they marveled at his words. Some people suggested he was a prophet; others claimed He was the Messiah. How did Jesus words cause such a reaction if they didn’t even know what He was talking about?

Entering the temple required ritual purification in a special bath called a “mikveh.” What made these baths special was a natural source of water that flowed into each one creating a small pool of “living water.” Living water was any source of naturally flowing water that was directed to a place of collection for ritual use. Once the water was drawn or stored, it ceased to be living water. Each visitor to the temple bathed in a mikveh filled with living water to become ritually pure before entering the temple of God.

Every day during the feast (known to Jews as “Sukkot”), the priests led a procession from the Pool of Siloam to the temple to perform a ritual pouring of water at the temple altar. The pool was special because it was also fed by the Spring of Gihon with living water. The purpose for this ceremony was an annual prayer for rain at the end of the dry season. Not only was living water a central component of the feast each day, it was also the focus of the people’s prayers as they sought God’s blessing in sending rain.

By the end of the festival, the temple courts were packed with worshipers. Jesus came to teach to the people and they marveled at His words. He taught as an expert yet had no formal education. He spoke with authority and boldness, showing Himself in public despite His enemies seeking to kill him. The reactions in the crowd were diverse as they struggled to understand the true identity of this man. Was He a prophet? Was He the Messiah? Or was He simply a crazy troublemaker as dangerous as some of the religious leaders claimed?

But His words promised something incredible that most readers miss today. The extravagant process necessary to meet with God at the temple, the ritual bathing and ceremony surrounding the living water, would soon be obsolete. Read the claim of Jesus again and imagine you just waited in line and paid to use a mikveh (ritual bath) to purify yourself for entrance to God’s house:

“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”

In our western context, we typically focus on the thirst aspect of water, assuming Jesus spoke of quenching our thirst for Him or for righteousness with His perpetual flow of Holy Spirit inside us. But the Jews who heard Jesus speak understood Him very differently. His claim directly applied to their experience that day.

No longer would ritual bathing be required for purity. No longer would great effort be necessary to bring sources of living water into the mikvehs and the Pool of Siloam. The wealthy people that had private mikvehs in their homes would no longer have exclusive easy access to ritual purity. Jesus’ offer was open to anyone, the cost was believing in Him, and the result was an internal source of purity in a person’s heart.

Although the people did not understand how this would be accomplished through the Holy Spirit, they certainly understood that His intention was to make following God more inclusive and more accessible. This led them to question whether He might be a prophet or the Messiah.

Spending time in Israel studying the life of Christ has helped me better understand the context of Jesus’ life and words. He wasn’t simply throwing around vague spiritual sounding phrases and parables. He chose His words very carefully and communicated exactly what He wanted to for the people of His day. Later, the writers of the Gospels filled in the gaps for our benefit. John wrote that the living water was the Holy Spirit, perhaps knowing that we would no longer understand the significance of living water and Jesus’ bold claim to upset the existing religious system and open the access to God for everyone.