If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. – John 7:37c-38a (NET)
As we listen to the telling of the Gospel of John, we would learn that once the author shifts the story of Jesus to Judea, the setting remains unchanged. There will be no more changes of location until after Jesus’ Resurrection. From the fourteenth verse of John’s seventh chapter, all the way to the beginning of the twenty-first chapter, we never find Jesus at too great a distance from Jerusalem. This continual change in settings may carry with it some mild significance, as it relates to another repetitive message that crops up repeatedly in the Johannine text.
Here in the seventh chapter, after a few more words from Jesus that served to prompt what are reported to be some private exchanges amongst the Jewish leaders, Jesus is said to have “stood up and shouted” (7:37b). Clearly, the author wants to emphasize the words that are to follow, and a public performance of this theo-drama would quite naturally follow suit, with the reader or teller of the story also shouting in similar manner. Jesus’ hearers, along with the hearers of this Gospel story, hear “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink” (7:37c-38a).
If we are listening closely, we would have to think, where was such a statement first heard? Of course, we heard Jesus say this to the Samaritan woman. His words were “whoever drinks some of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again, but the water that I will give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up to eternal life” (4:14). We also heard an approximation of these words after the feeding of the five thousand and His walking on water, when He said “The one who comes to Me will never go hungry, and the one who believes in Me will never go thirsty” (6:35b). Now we hear Jesus saying “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” The first instance of such speech is in Samaria. The second instance is in Galilee. The third instance is in Jerusalem.
Not to muddy the waters with a non-Johannine reference, but this is evocative of a statement recorded in the first chapter of Acts, in which Jesus says to His disciples “you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth” (1:8b). In the case of Acts, it is an ever widening geographical circle of witnessing to the facts about Jesus and His Gospel. In John, the order is somewhat reversed, in that Jesus presents what the author considers to be an extremely important aspect of His message first to Gentiles, and then in an area that is a mixture of Jew and Gentile (Galilee of the Gentiles is a Scriptural refrain), and then, presumably, in the Temple, which would be a message directed exclusively to Jews. In the case of John, Jesus begins with a wide geographical circle, narrowing it down as He goes along (though this is not meant to imply any narrowing in the intended reach of His message). This is yet another piece of information by which we can deduce the nature of the audience to which the Johannine writings are directed, and the way in which Christian love, rooted in the dissemination of the Gospel message, is to be expressed
In the fourth chapter, Jesus’ talk of water is linked to Jacob. The context of everything following the feeding of the five thousand, in the sixth chapter, including His talk of water, is the Moses-and-Deuteronomy-linked statement about “the Prophet who is to come into the world” (6:14b). Here again, Jesus’ talk of water, when offered to a people that lived in expectation of a messiah and of God’s working on their behalf to bring about another exodus, and who had a constant consciousness of their history of exile and exodus (especially their primary exodus story), is linked back to Moses. Upon Jesus’ declaration concerning water, we hear “some of the crowd begin to say, ‘This really is the Prophet!’” (7:40b) For the author’s purpose, this would be directly connected to the similar words spoken in the sixth chapter, following the feeding of the multitude.
Whereas in the sixth chapter, Jesus is linked to Moses by the provision of bread, here He is linked to Moses by the provision of water. This, of course, is connected to the flowing of water from a rock during Israel’s time in the wilderness. For these people, God’s love (not to mention His covenant faithfulness) is expressed in such ways, and Jesus is to be seen as the embodiment of that expression of love. Through John’s presentation, it grows increasingly clear that love is expressed by means of bread and water, and that these things, being the staples of human existence as well as the points of reference by which Jesus is recognized as the Messiah, are far from being simply spiritual terms.