Not everyone “gets” the idea of coming to Israel to study the Bible. To them, it all sounds like emotionalism—corny, sentimental, even manipulative. “I walked today where Jesus walked.” But the actual impact in terms of a clearer grasp of scripture, making it more able to profit us in doctrine, reproof, correction and training in righteousness, seems elusive. But in fact, the main value of studying scripture in the lands where its story was told, and where it first told its stories, lies precisely in the concrete realization of how particular passages and themes of the Bible first expressed a very fleshly, human reality. Once we see that tangible human reality from which which God chose to reveal his truth, the idea of tangible human realities being that to which scripture is intended to speak comes more naturally.
Such is the daily staple of the program here at Jerusalem University College. One illustration comes from a bit of content that is a favorite among the faculty and students at JUC, but which strikes me afresh every time I hear it. Most recently, Aubrey Alexander, the teacher for the “Physical Settings of the Bible,” refreshed this for a group of us standing on the south end of the Temple Mount, on first-century paving stones where we really could “talk today where Jesus talked.”
It has to do with water. With spring water available only after a long, tiring haul up from the pool of Siloam, most ancient inhabitants of Jerusalem got their water from cisterns. They just hewed out cavities, sometimes massive, in the limestone bedrock of the city, in spots where rain water was most likely to flow, filling the cisterns. The rainy season is basically the December through early February. From March on through early November, very little rain falls, so cisterns have to be placed so that they get maximum runoff. At one point people began plastering the cisterns so they wouldn’t leak, since limestone is porous rock. Jerusalem offers several chances to see these, from the eras of settlement up through the crusader period. In fact, the campus of JUC has a couple of ancient cisterns of its own, one of which is in the dining room! Just behind the curtain hanging over this table, as a matter of fact! So we have brothers and a cistern…somewhere I hear my colleague Ben Witherington III groaning in pain over that one…
Unfortunately, of course, despite their best efforts, a lot of…stuff…other than rainwater ended up washed into the cisterns from the streets, alleys and open spaces around them. Generally, this…solid matter…settled to the bottom, leaving the water relatively usable. But think…maybe it’s getting onto late September or October, and the water level in the cistern is low. That water isn’t quite as fresh as it was six months ago! In fact, the water is, to use Aubrey’s word, “chewy!” You could come to dread hauling that “thick” water up from the cistern, and I am sure people often asked themselves, why, oh, why didn’t we dig a deeper cistern? Why didn’t we clean it out better at the end of the last dry season? Why didn’t we keep it protected better from contamination? You had to regulate every use of water. Every drink now was a drink you might not have later. Towards the end of the dry season, eyeing that dark, unappealing water, one might cast a covetous glance over to a neighbor’s cistern, which perhaps is deeper, or better protected from the solid stuff, or was used more judiciously. You can see why stealing water would be treated very harshly. You can also see the imagery behind the caution in Proverbs against adultery: Drink water from your own cistern! It follows up by saying if you do, you will find you have a well of flowing, fresh water! Faithfulness to one’s mate might, at times, look like drinking from a dank cistern, but it actually becomes a perennial spring of fresh, clear water. (Prov. 5:15ff)
Aubrey reminded us also of the imagery in Jeremiah 2:11-13:
Has a nation changed its gods,
even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
for that which does not profit.
Be appalled, O heavens, at this;
be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters
and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
broken cisterns that can hold no water.
“Living” water is the opposite of water in a cistern: it flows of its own accord, from a spring, filtering and purifying itself as it flows. Everyone would prefer that to the dank, sediment filled water of a cistern. In Jewish purification laws, one can only be purified by bathing in “living” water, i.e. water that came from a perennially flowing source. But God, through Jeremiah, is stunned. Israel traded away the glory of the real God for an unprofitable, false god. Not only did they abandon the living, true God, who is “living water,” but they actually chose, preferred! cistern water! Worse still, the “cisterns” they made—the false gods they chose—were cracked and couldn’t even hold water. So all they had was the sludge.
The fall feast of Succoth (booths) concludes with prayers for rain on the last, climactic day. You can imagine the passion of the people’s prayers, having scooped the dark water out of the cisterns, tried to sieve out the sludge, just to have something to drink. How they longed for fresh, living water! It was on just such a day, the “last great day of the feast,” that Jesus shouted out to a crowd: “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.’” (John 7:37) I had always understood that to mean that out of the believer will flow rivers of living water, referring to our satisfaction in Christ. But it seems that in fact, Jesus meant that the living water, the water that flows on its own and is perennially renewed, the water that can cleanse and quench, flows out of himself, confirmed by the fact that the next verse says “This he said of the Spirit whom he gave…” The living water is the Spirit that proceeds from the Father and the Son, washing over and filling the believer in Christ. That’s why he said, “If anyone one thirsts, let him come to me and drink!”
He is the source of the living water. He is the smitten rock from whom the water of the Spirit gushes, inundating those who believe. Faith in him is a drink from a fire hose of surging life, a plunge naked into clear, cool and ever-fresh pools, an immersion into a gusher of life itself.