The Water and the Light

6th October, 2017


In the Gospel of John, we find a famous saying of Jesus: He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” Jesus cried these words out “on the last and great day” of the feast of Tabernacles. Why did Jesus speak of water? Was there anything in the celebration of Sukkot that was connected to water that would explain Jesus’ use of this image?

In the days of the Second Temple, the height of the Sukkot celebration was the water libation ceremony. Sukkot is the beginning of the rainy season in Israel, and the libation of water was performed to invoke God’s blessing on the year’s rains. During the ceremony, a large procession ascended to the Temple, led by a priest who bore a special golden vessel filled with the sparkling spring water. The water was then poured onto the altar. During this ceremony, the lamps were lit in the Temple courtyard as a sign of the festivities. It was a very joyful procession, indeed.

The sages of Israel testify to the celebrations of the water libation from the days of the Second Temple, and the description of this ceremony can be found in the Mishna. The Talmud states that “one who has not witnessed the Festival of the Water Drawing (held on the nights of Sukkot in the Holy Temple) has not seen joy in his lifetime!” Jesus uses the images of this celebration, to illustrate his words. Once we understand this context – once we understand that the Light and the Water motif played a significant role in the celebration of the Feast Tabernacles – the words of Jesus acquire a more profound and rich meaning. It is in the context of this celebration, while the procession with water was walking through Jerusalem, that Jesus says His famous words about “living water”. It is in the context of this celebration, while all Jerusalem was glowing with the light from the Temple, that Jesus also spoke these words: “I am the light of the world.”