In John chapter seven we see that it was time for the Jewish pilgrimage feast of Sukkot, a time when all the men of Israel are commanded to appear before the LORD for seven days. The feast of Sukkot is a time to celebrate God’s promise of land and that it would be flowing with milk and honey. The idea of land was celebrated by building temporary shelters, called sukkah, to remember their time in the wilderness when they built and lived in sukkot. The promise of land flowing with milk and honey was celebrated with the Lulav (a bouquet of myrtle, palm and willow branches) and the etrog (a pleasant looking citrus fruit). These five species were held before God to remind Him of His promise. The promise of milk and honey was also linked to the people’s desperate need for rain which led to the development of a Water-Drawing Ceremony.
The land of Israel has ten months of dry season, if it is not followed by a rainy season, the land would be unable to sustain life. Each day of the festival, the people would attend morning service at the Temple; at the close there would be a water-drawing ceremony, a time where they directed their focus on pleading to God for the rainy season. The ceremony would begin with the sound of the shofar and the Levites leading the people in a chorus of the Hallel, when they reached Psalm 118:25 the people would repeat the verse over and over. “Ana Adonai Hoshana, Ana Adonai Chatslihana! – O Lord, save us! O Lord, make us prosper!” As the people repeated this chant the Cohen would appear with a golden pitcher and make his way past the people, through the water gate out and down the Temple mount and make his way to the spring of Siloam. There he would gather living water and return to the alter encouraged with the still raging Hoshana chants of the assembled. Once at the alter the shofar would sound and the people would become silent as the Cohen would pour the living water on the alter which would send the people rejoicing. It is important to note that the water that is poured is considered living water, water that is moving and not stagnant. It is believed that God provides living water as opposed to stagnant water (cistern water for example).
This ceremony was held every day leading up to the final day’s ceremony called the Hoshana Rabba. This final ceremony would mirror the previous days until the Cohen returned with the pitcher full of living water. When he returned, instead of the shofar blowing, he would start circling the altar which was the cue for the people to start screaming their prayer to God – “O Lord Save Us!” As they prayed the people would beat their Lulavot on the ground begging God for rain and as the Cohen finished his seventh and final circuit the shofar would blow, the people would stand still and the water would be poured. It was at this moment, it can be deduced, that Jesus stood amongst the crowd and shouted “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.’”
Two reasons we can place Jesus at this moment when He spoke these words. One, His words speak of rivers of living water. At the ceremony the people were directing their pleas toward the Holy of Holies, to the place where they believed God lived, begging God to save them by bringing the rainy season, the source of living water. Second, John 7:37 says – “on the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out…” The last day of the feast was Hoshana Rabba or “The Great Hoshana”. Jesus could have picked any day to stand in the Temple and speak these words; John is clueing us in when he writes “The last day of the feast”.