In the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament), God instituted a religious calendar for the people to follow that involved several scheduled feasts (Leviticus 23). After the day of atonement (Yom Kippur), the people celebrated the most joyous feast of all, the feast of Sukkot. This is the only feast where God commanded the people to “rejoice before him (Leviticus 23:40).”
This week-long festival (also known as ‘feast of tabernacles) was celebrated after the fall harvest had been gathered. Following God’s command the people built booths of olive, palm, and myrtle branches (Nehemiah 8:15). The booths provided shade, but also left enough space so the people could see the sky, reminding them of their ancestors years spent wandering in the wilderness.
One other special element to Sukkot involved living water. The Bible speaks of living water over and over again (Psalm 107:9; Isaiah 35:6-7; 58:11; Jeremiah 2:13; Zechariah 14:8). Living water was different from still water. Living water stayed fresh and clean, and most springs flowed with living water year round.
Sukkot took place immediately following the dry season, and rains needed to begin immediately in order to ensure a harvest the following year. Thus, the celebration of Sukkot was often coupled with fervent prayers for next year’s rains. An elaborate ceremony developed where the priests would lead the people in chants asking God for life-giving rain, for living water. Scholars believe that the chants and the pleas for living water became more and more passionate as the week-long festival went on.
It is in this context, the context of the festival of Sukkot, and the water ceremony, that Jesus’ dramatically presents his message of the Kingdom of Heaven. We read that Jesus had gone to Jerusalem for Sukkot (John 7:10) and spent time teaching the crowds who thronged the Temple (John 7:14). On the “last and greatest day” of the feast (John 7:37), in the midst of the water ceremony, the chanted prayers, and the pleas for living water, Jesus stood up and said, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” (John 7:37-38).