A Boomer in the Pew: Contemplating the River of Life Found in Ezekiel's Second Temple Vision

A sermon on Ezekiel 47 by Richard Keith on Sunday 28 August 2022

Water is life. We can live for a 110 years without electricity. We can live for 3 weeks without food. But we cannot live a week without water. Because water is life. It turns what is brown into green. It turns the desert into pasture. It brings life to the dead.

The life giving nature of water is a powerful symbol in the Bible. From the second chapter of the Bible to the last. Because in Genesis chapter 2 we read that a river flowed from Eden separating into four different headwaters and watering the lands all about. And then in Revelation chapter 22, the river of the water of life flowed from the throne of God. Even Jesus said in John chapter 7:

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.

Water, water, everywhere in the Bible from beginning to end. Because the Bible writers knew as well as anyone else, that water is life. It describes our need for God. It describes the blessing of God’s presence. As Psalm 42 says,

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.

The life-giving power of water explains the vision that Ezekiel saw in chapter 47. The last quarter of Ezekiel from chapter 40 to 48 describes a single vision in which the temple of God in Jerusalem is rebuilt, its proper worship re-established leading to the return of the glory of God.

And then the man in his vision brought Ezekiel back to the front door of the temple and he saw a little trickle of water. Which is just typical, isn’t it? I mean, you go to all the trouble of building a new temple, and someone leaves a tap running. The water was coming from under the south side of the temple, south of the altar.

Although it isn’t mentioned here in Ezekiel 47 at the south side of the altar in Solomon’s temple stood a large bronze basin 6 metres across and 3 metres deep that held 5000 litres of water. It stood beside the altar so that the priests could wash themselves and make themselves ritually pure as they offered the sacrifices. This is the source of the water flowing out of the temple in Ezekiel’s vision. The blessing that comes from the presence of God when he is honoured and glorified by his people.

But as we will see there was more than 5000 litres and the water was used for more than just washing. Because in his vision the man led Ezekiel out the north gate and around to the outside of the east gate. And again he saw the trickle of water flowing east out the south side of the gate. They followed the water’s course for six hundred metres where the water was only ankle deep. Six hundred metres further and the water was knee-deep. This is no ordinary stream, but is miraculously increasing in width and depth. And six hundred metres and the stream is up to Ezekiel’s waist. One last six hundred metres and the water is over his head.

This isn’t just some tap someone’s left running. This isn’t just some huge bronze basin that someone tipped over by accident. This is a raging river from out from the temple. The further it went, the deeper and wider it got. The water is not a blessing that is reduced as it is shared, but increases as it is given and as it spreads out into the world.

The river kept flowing east into the Jordan and then south into the Dead Sea. But instead of becoming undrinkable in the Dead Sea’s salty water it turned the brackish water fresh. The body of water we call Dead became full of life, teeming with fish and supporting swarms of living creatures. Fruit trees of every different kind just like in the garden of Eden sprouted and grew on each bank of the river. They bore fruit all year round to provide food, and their leaves had the power to cure disease.  This isn’t just water to purify a few priests working in the temple. This is water that is cleansing the whole land, a source of life for the whole world.

What is being described here is a vision. It was not really happening. The temple that Ezekiel saw, that he was given a tour of, has never been built. Even if it were ever built the laws of physics will never be bent to allow a trickle of water to become a raging torrent. It was a vision, by which I mean that it was a visual prophecy. A promise. It proclaims not the benefits of fresh water, but the cleansing, life-giving power of the presence of God’s blessing.

Because sin and rebellion against God brings the curse of judgment and death and despair. If the book of Ezekiel has taught us anything, it has taught us that. That idolatry and unfaithfulness and disobedience have consequences that are too terrible to think about. And yet as powerful and frightening as the curse of God is, it is no match for the blessing of God that brings grace and mercy and hope and life to the dead. Like the sun after days of cloud and mist. Like spring after months of winter and frost. Like rain after years of drought, the presence of God brings life that will change the world.

The blessing of God does not peter out as it is given and shared, but it grows and increases, multiplying as it is divided and distributed to those who need it. This is our greatest joy, to receive this blessing and to be its channel as it is given to others.

Six hundred years after Ezekiel God came to earth. He put on bone and flesh like you might put on a shirt and tie. And what do you know? Wherever his presence went, he brought life and blessing. He made the lame to walk. He made the blind to see. He touched the leper, and instead of the leprosy making him sick, he made the leprosy get better. I mean, of course, our Lord Jesus.

John chapter 4 tells us that Jesus was travelling from Judea in the south to Galilee in the north. And he had to go through Samaria in the middle. Everyone else went the long way round to avoid it, but Jesus had to go through Samaria. He was God the Son and could do whatever he wanted, but he had to go through Samaria.

And on the way he sat down by a well at midday, a well known as Jacob’s well that watered the local village while his disciples walked into the town to get food. This is the eternal word of God who created the sun and moon and stars, but he had taken on bones and flesh and he was hot and tired and thirsty.

But before he got his drink he had a most remarkable conversation. Not with a professor of philosophy or lecturer in theology but with a woman from the local village. What she was doing lugging a big heavy jar     in the heat of the day when everyone else had got their water hours ago and were cooling off at home is a story for another time. Perhaps she just had to be there like Jesus. But they struck up a conversation. And how remarkable. He was a Jew and she was a Samaritan. He was a man and she was a woman. But Jesus never paid attention to those kinds of barriers if he even ever saw them.

“Will you give me a drink?” he asked her.

“You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” she asked in surprise.

“Because I’m a thirsty Jewish man and I don’t have a bucket,” Jesus could have said and the conversation could have ended there. Instead, he said, “If you knew who was asking for a drink, you would ask him and he would give you living water.”

The woman wasn’t so easily fooled. She wasn’t coming to the well at midday because she’d just been born. She said, “Sir,” because her mother had taught her to be polite, even to mad dogs and Jewishmen sitting out in the midday sun. “Sir,” she said, “you don’t have a bucket and the well is deep. Where are you going to get this living water? This is Jacob’s well. Are you more important than him? Is your water better than his?”

Jesus said,

Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.

What an offer? What a promise? I mean, who would know better that water is life than a woman standing next to a well in the middle of the day with an empty jar. “Sir,” she said, “give me this water so I’ll never have to come to this well again.”

But Jesus could see that more than just her jar was empty. He could see that her heart and her life were empty too. “Go fetch your husband and bring him here.”

Ouch. Talk about hitting a raw nerve. Like an experienced physiotherapist Jesus had found the spot that hurt. “I don’t have a husband,” she said hoping to get away with that.

But Jesus knew better. “You are right,” Jesus said. “Five husbands have left you, so you haven’t married the sixth.”

Imagine what the villagers are saying about her. No wonder she’s creeping out to the well on her own in the heat of the day. Now wonder she craves Jesus’ life giving water. Because inside her heart is as dry and as empty as a desert. “You are a prophet,” she said with growing respect. And to change the subject from her current living arrangements, she said, “We Samaritans worship God on this mountain, but you Jews say we all have to worship in Jerusalem.”

She meant the temple which had been rebuilt since Ezekiel, although not to the proportions of his vision. But she wasn’t just changing the subject. She had picked up on the biggest difference between them. She was telling Jesus, without saying so, to back off. That he had no place lecturing her on religious truth.

But Jesus’ answer sweeps away all such differences. “A time is coming when we will stop worshiping God on mountains and in temples. God is spirit and we must worship him in spirit and in truth.”

Jesus’ words explain the meaning of Ezekiel’s vision. It wasn’t about constructing a building from which will flow an enormous miraculous river. God fills the whole universe. Heaven is his throne and the earth is his footstool. The creator of the world doesn’t live in buildings. But through his Spirit he lives in the heart of his followers. This is what Jesus lived and died for: that we might be washed, that we might be purified, that the judgment of God might be averted, that the curse might be reversed, that we might be holy and might become an acceptable dwelling place for the presence of God.

Because God doesn’t live in buildings. But if we truly repent of our empty lives. If we reach out our empty hands with faith to Jesus and ask for his life giving water, he will give us his Spirit of blessing and love and life. And then God will live in us. Not one big temple of wood and stone on top of a mountain. But mini portable temples of flesh and blood and of faith and hope. Washed clean. Armed against the temptations of Satan. Full of the Spirit of God. And sources of blessing to the whole world wherever we go. Not a blessing that peters out as it is distributed, but one that multiplies as it is divided.

This is the purpose of God for us in Jesus promised long ago through Ezekiel, that he might give us the living water of his Spirit that through us he might flood the world with his blessing. In redeemed lives. In renewed families. In restored communities reflecting the truth and grace of the Lord Jesus. So that we may not just bathe in the living water of the Lord’s blessing for ourselves. But instead that we might be the channels of blessing that brings life to the whole world.