Saturday, May 30, 2020

Water Won't Quench the Fire

John 7:37-39
The Day of Pentecost
May 31, 2020
William G. Carter

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

In a bottom drawer of my office desk, there’s a hanging file full of junk mail. Most of what comes in gets recycled or tossed. But once in a while, something so unusual arrives that I keep it so I can tell you about it in a sermon. Like the brightly colored brochure, response card, and prepaid business reply envelope. A computer-generated cover letter was addressed to First Presbyterian Church.
"Dear First," it began, "have you ever found yourself in deep spiritual need? Are you hungry for meaning in your life? Would you like to free yourself from earthly constrictions and reach for the light of perfect bliss? If so, Mr. Church, then you and the whole Church family are free to audition a new audio program titled The Higher Being. It is yours to audition free for the next thirty days. If these recordings convince you that you can find perfect fulfillment, you can make them yours for only $39.95 - $20.00 off the regular price. If you don't find Infinite Peace, let us know and owe us nothing. VISA and MasterCard accepted."
Every church office receives more than its share of spiritual junk mail, electronic or otherwise. Somebody is always trying to sell the newest Bible study program, a successful prayer manual, or the latest design of plastic communion cups. These days there are hundreds of opportunities for church people to buy religious merchandise. Christian marketing firms have baptized materialism to make a buck. Yet this slick brochure stood out from all the rest. Was it an innocent marketing mix-up or a wrong address on someone's database? Or was it something far more devilish? Whoever was selling those recordings was peddling fulfillment, meaning, and spiritual peace. The church has always claimed these things are not for sale.
Perhaps it is a symptom of our age to think we can fill a spiritual vacuum by listening to one more tape, reading one more book, or giving our money to one more guru. A young woman told me about dropping by a health food store not long ago. I don't know why she was there; most of the foods she eats are not very healthy. But there she was, among the racks of herbal teas and natural fibers. After thumbing through some compact disks of Celtic harp music, she spotted a book section marked "spirituality." That looked interesting, until she read the titles. There were volumes on esoteric crystals and secret pyramids. One book offered tips on getting in touch with past lives. Another promised to interpret dreams. There wasn't a Bible to be seen, no books on prayer, no studies on the Sermon on the Mount. A salesclerk asked, "Have you found what you're looking for?" 
"Not exactly," she replied.
"Well, we're proud of our section on spirituality," the clerk said. "We do our best to keep up with the latest ideas."
That seems to describe a recurring fad. Here in America, people are perpetually hungry for something new. Many people thirst for something novel. With the current talk about spirituality, the church is in an awkward position. The church keeps offering the same old thing. His name is Jesus Christ.
In the text we heard a few minutes ago, Jesus says, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me." There is nothing new or novel about his words. He simply invites people to come and drink, to taste and see if he can truly quench their thirsts.
As one scholar notes, it is ironic that Jesus issues his invitation on the Feast of Tabernacles. The Feast of Tabernacles, or Succoth, took place in early autumn. It began as a harvest festival. By the time of the prophet Zechariah, the feast had become an occasion to pray for rain. The feast was important, said the prophet, so important that if a family did not go to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles, God would not send any rain upon them in the coming year (Zechariah 14:17).
To symbolize the "living waters" which God would provide, the temple priest would lead a procession during every day of the seven-day feast. The pilgrims would move downhill from the temple to the fountain of Gihon, where the priest a golden pitcher with water. Then the procession would turn around and climb the hill to the altar. Then the priest would pour the water through a silver funnel into the ground.[1]
On the seventh and greatest day of this Feast, Jesus pointed to himself and said, "If anyone is thirsty, let them come to me and drink." These are radical words, for Jesus strips away a long-established tradition. Beyond the rituals, the holy days, and the temple liturgies, Jesus points to himself as the One who satisfies our deepest craving.
This is consistent with the rest of the Gospel of John. According to John’s book, the one human desire is to know God, to taste God, to experience God, for that is the essence of life eternal. If the primary human thirst is a thirst for God, it will not be quenched through recordings about human potential or self-fulfillment. The heart of Christian spirituality is a living relationship with Jesus Christ. He is the source of our life and strength.
In The Silver Chair, one of C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, there is a scene where a young girl named Jill meets Aslan the Lion. Jill is "dreadfully thirsty," and she sees a stream bright as glass. Beside it lay the Lion, the Christ figure, who says, "If you're thirsty, you may drink." Jill stands frozen in fear. The Lion asks her, "Are you not thirsty?"
            "I'm dying of thirst," said Jill.
            "Then drink," said the Lion. 
            "May I - could I - would you mind going away while I do?" said Jill.
The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.
            The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic. 
            "Will you promise not to do anything to me, if I do come?" said Jill.
            "I make no promise," said the Lion.
            Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
            "Do you eat girls?" she said.
            "I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms," said the Lion. It didn't say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
            "I daren't come and drink," said Jill.
            "Then you will die of thirst," said the Lion.  
            "Oh dear!" said Jill, coming another step nearer. "I suppose I must go and look for another stream then."
            "There is no other stream," said the Lion.
            It never occurred to Jill to disbelieve the Lion - no one who had seen his stern face could do that - and her mind suddenly made itself up. It was the worst thing she ever had to do, but she went forward to the stream, knelt down, and began scooping up water in her hand. It was the coldest, most refreshing water she had ever tasted. You didn't need to drink much of it, for it quenched your thirst at once.[2]
The promise of the gospel is that we have access to a water like this through Jesus, who is the way, the truth, and the life. As we trust him, as we love one another, we participate in the very life of the Eternal One. That is the essence of the phrase "eternal life."
According to the gospel of John, eternal life is not merely a dwelling place in heaven where we go when we die. It is a quality of life that we can claim here and now. This is the life of God himself, the very Breath of creation. We can call it living water. Or we can call it the Holy Spirit. Whatever we call it, it is the profound gift of life, received through trust, and never defeated by death.
Even so, this does not mean that Christian spirituality can be reduced to a weekly return to the heavenly watering trough. For the person who is "in Christ," life is meant to be expressed and shared.
That is why I think there a delightful ambiguity within our text. Jesus says, "Within him shall flow rivers of living water." But it is not clear whom he is talking about. Is Jesus saying that a river runs through him? Perhaps. As he says elsewhere, "The water that I will give will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life" (John 4:14). Maybe that is why the writer of the gospel of John focuses our gaze on a specific event that happened at the cross. A soldier pierced the body of Jesus with a spear and "water came out from his side" (John 19:34-35). From within the crucified and glorified Lord, there flows the water of life.
Yet the text can also be translated as it appears in the Bible translation we heard today (NRSV): "Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water."
Now, in the Greek text, there is no punctuation. We are left to ponder what Jesus is talking about. Does living water come from him? Yes, it does. Does living water flow from within the believer's heart? Yes, it can. For this is the clearest expression of the mystery of Christian spirituality: we drink our life from Jesus, and the living water spills out of us to others. We cannot consume Christ nor keep him to ourselves. If we truly take part in him through faith, he will flow through us to others. His risen life infuses our lives. Through us, his life extends into the life of the world.
I had a seminary professor named Hugh Thomson Kerr. He was a wonderful man. After he retired from a distinguished teaching career, he moved to a small apartment in a senior community. To pass the time, he continued to write articles and read books. He volunteered to deliver mail.
One day he was delivering letters in the health care clinic attached to the community. One of the attendants was "Amazing Grace" on the piano in the social room. She did not seem to be a schooled musician, for the notes, rhythms, and variations were very much her own. She played in a kind of broken ragtime, a bit slow and deliberate. Now and then she punctuated the words of the hymn with her own phrase, "Praise God, Praise God."
Hugh noticed how nurses, volunteers, and maintenance people passed by detached and uninterested. Few seemed to notice there was something within that woman that was spilling into the room, a river of life, a means of grace and truth. Hugh stood and listened for a few minutes. Then he caught the piano player's eye and said a quiet "thank you." In that moment, in that woman, he said, "I discerned the presence of Christ."[3]
Ever since Easter, the word is out that Jesus Christ is alive. As he draws near to us, his presence is not immediately obvious. Yet every now and then, the veil is lifted. We catch a glimpse of Christ in the gentle word or generous gift, in the compassionate deed or the joyful song. Jesus Christ is alive; and as his first order of business, he comes to fill us with life. His gracious gift of living water promises to spill into every parched, weary heart, until the day when even a dying world will be raised from the dead. This is not only the promise of Easter. It is the fiery power of Pentecost.
And water won't quench the fire.  

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966) 326-327.
[2] C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (New York: Collier Books, 1970) 15-18.
[3] Hugh T. Kerr, "Discerning the Presence," Theology Today 44.3 (October 1987): 305.

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