As promised, here’s the sermon this past Sunday. The audio didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped (too quiet and my voice was scratchy from the cold I’m coming down with), so here’s the text that I used.
I. John 7:-37-38
The ground in Israel, after a long, hot summer, is parched ground. June through September usually have littler or no rain. And while things have grown over the summer and the harvest has come, the ground is now dry, and won’t produce any more fruit until the rainy season comes. At it was at that time of year that Jesus goes to Jerusalem and stands up in the temple and says “Let anyone who is thirsty, come to Me and drink.”
John says Jesus stood up and said this in the temple on the last day of “the feast”. The feast he’s referring to is Sukkot, or the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles. It’s a harvest festival, sometimes called the “Ingathering” when the fruits of the land are brought in and the people celebrate with feasting. At the same time, it’s often celebrated by making a sukkah and living in it during the festival, remembering the years the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness. You may have even seen people building sukkahs in their back-yards here in Squirrel Hill last September. When Sukkot was celebrated in Jesus’ time, everyone in Israel would go up to Jerusalem. Josephus says that entire towns would go together. And at the center of the festival was the “water-drawing ceremony”. The priests would take water from the Pool of Siloam, and process with the people following them into the Temple and pour out water and wine and the base of the altar. It was a libation – a liquid offering to God. And at this festival, the Israelites would pray for rain to come. The feast was right before the rainy season, and God had told Israel that he’d provide rain if they kept the covenant. So they poured out water in offering back to God, and hope that the rains would come to that thirsty land.
II. Instead of the land, though, Jesus gives this invitation to people. And he invites all who are thirsty. Isaiah 55 uses the same language and imagery, and goes into more detail about why we thirst. Through the prophet, God says in verses 1-2, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare.”
Like the Israelites who spent money for what is not bread, and labor for that which doesn’t satisfy, we spend ourselves seeking other things to quench our hungers and thirsts. We too often try to quench our thirst for the living water with something that only increases our thirst. You could say it’s like drinking salt-water when you need fresh water. We keep drinking because it looks like what we want, but it just makes us more thirsty. I think an even better analogy might be living water vs. Round-Up, the kill-all weed spray. The slogan on Round-Up’s website actually says “Kills the roots, guaranteed.” We seek to water these places in our lives where we feel dry and parched, but we don’t realize we’re pouring weed-killer onto the roots that keep us alive. Perhaps it’s affirmation from other people, a promotion, an unholy and unattainable body image. Perhaps it’s money or possessions or sex. We know the places where we seek to satisfy our thirsts. But instead of new life, we still find ourselves withering. To this, Isaiah says “Come, buy wine and milk without cost.” And to this Jesus says, “If anyone is thirsty, come to Me and drink living waters.”
III. Rain and Snow
After Sukkot, the rainy season began, and as the name suggests, it rained. And I imagine that some of the Israelites, seeing that rain falling, recalled other words from Isaiah 55. Verses 10-11: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” Rain and snow nourish the earth – and that prepares the way for the new life that will blossom in spring.
God’s Word falling like rain is Jesus. And Jesus didn’t return to the Father empty or in vain, but he accomplished what the Father desired: our salvation. Back in John 7:39, John tells us that by the term “living water”, Jesus “meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.” But, “Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.” Jesus’ glory, in John, is his crucifixion. On the cross as Jesus died, he cried out “I thirst.” Jesus united with our humanity so much that he knows our deepest thirsts first hand. And he united with humanity so much, that he died the death that our unquenchable thirsts brought us.
The beautiful miracle in this is that the same Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, that took the seed of his body and raised it to new life in resurrection glory, is the same Spirit that God gives to those who thirst. In Isaiah 44:3-4 God says “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They will spring up like grass in a meadow, like poplar trees by flowing streams.”
This image of God pouring out the Spirit on us, and us springing up like grass or trees, is I think the best way of describing how God changes us through worship. Water doesn’t just refresh: it brings change, powerful change. Rain and snow are real, forceful, tangible things. Snow shuts down our streets. Rain causes mudslides. Sometimes things get destroyed. But all of that water still ends up soaking into the ground and eventually either nourishing the land so it produces fruit, or it evaporates and returns to the skies from which it came.
As we receive God’s Word in worship, as we, in the words of St. Jerome, “rainstorms” of the Gospel. Like pounding rain, Jesus is real, tangible, forceful. As Shane Claiborne likes to say, “Jesus wrecked my life.” But the parts of us that get washed away in the flood of Jesus are the parts that would have brought death. The word for “watered” back in 55:10 actually has the connotation of “saturate, drink one’s fill.” We are called to be saturated in the Spirit of Jesus, so that he can transform our dry and weary hearts into new growth, and that is open to all who are thirsty.
And as Jesus changes us, we sprout anew, moving toward life rather than death. We turn from seeking fulfillment in that which will never satisfy, choosing life-giving water over the root-killing Round-up. And coming to the table, the change continues. we accept the invitation of the one who calls us to come and partake of him in the sacraments: the living waters, and the wine without cost. May God grant us the grace to receive Jesus here, and to be changed in His life. Amen.