Sunday, June 12, 2011
Sermon for the Day of Pentecost (June 12, 2011)
“Rivers of Living Water” (John 7:37-39)
Back when I was in college, I worked at a summer camp. One of the weeks of camp was a five-day junior high backpacking trip into the San Gorgonio Wilderness. This was in the mountains east of Los Angeles and San Bernardino. Our base camp was called “High Meadow Springs.” From there we would hike to the summit of Mt. San Gorgonio on one day, down to an ice-cold snow-pack-filled lake another day, then off to other campsites the rest of the trip.
“High Meadow Springs” was aptly named. It is definitely high, resting at an elevation a little over 10,000 feet. There is a meadow there, as green a meadow as you ever saw, steeply sloping down below the campsite. And a spring keeps the meadow verdant and lush. You can walk right up to where the water comes right out of the ground. There are some rocks, a hole, and a stream of frigid water gushing out for thirsty hikers to fill their canteens.
For four summers, we returned to that location. And each time, High Meadow Springs never let us down. Water was still flowing out. It was just as ice-cold as the last time. And the meadow was just as luxuriant. It made you wonder, “How long has this spring been flowing? And how far down below the surface is the source of this never-ending supply of fresh water?”
First-century Jerusalem had a spring that lay outside the city walls to the east. It was called the Gihon Spring. Years earlier, King Hezekiah had ordered a tunnel to be dug from the spring into the city. The tunnel is still there, in fact. For those who are adventurous and not claustrophic (that counts me out), you can walk through the tunnel which leads you on a serpentine path for a third of a mile, ending at the Pool of Siloam.
You may remember the Pool of Siloam. Jesus told a man who was born blind to wash there, and he was healed. The Pool of Siloam played a role in the feast mentioned in today’s Gospel lesson. As we learn earlier in chapter 7 of John’s Gospel, it was the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles. For seven days around September and October, pilgrims would come to Jerusalem and build makeshift shelters in city squares, on rooftops, around the temple…wherever space was found to live outside. For the duration of the festival, the participants would live in these “booths” or “Succoth” as they are called in Hebrew. This commemorated the forty years the Israelites spent in the wilderness after the Lord delivered them from their slavery in Egypt. Every day during the feast, at the time of the morning sacrifice, a priest went down to the Pool of Siloam with a golden pitcher in his hands. He would scoop up some water and take it back inside the temple courts. Then, while the bodies of the animals were laid upon the altar, the priest would mix a little wine into the container and pour the water out upon the altar. As he did so, the people would sing from Isaiah 12:3, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”
This action was not prescribed anywhere in the Scriptures. It was one of those customs that had become attached to the liturgy of the celebrations in the temple. Its meaning is uncertain. It could have something to do with repentance, as when Samuel led the people in repentance at Mizpah, taking some water and pouring it out (1 Sam 7:6), perhaps a symbol of pouring one’s heart out to God in sorrow over sin. Or, this action could have something to do with the Holy Spirit, since the Bible frequently compares the gifts and influences of the Holy Spirit with water. Think back to Genesis 1, where it says that the “Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Also, in Isaiah 44:3, the Lord says, “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.”
And so you can just imagine Jesus in the temple courts watching the events of the last day of the feast. With great pomp and ceremony, the last pitcher of water was poured out upon the altar. At some point, Jesus stood up and with a loud voice said, “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.’” And then St. John explains, “Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” Jesus wanted to redirect the attention of the people … away from the sacrifices in the temple and towards himself. He had come to take the place of all those sacrifices in the temple. They were all a prelude to his once-for-all sacrifice. His glorification was about to take place. The glory for which he became incarnate – his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension – was about to be completed. The glory of his victory over sin, death, and the devil for you and for me was about to be accomplished. As soon as his work for your salvation and mine was finished, then the Holy Spirit could now be poured out in all his fullness.
It’s not as if he wasn’t present before. Look at today’s Old Testament reading. There we see the Spirit of God that was in Moses now resting on the seventy elders. So the Holy Spirit was present and active even in the saints of the Old Testament. But after the Ascension of Jesus, the Spirit was poured out in a new way.
On another festival at another time of year, called Pentecost – 50 days after Passover – Jews from all over the known world were gathered in Jerusalem. It was then that God chose to pour out the Holy Spirit upon Christ’s disciples to fulfill the words of the prophet Joel, “in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17). Tongues of fire rested on them. They spoke in the languages of the pilgrims from other nations. And the content of their preaching was Jesus, because that is the job of the Holy Spirit … not to point to himself, but to point us to Jesus.
After his sermon, the crowd asked Peter and the disciples, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2:38-39)
“Repent,” Peter says, because our hearts have waters in them that are polluted. By nature, what flows from our hearts is not “living water,” water that is fresh and clean and pure. What flows from our hearts is all that comes from a source called sin, and that produces all sorts of unclean and impure thoughts and words and actions. This is not life-giving water. Like a well that is polluted or a spring that is contaminated with deadly organisms, we will never find life in our sinful hearts. If we are honest, we look into our sinful hearts and all we find is death … as St. Paul said to the Romans, “What fruit were you getting at the time from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death” (Rom. 6:21). “Repent,” therefore, and come to Jesus and drink from the living water that he offers to you.
Remember how I said earlier that the Bible frequently compares the gifts and influences of the Holy Spirit with water. It’s no coincidence, then, that Peter mentions water right after he talks about repentance. “Repent and be baptized.” When water is applied to us in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we receive the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. God now graciously implants a new source flowing from within our hearts upon which we can rely. The Holy Spirit with all his graces and gifts now flows from within us. Our hearts are cleansed, and Christ’s living water flows over and through our polluted waters and flushes them out.
What about when our life seems to be waterless and dry? Sometimes it seems as if we are in a “dry spell” or a “drought.” It’s usually because we have removed ourselves from the source of our life and those channels of Word and Sacrament through which God’s living water flows into us. Returning to those means of grace, the words from Isa 58:11 apply to us, “And the LORD will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.”
Year after year, we kept on returning to High Meadow Springs. It never stopped flowing and was always available to provide us hikers with refreshment. Likewise, the Holy Spirit is a never-ending source of life and refreshment for us. We can keep on returning to the precious promises God gave us in the water of our Baptism … that we are forgiven, and that we have the Holy Spirit within us who creates and nurtures our faith as we remain in God’s Word and are fed on Christ’s body and blood.
Moreover, as the water flowed from High Meadow Springs, it did more than just flow out of the ground and dry up on the soil below. It caused grass and flowers and moss and shrubs to grow. You could look down into the valley and see a long green stripe reaching all the way down into the folds of the mountainside. In the same way, like a river that produces growth along the way, the Spirit produces his fruit in us as his life flows from within us: his fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Finally, there were no limitations as to who could drink from the living water coming from High Meadow Springs. Anyone could stick their hands into the stream and drink. There was no sign or law that prohibited any ethnic group or people under a certain age. Likewise, ever since that first New Testament Pentecost, the Holy Spirit has not been limited to any one group of people, any one ethnicity, or any one office. Through water and the Word, the Holy Spirit is poured out upon Jew and Gentile, man and woman, infant and elder, prince and pauper alike.
And so we pray:
Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord,
With all Your graces now outpoured
On each believer’s mind and heart;
Your fervent love to them impart.
Lord, by the brightness of Your light
In holy faith Your Church unite;
From ev’ry land and ev’ry tongue
This to Your praise, O Lord, our God, be sung:
Alleluia, alleluia! (LSB 497.1)