The Day of Pentecost. June 8, 2014. (Text: John 7:37-39)
When we fly over the dry parts of our great country, it’s easy to spot the irrigated areas. Easier to see them from the air than from the highway: brilliant circles and rectangles and valleys of green stand out against a pervasive background of brown. Right around us here in this green and pleasant valley, where the rivers are running high right now, there’s a lot of irrigation that goes on. Not everyplace gets all the water it needs. On Planet Earth, water is essential to all forms of life. Human bodies are 55-80% water, depending on our size. We can go without food for quite a long time if we have water, but if we’re completely deprived of water we’ll die of dehydration pretty fast.
Today is Pentecost, the Church’s celebration of the Spirit of God. The gospel I chose to read this Sunday is not one that we hear very often at Pentecost, which is why I decided to use it this year. It tells about Jesus going to the Temple at the end of a different week-long Jewish festival called Sukkot in Hebrew or “Booths” in English. It happens in late September or October, according to our calendar, and it was a very happy feast, the one that drew the largest number of pilgrims to Jerusalem. Children loved it.
On the final day of the week, “the Great Day” of the feast, the High Priest himself would come and pour out a special offering of water on the great altar, a very large quantity of water. In fact, a whole procession of levites would bring one huge pitcher after another up the hill from the pool of Siloam and into the Temple. So much water was poured out on the altar that it ran out of the sanctuary, across the temple courts and down the hill. As the High Priest poured out the water, he prayed for God to save his people by sending rain—life-giving water for them to drink and to sustain their orchards and crops.
It must have upset the congregation in the Temple when Jesus stood up in the middle of them that day, as soon as the High Priest had poured out the water, and shouted: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to ME, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture says, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” John tells us Jesus said this about the Holy Spirit, which believers in him were going to receive; but the Spirit had not been given yet. That would not happen until after Jesus was raised from the dead.
What Jesus did that day was as shocking to the people who heard him as it would be to us if somebody stood up in church here at the end of the Eucharistic prayer and shouted, “I am the Bread of Life that came down from heaven! So come to me to get the real bread you need!”
On Pentecost, we’re used to associating the Holy Spirit with imagery of wind and fire because a “rushing violent wind” filled the house and “tongues of fire” rested on each disciple’s head when the Holy Spirit first came down on the young Church fifty days after Easter. Red is the color for Pentecost, to remind us of that fire, and that’s why we ask people to wear something red this Sunday. But if you go through the New Testament and count the symbols used for the Spirit, water is the one that occurs most often, not fire. Paul says “in the Spirit we were all baptized into one body…and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”
The people in the Temple that day couldn’t make a mistake about what Jesus meant. He meant that He was the answer to the High Priest’s ritual prayers. He was offering them the “water” they really needed—that is, a direct, life-giving connection with God. What we read this morning says the “water” Jesus had in mind was the Holy Spirit, and that the Spirit would flow out from Jesus, then afterwards from the hearts of all who came to believe in Jesus. --That means: If we’re believers, the Holy Spirit flows out through us when we share our faith.
There’s a song we used to sing in church thirty or so years ago, but that I haven’t heard in church for a long time. It was written in and for the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Houston back in 1978, believe it or not. Don’t worry; I won’t try to sing it for you. But the first stanza goes like this: “There’s a river of life flowing out of me, / Makes the lame to walk and the blind to see, / Opens prison doors, sets the captives free. / There’s a river of life flowing out through me.” It was a great hand-clapping song. It even had hand-gestures. Kids loved it.
I want to tell you a fact about faith that maybe you don’t know: if we don’t share it, our faith dies inside us. I said that when we fly across dry parts of our country we can look down on the brown landscape and see where life-giving water has been poured out, creating green fields and producing food for animals and people. If you fly over the Holy Land, the land of Israel and Palestine, you can look down on the Jordan River Valley – the most productive part of that arid country. The Jordan River starts in the north, near Lebanon, and flows south, creating the big lake the gospels call “the Sea of Galilee.” As you look down from the plane, you can see that the countryside around the Sea of Galilee is the most green and productive land in the region.
As you continue flying, you can see that the Jordan flows south out of the Sea of Galilee and ends about forty miles farther along in a lake that’s called “the Dead Sea.” The Dead Sea is “dead” because water only flows into it; no water flows out of it. It’s like the Great Salt Lake in Utah. When a lake traps all the water that comes into it and doesn’t let any out, the mineral content gets so high that nothing can live in it. Its water becomes toxic, and the lake “dies.”
That’s a picture of what happens to Christians when we don’t share our faith. We become just like the Dead Sea. The water of life flows into us, but if that water doesn’t also flow out of us, it will change. It will get toxic and we will die, spiritually.
God is a Giver. God is “the giver of every good and perfect gift.” The epistle this morning describes some of the gifts of the Spirit that God has given to the Church. But the main thing for us to remember is that God intends us to pass along everything we’ve received.
When people have a child and they bring their child to be baptized, it means they want to pass along their faith to their child. Most of us were probably brought to baptism by believing parents. But faith itself isn’t passed along just by having your baby baptized. Faith is only passed along when parents teach those children what they believe and demonstrate what they believe by how they live.
We tend to think about coming to church on Sunday as like taking our car to the filling station. We come here to get “our tank filled.” We come to “receive” something from God: the presence of Christ in Holy Communion, maybe a word of wisdom from the Bible, maybe inspiration from a sermon, or maybe just love and reassurance from our friends who are with us in church. That’s all just fine—as long as we never forget that we’re being filled so that we can go out of here and be emptied again! We’re “getting” something from God here so that we will be able to give it away later on.
I’ve learned as a parish priest that most church people are very humble, very modest, about the personal spiritual resources they have available to share. It’s healthy for us to stay humble. But the truth is that each of us has received the life-giving Spirit of God. We’ve been given something to give away, in God’s name. WE can give others the Spirit! And, yes, the Spirit is intangible. You can’t wrap the Spirit in a package. You can’t pour the Spirit into a pitcher, either, even though it’s as life-giving as water. The Spirit isn’t a “substance.” The Spirit is as intangible as the wind. But its power is greater than that of a hurricane. YOU and I have been given the Spirit to share! That is Pentecostal truth you can take home with you this morning.
We might not realize exactly how much of the Spirit we’ve been given ‘til we start giving it away. Then we’ll discover that the song is true: “There’s a river of life flowing out of me.” --A river of life… a river that keeps on flowing, keeps on filling us back up, again and again—just as long as we keep letting it flow out through us to others.