Rivers of Living Water
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.
Today is one of the most exciting days on the church calendar…It is Pentecost – the church’s birthday! This morning there are pastors all over Oklahoma preaching their first sermons in new appointments. Traditionally we hear sermons on this day about the fire of the Holy Spirit. We hear the text from Acts 2 telling of that wonderful day when tongues of fire rested on the head of each disciple gathered. We talk about their ability to preach and be understood by people of many languages. We ask questions like: “What happens if the fire goes out?”
Our text this morning uses a different image. Instead of fire we are talking about water. The Acts 2 story talks about the sudden sound of a violent rushing wind. The tongues of fire appear and come to rest over each person. It sounds to me like this might have been a fairly scary experience; it was unexpected. While they knew the Holy Spirit had been promised, they had no idea that it would arrive in such a startling way. The image of water in John’s text offers us a different understanding of how the Spirit might come upon us.
The theme of this verse seems to be about basic human need. Jesus says: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me.” It is a primal need…THIRST…we all get thirsty. Our bodies cannot live without water to quench our thirst. Our souls get thirsty too. Who among us is not thirsty…for something? We thirst for meaning, love, acceptance, and intimacy. We thirst for knowledge, power, money, and success. It is human nature to be thirsty for something more than we have; thirsty to be someone more than we are now; we are always thirsty. Our culture knows we are thirsty and there are constant offers to quench our thirst for just about anything. Diets? “Lose the weight you want eating the foods you love.” Cars? “Affordable luxury…The Ultimate driving machine…Zoom-Zoom” Anti-aging? “Correct fine lines and wrinkles before it’s too late.” Fragrances? “Sizzles with surprising femininity and just a hint of sexiness.” Are you thirsty to be thin? Young? Sexy? Exciting? Come to the waters that flow through the mall and the catalog and drink. Those are some shallow waters indeed!
Jesus comes to us offering far more than sips from shallow, unsatisfying sources. Jesus comes into a parched and thirsty generation with the promise of deep, living water. Jesus speaks to people who have tried what the world has to offer and found it empty. He speaks to people who are burned out on shallow promises and false advertising. Jesus calls out to those who are simply exhausted from their efforts to satisfy emptiness. I was reminded of Isaiah’s words in 55:2 – “Why do you spend…your labor for that which does not satisfy?” Why do we keep going back for more when we know we are not being truly filled? Why do we waste our time with things that do not matter to our relationship with God? It is important that we notice what Jesus DOES NOT say. He does not say, “Whatever drives your thirst, come to me.” He offers us this alternative: “When you have discovered that none of the empty promises of a seductive culture can ease your thirst, come to me and drink of the true and living water.”[i]
At some point in time we come up against a thirst we cannot quench…we reach the limit of our ability to tolerate our circumstances. We find ourselves in a place that is unsatisfying and we just give up. It is then that Jesus calls to us: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me.” This call pulls us up from our beaten down state and lifts us into new possibilities with Christ. Common sense tells us to drink when we are thirsty. Jesus tells us the same thing. Come to him when you are thirsty for true fulfillment of your needs. Come to Jesus when you realize that nothing and no one else can fill you up and guide you forward. Drink deeply from the well of Living Water. John gives us this image of the Holy Spirit flowing into us as we drink to quench our thirst for meaning, acceptance, forgiveness, and love. Then he gives us another image that deals with what we do next.
You remember in the Acts 2 story, after the disciples are filled with the Holy Spirit through the rushing wind and the tongues of fire, they go out to preach. It is an amazing miracle as we realize that this day is a major festival and the streets are filled with people from many regions, speaking many different languages. As the disciples preach, everyone understands what they are saying in their own language. There is debate as to whether the disciples spoke in different languages or if the people were able to hear in their own language. The exact method how this miracle took place is not what is important. There are a couple of things about this story that are significant:
- These disciples were not known for their public speaking skills or their willingness to boldly proclaim to large crowds…
YET, they stepped out confidently and began to share the good news of Jesus with complete strangers in the street.
- People who were unfamiliar with Jesus; people who didn’t even speak his language were able to hear the story and respond.
- Among those who heard, some listened and believed – about 3,000 were converted that day, the Bible says. There were plenty of others who heard but did not listen and simply walked away…Who knows? – Maybe they heard the message again and were later converted.
John’s text may use different images that we don’t always associate with Pentecost, but his message remains the same. When we receive the Holy Spirit, we are obliged to share the Good News. Drink and then offer the drink to someone else. “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow ricers of living water.” John uses a lose translation from Zechariah here to point out that God has always intended for the message of salvation to be proclaimed to all nations and peoples. [“On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem half of them to the eastern sea and half to the western sea…”] God never intended the message to be confined to the Chosen People or to any other group. The instruction has always been to share the message of God’s sovereignty and God’s love. Just before Jesus ascended into heaven – remember last week – he told the disciples: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Whether you view Pentecost through the fiery lens of Acts 2 or through John’s lens of clear living water, the message is the same: We receive the Holy Spirit and we are obligated to respond. Both versions of the story show us a Jesus who says: “Look, if you come to me with your thirst, I will quench it; I will also make you a river of life.” When we bring our thirst to Jesus, he doesn’t simply hand us a satisfying spiritual beverage. Instead, he fills us with the power of the Holy Spirit and expects us to participate in the eternal life of God; he expects this living water to flow through us and out from us.
Ultimately, the reality of this miracle thirst-quencher brings us full-circle to John 1:14 – “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Jesus, God’s only Son, was born into this world, suffered alongside us, and paid the price with his life. Now, through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is once again alive in the flesh of all believers. The mandate of Pentecost is that we are not supposed to keep Jesus to ourselves, in our flesh. As we drink in the power of the Holy Spirit our hearts become like Jesus’ – large and life-giving. Are you thirsty? Then come to Jesus and drink! In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Long, Thomas G. Feasting on the Word, Y-A, V-3, P-23, © 2011 Westminster John Knox Press