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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Rivers have always captured people’s imagination. The earliest civilizations were established along the great rivers of the Tigris Euphrates and the Indus. Rivers, both great and small, have been the inspiration of familiar melodies from the lamenting psalm by the Rivers of Babylon to the romantic Moon River, from the waltz step of the Blue Danube to the fatalistic Old Man River, “that just keep rolling along.” Rivers have served as a metaphor for the writings of devout spiritual authors such as Oswald Chambers in My Highest for His Utmost, “A river reaches places which its source never knows.” And rivers enchant us with their simplicity and playfulness, “I saw raindrops on the river, Joy is like the rain. Bit by bit the river grows, till all at once it overflows. Joy is like the rain.”
Not surprising, rivers have even inspired humor. “I like the scenery around river valleys,” a trickster once wrote, “Some are absolutely gorges.” In Paris, the police reported a man jumped into the river. Local authorities say he’s in Seine. A man jumped into the river in Cairo as well. Local police say he’s in de Nile.” For the 3rd graders among us, “Who carries out operations in a river? A sturgeon.” Or perhaps for the whimsical economist. “I enjoy throwing money in the river. It helps me study my cash flow.”
In the 1800’s, explorers were so fascinated with rivers and discovering their headwaters that their lives often erupted into public debates. Our own Mississippi River experienced such a dispute. In 1820, General Lewis Cass led an expedition to the lake he determined was the source of the Mississippi and subsequently named the source Cass Lake in his honor. 12 years later, in 1832, Henry Schoolcraft identified a lake further north, Lake Itasca, as the river’s true primary source. The familiar rocks of Lake Itasca are still celebrated today as the headwaters of the Mississippi.
The absence of water or a river in the ancient world, by contrast, was tragic. In the Old Testament, people suffered and died during droughts. Indeed, “no water” equaled no life, no growth, no fruit, and no harvest. That is where today’s gospel lesson begins.
St. John writes that it was the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles. The festival commemorated the Jewish people’s wandering in the wilderness for 40 years when God provided all that they needed for daily life including water. There was one ritual in particular which was unique to the city of Jerusalem, and that was a commemoration of God giving water when Moses struck the rock in the desert and water gushed forth. To mark this event, the priest would go into the center of Jerusalem where there was a large spring called the pool of Siloam. The water bubbled up out of this rock and the priest dipped a golden pitcher of water into it. For seven days, he would then carry it to the temple where he would pour it out in the temple.
On the last day of the festival, as Jesus was standing watching the priest bend down and dip the pitcher in the water, he said, “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.’” And then St. John adds, “Now Jesus 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.”
Now that phrase may seem odd, after all, the Spirit of God had been present since the beginning of creation. Indeed, in the Book of Genesis, we read that the Spirit moved over the waters. In each of the four gospels, we recall that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism in the form of a dove. We note as well that the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness to be tested. So what did St. John mean by suggesting that before this time, there was no Spirit? He meant that the Holy Spirit had not yet flowed into the human heart where it could change and do great things. That is what would happen at Pentecost.
Pentecost, you see, may honor the mighty wind filling the Upper Room and then sending the disciples out into the streets of Jerusalem speaking in new languages. It may celebrate the tongues of fire resting on the disciples. But like the discovery of the headwaters of the great rivers, and foundation of the earliest civilization, Pentecost is about discovering the fundamental beginning of the river of God’s love, the headwater of the gifts of courage and strength which flow through Christ into his Church through the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is about the love of God and his desire to restore life to a broken world. It is about God’s desire to enlist all his followers into his holy mission, and Jesus’ invitation to all who are thirsty to come to him. Yes, it about the fountains of God’s grace and strength being turned on, and the living water gushing forth and suddenly flowing into the hearts of God’s people to flow out again into the world through you.
So what is this living water? What is this living water that is to flow and flow and flow from you? The living water is the Spirit of God, the love of God, God’s compassion and tenderness and mercy and kindness and gentleness for all people. It is the love of God that is flowing out of you. Out of your mouth. Out of your lips. Out of your hands. Out of your eyes. The living, love of God, flowing out from you.
Let me offer three examples of this river of love. I think first of Mother Teresa, living and working in Calcutta, India. I saw her once when I was a teacher in India. The living conditions in the city were miserable. Yet, every day Mother Teresa and her sisters of mercy went and found to find the starving and dying people in the gutters of the city. She found people who had been discarded and appeared to be worth nothing. Mother Teresa brought them back her home, to feed them, to bring them back to life, or at least to provide them with dignity and love in their dying hours. What does this overflowing river of love say to us today and to those who live on our streets starving for love and affection? There are men and women in our midst who selflessly and freely give of their time and resources to take care of the poor and the most need in our own city. The rivers of living water flow through the acts of charity and love, and they do not ask that they be rewarded. They are men and women like you who heard Jesus’ invitation to all who are thirsty and came and who are now simply living out their call. Remember the words of Oswald Chambers, “A river reaches places which its source never knows.”
Or consider the example of Corporal Desmond Doss who served as a combat medic in World War II and whose story was featured in the movie Hacksaw Ridge. He was conscientious objector who served as a combat medic and received the Medal of Honor for saving 75 wounded infantry men in the line of fire on Hacksaw Ridge. Because of his religious beliefs, he refused to kill an enemy soldier, or carry a rifle into battle. There are men and women in our midst who have worked to save the lives of their neighbors, and who were decorated with the Bronze Medal, and yet never speak of their honors. The rivers of living water flow through their acts of courage and fidelity, and yet they demand that they be honored. They are simply living out their call. Remember, “A river reaches places which its source never knows.
Or consider the teachers of faith. Former President Jimmy Carter is arguably the most famous living Sunday School teacher, but he carries on a rich presidential tradition. President Zachary Taylor observed a Sunday School program on the day he came down with the mysterious illness that killed him. President Franklin Pierce erected the first White House Christmas tree for a group of Sunday School children. President Benjamin Harrison taught Sunday School, and so did Richard Nixon during his college years. There are such men and women, devout parents and grandparents, mentors and guides who do this because that the hope and promise of the Christ is only a generation from extinction if there is no one who will tell their story. The rivers of living water flow through the witness of faith and the gentle instruction of Christian hope.
As God’s church,here at Lake of the Isles, we believe that the Holy Spirit still flows into the hearts of believers, and is still yearning to be made real in everything we do, however simple and ordinary. The Spirit may not be filling you with a dramatic courage to preach to the nations or travel to the ends of the earth. But the Holy Spirit is opening your heart to listen, and using your frail words to speak to other in your own unique way.
Pentecost, my friends, begins anew when men and women hear Jesus’ invitation to all who are thirsty to come to him, and then when God fills the hearts believers with his promise of living. And that is how you and I, we are to live out our calling faithfully, nobly, and generously every day in this world. The promise of living flows through our witness of hope and thanksgiving in a hurting world. The promise of living flows in our respect for our friends and our labor in an unjust of economic and social disparate world. The promise of God’s living is expressed in our singing in joy and thanksgiving even in the midst of pain and sorrow.
“Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” What are the signs of God’s promise of living flowing from your life to others? Be bold, be daring. “A river reaches places which its source never knows.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.