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.'”
In Jesus’ time, the Festival of Booths, or Sukkot, was one of the three big annual festivals. It was all about God living in the midst of people and on the last day of the festival, the theme was water. A priest would go to the pool of Siloam with a golden pitcher and then carry it back to the temple. There he would pour it into a silver bowl next to the altar and pray for rain. But it was more than just a prayer for rain, it was a prayer for God’s abundant, life-giving spirit to be poured out on the people.
We need to remember that Israel is a dry desert place. If you get caught in the Judean desert without water, you will be dead in a day. Water is scarce and precious. We take water for granted, but the people of Jesus’ time could not. Water is life, so this was a profound symbol of God’s graciousness. And it was on this day that Jesus said these words: `…let the one who believes in me drink…Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.'”
Do you hear how subversive what he said sounded? He was taking on himself power that only the priests could wield. And, more, he was saying that any person could become the source of life-giving water. In essence, he was saying that ordinary people could be agents of the Holy Spirit. Ordinary people could transform the world.
And then we have the story from Acts about the day of Pentecost. For those of us who like a well-ordered liturgy, this event is a nightmare. Imagine trying to get through a worship service here at the Indian Hill Church with wind and fire tearing around and with people speaking all kinds of different languages. And imagine what it would be like if every person here thought that he or she was an agent of the Holy Spirit? Oh, wait a minute. That is just what Jesus was saying. Jesus wasn’t just talking about the people of his place and time. Jesus was talking about ordinary people in 21st century Cincinnati. He was talking about you and me.
We like living in a tame and ordered world. But if we do believe in Jesus, if we are serious about letting him be our Lord, then we need to open ourselves to wind and fire. We need to be ready to have our safe, quiet lives upended and turned around. Because the Holy Spirit doesn’t believe in tame and quiet. The Holy Spirit is always pulling us out of our safety zone into the future. The Holy Spirit is pouring living water out on us and calling us to slake the thirst of this thirsty world. This call isn’t for someone else. This call isn’t long ago and far away. This call is now, and it is for us.
Now, personally, it makes me nervous to say the things to you that I have just said. I like my life calm and orderly. I like a certain amount of nostalgia. As I have said many times, if I liked change I wouldn’t be an Episcopalian! But I have learned too often that living the Christian life is filled with twists and turns and new directions, and that God is always, always, moving to transform the world – through me, through you, by anyone and anything. And I have learned that nostalgia is the enemy of that transformation. It’s a way of avoiding the Holy Spirit. As someone once said, “Nostalgia is the belief that God’s best work is behind him.” So wishing that things would stay the way they are, or God forbid, the way they used to be, is not the way to live the Christian life.
So why do it? If the Christian life can be so upsetting, why not just say “No, thank you?” Plenty of people live happy lives without ever changing much. And, of course, that’s always a choice for us as well. But here’s the thing: what Jesus is offering us is the water of life. Imagine living all your life drinking flat, lukewarm tap water, and then, at the thirstiest moment of your life, being given a big glass of ice water from a spring. That’s the difference. Imagine how grateful you would be to the person who gave you that water. And then imagine that this person gave you the keys to the place where the spring water and ice cubes are kept! That is what Jesus offers us – a life filled with joy and refreshment and satisfaction, a life that is a delight to us and to the people around us. The life that Jesus offers is deep and rich and filled with joy. And that is the gift of the Holy Spirit.
In a 2007 edition of Newsweek magazine, author and radio personality Garrison Keillor was asked to choose what he considered to be the five most important books. Some readers were probably surprised to find that he ranked the Book of Acts at the top of his list. When describing the Book of Acts, Keillor offered this concise but potent summation: “The flames lit on their little heads and bravely and dangerously went they onward.” The gift is life-giving and life-changing, all at the same time.
You and I – ordinary people – are offered that gift. May God give us grace to drink of God’s living water and to become fountains of that water for the world.