The Rev. Melanie McCarley
The symbols of Pentecost: Wind, flame and the dove are well-known. Since this year is far from “normal” in any sense of the word, I’m taking the liberty of veering a bit “off the expected path”. Today, I would like to talk of the symbol of water. Specifically “living water”. That’s right—water on Pentecost. And, before you ask; no, I am not attempting to douse the flame of the Holy Spirit. Listen again to the Gospel lesson for today: “On the last day of the (harvest) festival (of Sukkot SUE-COAT) Jesus says, “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.’” The lesson concludes by telling us that Jesus proclaimed these words about the Holy Spirit, which believers in him were to receive.
So….what is living water? And how might this be related to the Holy Spirit? In Hebrew, Living Water is Mayim chaim (MY-eem KHY-eem), referring to water in the form of rain or flowing from a natural spring, which has come directly from God. This is water that has not been carried by human hands or stored in cisterns. Living Water is also a contrast to sea water, especially that of the Dead Sea, which, at first glance, appears as though it would be refreshing, but is in truth, poisonous, and causes the land around it to be barren. In Hebrew thought, Living Water is associated with the presence of God.
To get a better picture of this, I’d like to share with you a wonderful prophecy from one of the prophetic masters of the Old Testament, Ezekiel. The Book of Ezekiel presents us with a curious and wonderful picture of living water. In this vision, we find the prophet Ezekiel at the temple, and once there he spies a small (tiny) trickle of water flowing out from underneath the altar. Take a moment and look at our altar here at St. Paul’s and imagine this happening. The water flows out of the temple down the south stairs. Once Ezekiel is a thousand cubits (about 1,500 feet) away from the altar, he notices something peculiar. He sees that this water, flowing from the altar, has grown ankle deep. He looks again and discovers another 1,000 cubits further on and it has become knee-deep, and a thousand more it is waist deep until finally, it has become a stream so deep and so wide it cannot be crossed. It’s a strange vision—really. This tiny trickle of water, which turns into a river; becomes fuller the farther it flows from its source. How is this possible?
What’s more, we are told that this tiny stream coming from the altar is flowing southeast out of the city of Jerusalem. That stream, coming from the altar of God, it’s headed directly for the Dead Sea, twelve miles away. That’s right, that water, is headed to a poisoned salt wasteland where absolutely nothing can live. It’s headed toward death. And we can’t help but wonder what will happen when it gets there.
Remarkably, this water has a marvelous affect. Ezekiel tells us that on the banks of the river there are many trees. This water gives life! And Ezekiel is told “It will come about that every living creature which swarms in every place where the river goes, will live. And there will be very many fish, for these waters go there and the others become fresh; so wherever the river goes (whatever that water touches), everything will live.” Really? Can the water, flowing from the altar of God, be so powerful that it might be able to overcome none other than the Dead Sea? Apparently so.
Imagine how people living in the Middle East would have heard this message. People who live in this part of the world naturally understand the importance of water. In the arid conditions of this landscape water is scarce and precious. So, we shouldn’t be surprised to discover that water is likened to redemption—to life. That water, flowing from the altar of God to the Dead Sea is God’s plan of redemption for the people of God; perhaps even for the world.
Boil it all down and what you get is this: The Holy Spirit bestows life. And water is equivalent to life—all this comes from God. Certainly this makes sense to us, as we are brought to new life in Christ through none other than the waters of Holy Baptism. Here is a Christian interpretation of Ezekiel’s vision. That tiny stream of living water, beginning from the altar and growing into a mighty river is none other than the gift of new life given to the people of God; a people whose numbers have grown exponentially through the sacrament of Baptism—through which we are gifted with the Holy Spirit. In other words, we have become part of the living water of God. We are the river! So, when Jesus says: “out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” It makes sense that what Jesus is saying is that new hope, new life, and the promises of God are revealed in none other than the followers of Christ. The followers, whom today, we are told are filled with the Spirit of God. We are the river!
So, think of the disciples of Christ who were filled with the Holy Spirit and sent out into the world to proclaim the Good News of God as the beginning of that river—a tiny trickle growing into a rushing stream and finally, a mighty river. The mission of those first apostles (and now, a mission belonging to ourselves) is to bring life to the world—a life springing from the promises of God. And, notice how that small stream grew into a mighty stream. Consider all of those who have heard this message from the first apostles to ourselves, becoming part of that river as well. The river grows as the Good News spreads across the world. And that river brings life and hope to all whom it touches.
For those of us who receive water at the twist of a faucet, it’s easy to take water for granted. And so, the symbol of water as life, spirit and redemption can be lost on us. Let’s let today be a reminder to us of the power, grace and goodness of water.
So, before you jump into the pool, wade in a stream or visit the ocean this summer; give a thought to that wonderful symbol of water. Specifically, living water, water which promises life and redemption and flows from the altar of God; and imagine how you might impart living water to those around you. As disciples and recipients of the water of Baptism, I’d like to challenge you with a few questions to ponder this Pentecost Sunday. What does it mean for you to be a part of the living water of God? One drop of water, on it’s own hardly makes a river. It needs to be joined with others to make that happen. One Christian on his or her own—that’s one thing—but put us all together and you get the church. Even though we are physically distant during this time of COVID-19, we are still the family of God? The doors might be shut for everyone’s safety, but the church—well, the church has always been open. How does the Holy Spirit continue to bring us life during this time? And, what’s more, how do we share this promise of life with others? These are good questions to ponder—because, after all, physically distant, or gathered together in one room like the disciples on that day of Pentecost so long ago, we are the church—empowered with the Spirit of God. For the gift of the Holy Spirit we give thanks. Amen.