In the past, when I have planned for Pentecost, the primary image in my mind has been fire: flames, like tongues of fire, raining down from heaven to earth, and alighting on the people gathered in Jerusalem; flames on the cake that celebrates the birthday of the church; red stoles and banners with flames in vivid shades of red, orange and yellow; streamers and balloons in these same vibrant colors filling the air and the skies. Pentecost is a day for fire!
So when we read the texts for Pentecost aloud at our planning retreat and tried to hear them again as if for the first time, I think all of us—my colleagues on the worship team, Amy Sigmon, Taylor Burton-Edwards, Jackson Henry, and I—found ourselves struck not just by images of fire, but by of all four of the primary elements believed in Western culture to be fundamental to life: earth, air, fire, water. It is interesting that all four elements appear in the readings for Pentecost. Especially prominent in the readings is the image of water.
During the season of Lent, we focused on preparing the community of the faithful to receive (or refresh with) the waters of the baptismal covenant on Easter morning. Over these last Great Fifty Days of Easter we have been talking about living into that covenant made by water and the Spirit. And now, today, we hear God speaking to us strongly in these texts through the words about water. This is why we asked our children to help us focus on the waters of our baptismal covenant at the start of today’s service.
So instead of playing with fire this Pentecost, I want to invite you to play with water.
Especially I want to focus on Jesus’ words in the Gospel reading for this holy day: “ 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’” (John 7:37-38, NRSV).
Out of the hearts, or, to be more accurate to the Greek, out of the center of the bellies of believers, rivers of living water shall flow.
Jesus is talking about us! He is talking about his own followers when he references the passage from the prophet Isaiah! He’s talking about our beliefs and our bellies! He’s calling forth living water—the same living water he offered to the Samaritan woman at the well—to flow from the center of each one of us, out into the world.
We live in a world that desperately needs a drink. People are thirsty. Around the globe, people are literally thirsty—for clean, safe water to quench their parched lips.
But Jesus knew that our thirst could not be quenched simply by the physical element of water. Yes, God calls us first and foremost to care for the basic physical needs of God’s people. But we must offer more than just physical care. Because people are thirsty for more than the meeting of their physical needs. People are thirsty for a word of hope, a sign of peace, a promise of a better tomorrow, and an abundant life not just for the present generation, but for future generations.
I don’t know about you, but I struggle to drink the recommended six to eight glasses of water recommended for good health. I have to work to get it in. Most days, I am not successful, so I spend my life somewhat dehydrated and thirsty. But even as I write these words, I know that this is a problem only to those who are privileged to have daily access to an unlimited supply of safe, clean drinking water.
According to The Water Project, over one billion people in the world suffer from water scarcity:
. . .water scarcity is either the lack of enough water (quantity) or lack of access to safe water (quality).
It's hard for most of us to imagine that clean, safe water is not something that can be taken for granted. But, in the developing world, finding a reliable source of safe water is often time-consuming and expensive. This is known as economic scarcity. Water can be found...it simply requires more resources to do it.
In other areas, the lack of water is a more profound problem. There simply isn't enough. That is known as physical scarcity.
The problem of water scarcity is a growing one. As more people put ever-increasing demands on limited supplies, the cost and effort to build or even maintain access to water will increase. And water's importance to political and social stability will only grow with the crisis.
As I read about the crisis of water scarcity in our land and around the world, my mind and heart have led me to pause and pray for certain populations about whose water problems I am all too familiar.
- I pray for my sisters and brothers in Flint, Michigan, who have been battling the city to repair their lead pipe infrastructure so that they can have access to safe, clean water since their crisis began in 2014.
- I pray for the remaining inhabitants in the war-torn nation of Syria, many of whom are dying not from bullets or bombs, but because they cannot safely access water and food, they die in hiding from dehydration and starvation.
- I pray for women and girls who must walk many miles each day to obtain water for their families.
- I pray for the Meskwaki and Sioux tribal nations, especially those in the Standing Rock Reservation, who have been fighting the building of the Dakota Access pipeline, in part over concerns that this could potentially pollute their water supply.
What water crises cause you to pause and pray? Are there water issues in your community? Is there an overabundance of water from flooding? Has water caused damage in the form of heavy storms? Is there a shortage due to drought? Is the water in your community safe to drink, or do you recommend bottled water? Do you take the faucet for granted, or do you understand that each time you pour a glass of water or take a shower or swim in a pool, you and those in your community are exercising the right of the privileged in this world?
Our physical need for water is great. Water is not optional. But water is so much more than a substance necessary for physical survival. For me, water is a source of spiritual sustenance.
I love the ocean. When I was a child, I saw the ocean only a few times. Our family lived far from the beach and vacations to places other than to visit family were rare. But when I was a young, single mother, at the urging of my dear friend and spiritual advisor Rev. Fred Conger, I initiated what has now become an annual pilgrimage to the sea.
The ritual began when my two sons were still very young. It was not easy. I lived in Chicago, so getting to the beach in the Florida panhandle meant a fourteen-hour drive each way. As a single mom, I didn’t have very much money. I would save a little at a time all year, but even then, I would really only manage to store up just enough to pay for gas, food, and rent on a very basic, inexpensive seaside cottage for the week. There was never money to go to restaurants, or play mini golf, or go fishing, or enjoy a water park. We didn’t even go to movies. When I took my sons to the beach, we cooked all our meals in our cottage and spent our time in the sand and water.
I remember when I first started going, I found the sound of the waves so soothing. In the gentle lapping, I heard the heartbeat of the earth, pounding day in and day out, year after year, generation after generation, from the beginning of time to eternity. The sea felt like the source of life itself—the belly out of which the living water flowed into my sometimes troubled soul. I would sit in the sand watching my children and sob as I poured out my heart to God.
Each year when I returned, through happy times and through times of intense pain and struggle, I found quenching for my parched soul. My annual trip became for me a yearly Pentecost moment in which I felt the Spirit of God being poured out on me through the living waters of the ocean. It restored my soul. It renewed my life.
The good news is that on Pentecost, the people received the Holy Spirit! God poured out so much grace and love that the Spirit of Christ literally filled their hearts to overflowing. They drank in so much living water that some who witnessed their joyous response thought maybe they’d all had a little too much to drink.
But we can’t drink too much of the living water that Christ offers. We can never drink too much of it. When the joy of the Spirit flows into us, we have to just open our mouths and our arms and our hearts as wide as we can and let the living water flow in. We have to let Christ fill us up so that his love and grace literally overflow out of us and into the world. That’s what he meant, I think, when 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.’”
We are believers who have drunk deeply of the living water of Jesus Christ.
Out of our hearts shall flow rivers of living water upon all those whom we love in Christ’s name.
This morning, as the Great Fifty Days of Easter come to an end, we are going to close the season by giving thanks that God has filled us to overflowing with the living water of Jesus Christ through this holy Easter season. We are going to give thanks to God by offering ourselves as vessels, pouring out Christ’s living water in ministry to all the world.
If there are laypersons being commissioned for special ministries, invite them to come forward at this time for the service of commissioning. If not, we strongly encourage you to continue the service with prayers of intercession and the celebration of Holy Communion.