Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Believer's Heart: Sermon on John 7:37-52


Scripture can be found here....

It was one of the most joyous festivals on the Jewish calendar—it still is, “z’man simchateinu,” “the season of our rejoicing.” And then as now, it took place immediately following the most solemn festival of the year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when Jews fast and “afflict the soul,” showing remorse for the sins of the past twelve months.[i] This morning’s passage takes place during the season of joy, the festival of Booths, more commonly called by its Hebrew name, “Sukkot.”

Like the other two major festivals, Passover and Pentecost, Sukkot carries layers of meaning. It is a festival that is “both historical and agricultural.” I first learned about Sukkot in seminary, where it was celebrated by the construction of a Sukkah (booth) on the lawn. The website Judaism 101 states: “In honor of the holiday's historical significance, we are commanded to dwell in temporary shelters, as our ancestors did in the wilderness.” Therefore the Sukkah, by tradition, has to be open to the elements—you can have a loose covering, say, of tree branches, but you have to be able to see the stars through the roof, the rain has to be able to come in. Jews live in their Sukkah for the length of the festival, as their health permits. In it they have an experience that reminds them of God’s provision, even when they were on the move in the wilderness. Sukkot also functions as a harvest festival. The temporary shelters are often decorated with various kinds of squash and corn, giving the booth a decidedly Thanksgiving-ish feel.[ii]

If you think about it, one element very definitively joins these two aspects of the celebration together, the harvest festival and the commemoration of the wilderness journey: that element is water. God miraculously provided water in the desert, so that the people would not die of thirst, and so that they would learn to trust in God’s ongoing and dependable care. And a harvest festival, especially one taking place in the Middle East, would, of course, have to take note of water, without which the crops would never grow.

So each day of this very joyous, very important week-long celebration, there was a solemn procession of the high priest to the pool at Siloam, where a golden pitcher was filled with water, and solemnly processed back to the temple, where it was poured out as an offering upon the high altar.

We come in at the middle of the story, which starts at the beginning of the chapter. There, we learn, Jesus is hiding out in Galilee, because, verse 1 tells us, the “Jews were trying to kill him.”

This verse, even though it’s not a part of our passage, deserves a full-stop. We ‘re going to have to leave the season of joy for a few minutes to turn to a subject more appropriate to a Christian Day of Atonement. We’ve been in the gospel of John for a full two months, and it’s past time we talked about how that term “the Jews” is used throughout this gospel. The first thing you need to know is that in the Greek, the word is “Judeans,” which refers to the inhabitants of region of Judea. And in fact, Jesus is hiding out from certain inhabitants of Judea—those religious authorities who are threatened by the things he has been saying or doing.

But more important than that, is the history of the writing of this gospel. When the author of the fourth gospel was committing his words to papyrus, Jews who were followers of Jesus were in the midst of a terrible and escalating conflict with Jews who were not followers of Jesus. In fact, the conflict had reached such a boiling point that the Jesus-followers had been kicked out of the synagogue, and were no longer permitted to worship alongside their kith and kin.

Now, if you are wondering how people who used to worship together and get along just fine could get to such a point of conflict and even verbal violence, just look at those churches in our own denomination who are struggling with the issue of the ordination of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered ministers, deacons, or elders. In the news this week is First Presbyterian Church of Houston, which is holding a congregational meeting this morning for the purpose of voting on whether or not to leave the PCUSA. In times of heated disagreement, even with those we love, sometimes we feel betrayed and feel the need to part ways. We can say terrible things. We can cut people off, and cut them out. The gospel of John, while depicting the life and ministry of Jesus, is also portraying life 60 or more years later, when people who had formerly worshipped side-by-side had turned against each other.

The utter tragedy of this is the fact that this gospel has been its unique origin story. The accusation “the Jews killed Jesus” stuck, despite the following facts: 1, Jesus was himself an observant Jew. 2, every one of the twelve apostles were also Jews. 3, Historically, Jews were not permitted by the Romans to kill anyone. And 4, It was, in fact, the Roman Empire that executed Jesus. When we read the words “the Jews” in this gospel, we must remember that we are getting two stories: A story of Jesus, and a story of the recriminations that flew around in the midst of a dreadful family fight that inadvertently led to centuries of discrimination, murder, and even genocide.

We return, now, to our passage. Not even this joyous festival could, at first, entice Jesus to venture to Jerusalem, because he was hiding out, avoiding the places where the religious authorities might see and hear him, and be provoked. But Jesus’ brothers goad him to go—even though, or maybe because, they don’t believe in a thing he is saying or doing. “Sure,” they say, “show yourself to the people!”

And, maybe because of a funny kind of sibling dynamic, he goes. And he stands up in the temple and teaches and preaches, and attracts exactly the kind of attention he didn’t want.

And now it is the last day of the festival. Each day for seven days, the high priest has processed solemnly to the pool of Siloam, filled a golden pitcher with water, and processed back to the temple to pour out the water as an offering. On this eight and final day, the great day of the festival, Jesus cries out. It’s as if something has been bottled up inside him, and he can’t hold back any longer. He cries, “‘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 once again, we have Jesus identifying himself as the source of living water, just as he did in his long conversation by Jacob’s well in Samaria. And just in case we’ve forgotten, John reminds us: Jesus is talking about the Spirit.

I imagine Jesus, here, at the end of his rope. He is on a mission to reveal the power and glory and love of God to a very doubtful world. He has the support of his followers, the twelve. And he has the support of people like the Samaritan woman with whom he conversed at the well, but, let’s face it, she’s the definition of an outsider. He has the sporadic support of the crowds, but that ebbs and flows like the tide. He doesn’t have the support of the religious authorities; they seem ready to judge him from the start. He doesn’t even have the support of his own family, the brothers he was raised with. I think he feels a kind of desperation, born of the urgency he feels to get out his message and the frustration he feels at being so consistently undermined and misunderstood. And he blurts it out: Are you thirsty for the Spirit of God? Are you dying for being parched in the wilderness of your everyday life? Come and get it: I’ve got the living water, the living Spirit you need to refresh yourself, and fill you up, and make you glow again. I am the source. Come to me if you are thirsty. Take a nice long drink. Jesus is talking about the Spirit.

But here’s the surprise: Jesus is also talking about us. We are the believers. We are the ones with the hearts out of which the living water will flow, because once we take a drink, once we have been refreshed—well, we can’t help turning to the next guy and saying, “You won’t believe how wonderful this living water is. Here, try a sip.” Jesus is talking about the joy you feel when you know you have basked—even for a moment—in the presence of God, when you know that the Spirit is flowing through you. When you read a verse of scripture and think, My God, that was meant for me. Or when you sing a hymn, and realize that through that music, God is singing you.  Or when you join together with other people to create something beautiful for God, something life-giving for God’s people, and you realize, right in the middle of it, God is doing this wonderful thing, we are riding God’s wave here! That’s it: that’s the living water. It flows and we are quenched, we are laughing, we feel alive and hopeful and like maybe we’d better drop to our knees and say “Thanks.” It flows, and we think, somebody should have a party, because this is worth celebrating!

It doesn’t go well for Jesus. Have you ever tried to do something beautiful, and you feel as if it all went terribly wrong? It doesn’t go well for Jesus. The crowd is divided. The bigwigs are having a fight, and trying to figure out why no one will arrest this muckraker. And our passage ends on a miserable, negative note, when Nicodemus, the one authority who stands up for Jesus—or maybe, just stands up for due process—is shut down with a nasty verbal slap: What, are you from that backwater Galilee too?

But just because people don’t agree, doesn’t mean that the Spirit is quenched. Out of the believer’s heart will flow rivers of living water. Out of our own being, out of who we are (we people of faith trying to figure all this out two thousand years later), out of our hearts will flow God’s Holy Spirit, and someone else will be quenched.

A couple of days ago at a gathering of friends, we closed with this prayer:

Christ calls you deeper into what you are here to do.
Deeper into the present moment,
deeper into the life you are already living.
Deeper into the truth that is already before you.
Deeper into the Presence that is already within you.[iii]

We are called, both in seasons of joy and seasons of self-reflection, to go deeper and to recognize that the living water is already within us, that the Spirit is already moving among us, and that all we need do, is to let the river flow. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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