Over these past several weeks, we’ve been hearing stories about Jesus welcoming people into a life filled with abundance. Let’s review those stories to help us remember. You may wish to open a Bible to the Gospel of John to help in the remembering.
The first place to turn is John, chapter 3. In this story, we heard Jesus’ invitation to Nicodemus. Can you retell that story? Take a look at it to refresh your memory.
Next, we learned about Jesus meeting the woman at the well. That story is found in John, chapter 4. Remember that story? Can you summarize it?
Last week, thanks to Pastor Ron, you learned that Jesus is the Bread of Life. This story is found in John 6:35-59. Can you also remember that story?
This week, we hear about Jesus being life-giving water. And we also hear about the Holy Spirit. In this story, Jesus continues to invite people into a life of abundance. But, there is an undercurrent of tension that is beginning to follow his movements. Even as Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit, we also hear in the background about plotting and deception.
Today's story is from John, chapter 7. After you read it, close your eyes and picture in your imagination what is happening. Feel the mood. How it changes as the story progresses.
We read from John, chapter 7.
On the last and most important day of the festival, Jesus stood up and shouted,
All who believe in me should drink!
As the scriptures said concerning me,
Rivers of living water will flow out from within him.”
Jesus said this concerning the Spirit. Those who believed in him would soon receive the Spirit, but they hadn’t experienced the Spirit yet since Jesus hadn’t yet been glorified.
When some in the crowd heard these words, they said, “This man is truly the prophet.” Others said, “He’s the Christ.” But others said, “The Christ can’t come from Galilee, can he? Didn’t the scripture say that the Christ comes from David’s family and from Bethlehem, David’s village?” So the crowd was divided over Jesus. Some wanted to arrest him, but no one grabbed him.
The guards returned to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked, “Why didn’t you bring him?”
The guards answered, “No one has ever spoken the way he does.”
The Pharisees replied, “Have you too been deceived? Have any of the leaders believed in him? Has any Pharisee? No, only this crowd, which doesn’t know the Law. And they are under God’s curse!”
Nicodemus, who was one of them and had come to Jesus earlier, said, “Our Law doesn’t judge someone without first hearing him and learning what he is doing, does it?”
They answered him, “You are not from Galilee too, are you? Look it up and you will see that the prophet doesn’t come from Galilee.”
As I read, I invite you to close your eyes and to picture in your imaginations what is happening. Feel the mood and how it changes as the story progresses. (John 7:37-52 CEB)
This story begins with promises. It is set during the Feast of Tabernacles, which we also know as the Festival of Booths or Sukkot. The Feast of Tabernacles was one of three festivals that required, under Jewish law, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It was a festival of remembering for the people of Israel. Taking them back to their time in the wilderness, after they had been liberated from Egypt. It was a place where they were completely dependent upon God. This festival had two ceremonies, one centered around water and the other around light - two necessities that provided by God in the wilderness. God, who provided their every meal. Who ensured that they had water to drink. Who led them, even in the darkness of the wild places. Without God, Israel would not have survived. With God, Israel had life
As we’ve seen him do earlier in John around other Jewish festivals and practices, Jesus is using this opportunity to re-contextualize this festival around himself. And around who he is. He begins with a promise. Jesus calls out for all who are thirsty. And, then, he invites them to drink of him. He promises to be life-giving water. This water, he then explains, is the Holy Spirit. Inviting you to use your imagination once more, if you were in the crowd, how might you have felt or what would you have been thinking if you’d heard this invitation and promise from Jesus? Be honest. Time for responses.
Now, let’s think about the second half of the story. We hear voices in the crowd that question the validity of Jesus’ claims - just as some of us might have, too. The temple guards return to the Jewish leaders and tell them what’s been happening. The only one to stand up for Jesus is Nicodemus. But, then, he is quickly outnumbered and put down. Now what are you feeling? What are your thoughts? Are you asking the same questions? Are you getting uncomfortable?
It is easy for us to fall into a pattern of giving pat answers. What I like to call Sunday school answers. But, I wonder if you or I were present that day, which side we would be on and whether we would claim so quickly to be followers of Jesus.
Over these last two weeks, I participated in a two-week intensive with my doctoral cohort. The first week, the title of our class was “Not Your White Jesus: De-Centering Whiteness and Nurturing an Anti-Racist Community as Christian Formation.” The second week, the class title was “Risking Attention to Embodied Life Together.” Both of these classes talked about who we are as the Church. And, honestly, about who we haven’t been as the Church. It was a hard two weeks with many hard conversations. Painful conversations.
You see, we, as Christians, don’t have a good history here. It really begins with the early Church who, like us, was influenced by culture. By a culture that teaches us to create our own identity by being in opposition to others. By comparing ourselves to others. By being better than others. Or by exerting more power than others. We saw this carried out in the anti-Muslim fervor of the Crusades. We saw this in Luther’s time and in the use of this very scripture against the Jews. We see this in the Church today - how one form of Christianity is more representative than other forms of Christianity. Or how Christians are better than people of other faiths. And, we see it in ways that are even closer to home. How we have used scripture to exclude people from this abundant life that God offers for everyone and everything that God has created.
We need this life-giving water Jesus offers, this Holy Spirit. We need to drink of it deeply. Because it is the Spirit - and the Spirit alone - who can transform our hard and divisive hearts. Who can help us, as in the example - the surprising example - of Nicodemus. It is the Spirit alone who can help us understand that discipleship is hard. That pushing back when someone makes a racist comment, or an anti-gay comment, or an anti-conservative or anti-liberal comment, or any comment that “others” people is hard. It is a way of life that requires us to be utterly dependent upon God. That God will guide us through, even in those wilderness moments. As God did for Israel.
And just as Jesus does. He is the example for us. Jesus. He was willing to cross boundaries. To build relationships with those who had been tossed out or excluded by the community. To die because of it. So that all people - ourselves included - might experience abundant life. Together.
We are getting close to Lent. Over these next weeks, Jesus’ time with his disciples is about to change. His earthly ministry is nearing an end. Next week, we will celebrate the Transfiguration and then we will begin Lent with Ash Wednesday. Will you follow Jesus on this journey? Will you give up your life or even a portion of it to together travel this hard road with him - this road that leads, even in death, to abundant life?
I pray that you will. That you will drink and drink deeply of the life-giving Water Jesus offers. And that, in doing so, you, too, will experience the abundant life. Given by Jesus. For you. For all creation. Amen.