Have you ever been in a room and were certain that everyone around you was talking about you? Maybe it was in quiet whispers and looks you couldn’t hear or maybe in a language you didn’t understand? My guess is, that most of the time the paranoia is more about us than it is a reality of the situation. But, if the gospel writer still telling a true story, that is what Jesus walked into when he went to Jerusalem.
Let’s back up just a bit and offer us a little context. The Festival of Booths or Tabernacles or Succoth had been a harvest festival. It was part of a tradition that when it came time for the harvest, the harvest with the food that would sustain the people for the year, it was clearly really important and they would build these tents in the fields they would rise early with the sun, labor in the fields all day, and return to their tents at sunset, just to do it again until the work was complete. At the end, there was time to celebrate. It is still celebrated today at synagogues and in people’s backyards as a way to come together, offer gratitude, and celebrate what God has given.
In ancient times and over time, it was paired up with the story of the Hebrew people’s 40 years in the desert, wandering and nomadic. When there was a temple, Succoth was one of three pilgrimage festivals each year.
I don’t know what you know about farming or growing things, but, the majority of living things need water to sustain life and to grow: people, animals, plants. And in the middle east, there is a lot of deserts. The waters were vitally important to the crops. See, you could be the best farmer in all the empire, but there are some things that would be outside of your control–insects, the sun, the water. There is a trust that the waters will come and they will be enough for life.
So there is a tradition that says on the last days were priests would take water for the wadi, almost like a natural cistern, and pour it out in front of the altar of God before the people–a celebration of life poured out.
So, Jerusalem would be full for the festival of booths. At the beginning of this chapter, Jesus is with his family, his brothers, and they are encouraging Jesus to go to Jerusalem. They say, remind him it will be full there and if someone really could do what he says he could day… that person should make a big deal about it. “If you really are a healer Jesus you wouldn’t be doing it quietly.” The author says they don’t believe in Jesus, in what he says he can do. It’s like they’re goading him. They know him! He’s not a big deal. Jesus says he’s not going to go, it’s not his time. But after his brothers leave, he quietly enters the city, as if he just didn’t want to go with them. Siblings, right?
And a much as Jesus said “not my time!” he was clearly doing some teaching while he was there because people were talking. Like, walking into a room and everyone goes from regular conversations to hushed whispers. And for most of us it’s ego or anxiety, but in Jesus’ case… it seems like it was true, there were corners of the city of Jerusalem were talking about Jesus: wondering who he was, what it means, what his plan is, is he what they say he is or are his brothers right, and what does it all mean?
Even the Pharisees, the religious leaders are hearing the murmurers and questions and whispers and shouts. They seem to understand that there is something about this Jesus. Something Jesus said was a problem. Maybe they thought Jesus had all the right words, lots of the prophets talked about water but was using them wrong. Maybe they thought that Jesus needed to go to the years of the religious leader education. They definitely thought that nothing good came from Galilee–real thinkers, leaders, smart folks came from the city, Jerusalem, studied for years and were trained on what to say and how to say it and what isn’t right. What Jesus was doing wasn’t right. And there ought to be consequences and he ought to be stopped.
What did he say? As the water flowed on the final day of the festival, Jesus taught from inside the temple–I have the living water, come and drink. It will flow out.
I try to remind us again that despite the fact that the books are ancient and saw the world differently it doesn’t mean that they were unintelligent. Our authors were clever, understood and knew the ancient texts, had wordplay and puns. The author of this gospel knew the prophets as well as he knew Jesus, so, when we run across things in we have to wonder about why those word choices.
It turns out in the Greek where what we have read this day when it said, from the believer’s heart pours forth living water, has also been translated as: Jesus said of himself, from his heart pours forth living water. The Greek is vague in its pronouns and for centuries and centuries, those who have studied these texts have written about why they believe one version over the other is correct–there is no consensus.
We learned this past week that even one word can be considered important: A priest in Arizona had been since he was ordained in 1995 saying “We baptize you…” instead of “I baptize you…” leaving 27 years with of baptisms invalid, over one word. Other priests admitted having done the same thing, some priests came forward saying they had been baptized by those offending priests bringing their whole lives work into question as well as every sacrament they had presided over. Words are powerful–they are how we started this whole gospel, it’s how we start at creation.
Words matter. Last week a pastor stood up in front of his church and told them that demons had given him the names of witches in that church. I have a lot of questions. But those kinds of words have put women in vulnerable positions, sometimes even killed.
But usually, it is the leaders who are the ones who are regulating words, ideas, theologies. They might say, that you don’t have the years of education, the depth of reading, you come from Galilee.
And sometimes it’s the difference between we and an I and sometimes it’s pointing fingers and passing blame. Sometimes our words are direct and sometimes they are vague and unclear.
I imagine that the author of this gospel in Greek might just have left some ambiguity on purpose: from the heart will pour forth living water.
Because what if both interpretations are correct. What if instead of one or the other it’s both. What if instead of we or I, the answer is yes?
What if the living water flows out from Jesus and from the hearts of those who experience living water. Like one candle lighting two others, lighting two others, and the light growing. Like streams flowing into a single river, and streams that flow out of the river, covering dry land.
What if it isn’t about where someone is from and it isn’t about how much you have invested in education and it isn’t about how the powerful have come to understand or have been teaching for centuries. What if it is about life.
That the water that flows over the land leaves in its trail, wherever it has been, life. Living water brings life. It brings grains and fruits for the time of harvest. It grows grasses and flowers. It leaves behind life, it spreads life. Wherever Jesus went, he brought life. He brought life by way of belonging to the woman he met at the well. He brought life by way of healing and reconciliation to the official’s daughter and the man by the pool. He brought life by way of food to those who had gathered to hear him speak and teach the words of life. And the disciples who were traveling and learning and seeing life would pour living water, life, from their own hearts, too. They would bring teachings and healings, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, welcoming the outcast and the forgotten. Living water pours forth from the Christ to the world and pours forth from those who experience the Spirit. And the Spirit, like a stream or river, will move where it wills but will always bring life.
Does it bring life?
I think that’s how we might want to judge words spoken and deeds done. Whether they are offered from a pulpit or a podium, a classroom or a conference table, by authorities or laborers–do they bring life? In the wake of what is said, does it brings life? Does it foster living? Is it living water? Does it quench the dry places and bring strength for another day?
We have been given a living water-the spirit that brings life and abundance and hope. We can celebrate the abundance of what God gives and how it pours forth from the life of Jesus. But we too become the source of living water. It pours out from us, it pours out from our hearts, it pours out in our words and our actions to all the world around us. We have a choice every day what we are putting out into the world–that which brings destruction, division, death; or that which comes from the spirit and brings life and hope and abundance and gratitude.
It is lived out in our giving, in our time, in our energies, in how we care for children–our own and others, in how we reach out to those in need, in how we visit the sick and imprisoned, how we make a safe space for all the diversity of God’s children. It is that when we move through this world, as individuals, and as the church, we are leaving a trail of life behind us. It is how we know we are living into the calling of God: to love neighbors as ourselves and to live love.