May 31, 2020

Acts 2:1-21
John 7:37-39

“Channels of Living Water”

On Thursday evenings when First Church folk gather on Zoom for “Tea and a Chat,” I usually offer some kind of brief devotional or reflection, along with a question for discussion. This week, I highlighted the story of that first Pentecost after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and noted the way that God surprised the first Apostles with the powerful experience of God’s presence in wind and fire, and the challenging mission of proclaiming God’s deeds of power to the world.

It’s not unusual for God to show up in people’s lives with an element of surprise. It happened many times throughout the stories of Scripture, and our little group on Zoom shared stories of our own experiences of being surprised by God, often in a positive way. I could have honestly said that I was surprised to be moving to Regina three years ago, and that I was surprised to be saying “yes” to a nomination to be Moderator of our church. But looking back, many of those surprises came with both challenges and also blessings.

Another topic of conversation in our First Church fellowship gatherings online this week has been “the wind.” On Tuesday evening, our theological discussion during “Did you ever wonder?” was interspersed with comparing notes about the wind, and rain, and lightning of the storm going on outside. And many other conversations have included discussion of the weather, the sunshine, and the strength of the wind experienced by each of us during our daily walks around our various Regina neighbourhoods.

I knew before I moved here that Regina was a pretty windy city, but I’ve learned that the wind is fairly unpredictable. On the East side, the wind may be blowing like crazy, while in my neighbourhood it’s just a light breeze (or the other way around). I often wear layers when I go out walking because the temperature fluctuates wildly with the wind. I peel off layers, and then put them back on, depending on how much blowing is going on at that minute.

Sometimes the Regina wind is a pleasant surprise – a breath of fresh air on a hot day. Sometimes it is a bitter cold wind that blows through you and chills you to the bone. Other times, it is a strong and powerful wind that threatens to knock you down if you don’t go where it’s sending you.

That’s what the wind is like, and that’s what the Holy Spirit of God is like too. As the author of John’s Gospel writes in the 3rd chapter, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

In the short passage that we read from John 7 today, Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit once again. But the Gospel writer indicates that he’s talking about the Spirit “which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”

The passage suggests that although God is present in the world in Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Holy Spirit has not yet arrived in our midst. “Not until Pentecost,” some of us may be thinking.

According to the Books of Luke and Acts (which follow after each other) the Spirit comes after Jesus has died, and been raised, and ascended into heaven. He tells his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the Spirit to come. Fifty days after the Passover Festival, when the next great festival of the Jewish faith has arrived – the Feast of Pentecost – that’s when the Spirit shows up. (We read the story already today. We know it well.)

But, before that, was there no Holy Spirit? John’s Gospel tells it a little differently. In his account, the disciples receive the Holy Spirit on the very same day that Jesus is raised. Remember how they are locked in a house, afraid to leave because they are worried about getting arrested or killed like Jesus? That’s when Jesus shows up among them. He tells them not to be afraid, and he breathes on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

But even before that the author of John’s Gospel often mentions the Spirit – not always in such a blatant way, but in a way that makes me think that the Spirit was already a present reality.

In the first chapter, John the Baptist declares that he “saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on Jesus.”

In chapter 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus that “what is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit… You must be born from above” – be born of the Spirit.

When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well in chapter 4, he says to her: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

In chapter 7 that we read today, the same imagery is used for the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is “water.” The Spirit is “living water.” All water quenches thirst, of course. And all water sustains life. But “living water” is the Spirit of God that gives life, not only now, but forever.

Today’s passage takes place during another Jewish festival – not the Feast of Pentecost that we celebrate today, but the Feast of Tabernacles, also called the Festival of Booths.

One of the three major annual festivals in the Jewish year, the Feast of Tabernacles was a time of much joy in Jerusalem. Jewish men were obliged to attend. During Jesus’ day it had taken on the significance of remembering God’s provision for the people of Israel during their wilderness wanderings.

For seven days, water was carried in a golden pitcher form the Pool of Siloam to the temple as a reminder of the water from the rock in the desert, and as a symbol of hope for the coming messianic deliverance.

And then, on the last day of the Festival, when everyone has been duly reminded of the meaning and symbolism of the water, Jesus stands up and begins to teach in the middle of the crowd of worshippers.

Water ceremonies were a significant part of the Festival of Tabernacles. Some of the rabbis saw in the festival’s water ritual an invocation of the Holy Spirit. Thus it is highly symbolic. In this powerfully symbolic context, Jesus then says: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.”

Jesus’ words are a claim that he is the Messiah, that he is the one sent from God. It is through him that people will receive the water that will sustain them forever, through him that they will receive the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the true water of life, who turns the symbol into reality.

Not surprisingly, his declarations cause division in the crowd. Some say Jesus is in fact the prophet and Messiah, while others are sure that the Messiah could not come from Galilee. The religious leaders are doubly eager to get the temple police to arrest Jesus on the spot.

That will happen soon enough. But first, Jesus has more to teach us about the gift of the Spirit that he gives to us. He continues, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”

You see, the Spirit is not just something we receive from Jesus that assures us of our identity as God’s beloved children, of God’s gracious forgiveness, and our eternal salvation. But we are given the Spirit in order to participate in its ongoing work and activity.

That’s perfectly consistent with what happens in the Pentecost story in the Book of Acts. The Spirit doesn’t just come in wind and fire to comfort or console Jesus’ confused and bewildered disciples. It comes to equip and empower them for their mission to the world.

No matter when that Holy Spirit first arrives, one thing is clear: that the believers will become channels of life to others, through Christ’s Spirit breathed out, or poured out on them in power.

Yes, we have multiple images to try to understand what this Spirit of God is in our lives. It is like wind that blows where it chooses, refreshes our hearts, and moves us to action. It is like fire that shines brightly and powerfully burns away all that is wrong. It is like water that quenches our spiritual thirst and sustains our lives forever.

Imagine a great wind, rushing into the room where the disciples were gathered on the day of Pentecost. If you’re familiar with trying to cool down your apartment or house in the midst of a summer heat wave in Saskatchewan, you know that you open the windows at night to let the cool air blown through. It doesn’t blow in, but it blows through if you open the windows on both sides.

Or take the water image. If a hose is running water into the room where you are staying… unless there’s some way for the water to get out, it’ll fill up and you’ll drown. It needs somewhere else to flow out so that it can flow through.

And that means that the good news for us is also good news for the world. Because the Holy Spirit does not stop when it lands in our hearts and lives, blessing us with joy and peace, and assuring us of everlasting life with God. The Holy Spirit blows through our lives, catching us up, and sending us out in love and service to the world. The Spirit of God quenches our spiritual thirst, and then flows out of our hearts to sprinkle kindness and generosity to others in our communities and world as well.

I see that Spirit at work in and around the community of First Church every day – not a bunch of pious Christians praising God for their personal salvation – but faithful disciples letting love flow through you into the lives of others.

Making and delivering meals for the sick. Giving generously for those who are in need in our city and around the world. Using your gifts of music, or administration, or leadership, or engineering to support the mission of the church. Knitting & delivering prayer shawls for our health care workers, and dedicating hours of work to making ear-protectors for the masks they have to wear for so many hours each day.

Connecting with those who are alone by phone, or mail, offering a listening ear and practical help when needed. And praying for one another, and for our struggling world.

When did the Holy Spirit first arrive? The Scriptures suggest a variety of possible answers, but I’m fairly certain that the Spirit has been present since the very beginning, when the Earth was a formless void, and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters at the start of Creation.

And more importantly, I am sure that the Spirit of God is with us now – constantly blowing and burning in our midst, continually pouring into our hearts with the hope of overflowing to bless so many more.

On this celebration of Pentecost, let us give thanks to God for the gift of the Spirit in our lives, and let us celebrate that we are made to become channels of living water for the good of all God’s people. Amen.