Sunday, May 27, 2018
Full Service Audio
I cannot recall a time in my life that compares to the last two months with regards to water. Part of that is due to living places where I have experienced either the over-abundance or the near absence of water. One of course is New Brunswick. In the town where I lived near Grand Lake, the floods have been devastating. Many friends from high school whose families owned cottages dating back decades have found them destroyed by flood waters. It has been devastating for people! Their homes, their businesses, their lives ruined by the power of water. In a complete juxtaposition to this are my friends from Cape Town, who have been trying to preserve drinking water for months, knowing that a deadline was potentially looming when the whole city could run out of water. I have mentioned this before, and we have prayed for them. Fortunately, there has been a resolution and it is not as serious as they anticipated. But they were close, very close. Can you imagine a city completely running out of water? Devastating!
We take water and its power for granted until we are confronted by its enormity. Water is simply something readily available to us. Last week, I talked about the power of the wind of the Holy Spirit, and how wind can devastate and create things with its power. Water even more so. Of the elements, water is the source of life. If you look at the person sitting next to you in the pew, they are 80 percent. When you experience complete thirst, you realize the devastating power of dehydration. Some years ago, I mentioned that in 1980 I visited southern Mozambique with a group of university friends on a charity mission. When we got there I was devastated seeing emaciated children in southern Mozambique. They did not have access to water because of an ongoing civil war, but also because that part of Africa suffers so dreadfully from drought. To see children dehydrated to the point that their faces cave in is a devastating thing to see, and you never forget it!
Water is powerful. Water is the source of life. Without it, we die. That is why today’s scripture is so evocative, particularly that last verse. This is the passage where Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Anyone who follows me will never go hungry, and anyone who believes in me will never be thirsty.” Now, this is all part of a classic, what is known as “Bread of Life Discourse” in the Gospel of John. Jesus says on numerous occasions, “I am the light of the world”, “I am the true vine”, etc. But he also says in John, Chapter 6, “I am the bread of life”, and that phrase goes way back in history. In fact, it is evocative of so many Old Testament ideas about bread. For example, when the people of Israel left Egypt they needed what they called manna from heaven to feed them when they were starving. They were grumbling and complaining to Moses and thought, “If only we had stayed in Egypt, stayed in tyranny, we would have been just fine, but you brought us out into the wilderness and now we are hungry.” We read that manna came from heaven, and this manna was like a bread, to quote Exodus 16: “This bread fed the people when they were hungry.” This is also evocative of the Passover meal when the people of Israel remembered that they had been saved from the tyranny of the Egyptians, when they were passed over. The Passover meal is to have what? Unleavened bread, this bread is a sign of God’s redemptive love and power! In The New Testament, we not only have Jesus saying, “I am the bread of life” but at the Last Supper at the Passover meal, Jesus takes the bread, breaks it and says, “Take, eat, this is my body.” In other words, the bread was a sign of God’s covenantal love – that in Jesus, what God had done for the people of Israel is enacted in the flesh, that the liberation, the freedom, the salvation, the forgiveness is there in bread. “I am the bread of life” are powerful and evocative words.
Jesus, in John’s Gospel, follows it with another line, and it is that line that I want to look at now: “Those who believe in me will never thirst.” Again, the notion of water redeeming and saving people is again another image from the Book of Exodus, which I read a few moments ago. The people of Israel were arguing, “If only we had stayed in Egypt we wouldn’t have this problem.” So they pick on Moses, don’t they? Why are we thirsty? If God is really on our side, if God really cares for us, why do I have this thirst? Why are we thirsty?” God directs Moses to the rock of Horeb, Moses goes to a stone, and with the rod that he had been given to help them cross the Nile he strikes the stone, and water gushes out of it. Years later, when the people of Israel remembered this, they had a festival and a feast. This feast was when the priests would actually go to the streams, the wells at Dihon and get water, and bring it to the Temple. They would pour the water out as people lined the streets as a reminder that when the people were thirsty God met their need, God provided. On the last day, they had what was called the “Jericho loop” seven times they walked around the Temple carrying the water jugs, like Joshua had walked around the walls of Jericho as a sign of God’s covenantal and redeeming love.
When Jesus uses language about thirst, he is using powerful language, language that the people of Israel would understand. When he said, “Those who believe in me will never go thirsty” he is saying that he embodies all that God has done for the people of Israel, that it is the same God at work in The Old Testament present in the very person of Jesus of Nazareth! But he says that unlike normal thirst, those who believe in him will never go thirsty. A similar image is found in John, Chapter 4, where Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at the well, who is drawing water, and Jesus implies that he is now the living water. He says to her, “You will never be thirsty if you draw from this well, the well that is me.” The images all the way through both The Old and New Testaments are that when people are thirsty, God meets their needs. But the thirst was not just the physical thirst it a spiritual thirst. And this is where it becomes so powerful for us because in many ways the world makes us thirsty, and oftentimes we feel like the people of Israel who were physically thirsty in the desert thinking God had forgotten them: Does God care for us anymore? Is there nothing more to life than what we see? Why would God set us free and then not help meet our needs? If this God really cared and if this is the God of liberation, then why are we suffering like this?
I think there are many people who deep down in their hearts are spiritually thirsty, and you may be one of them. Or your neighbor might be one of them, your co-worker, or as a society we might be craving something more than simply the dry bones of materialism, success, or simple, physical challenges. We thirst for something more in our lives, something that is redemptive, something that is there for us all the time, something that we can draw on like a well in our times of need. For example, I think we are seeing a horrendous problem right now with fentanyl, many people are turning to drugs. When I talk to ministers and pastors throughout the country, I am hearing stories of fentanyl and opioid addiction even in small towns, where people are becoming addicted because they don’t have a well from which to draw when they are dry spiritually, when they find no meaning, purpose or comfort, or when they are facing pain, disappointment or anxiety.
Whatever it might be that makes us thirst, it is just like those children in Mozambique, it has the effect on our soul of shrivelling up, and we feel there is no meaning or purpose in our lives. There are so many people who feel this way, who go looking for that elusive water. They try to find it in pleasure or some stimulus; in their careers or all manner of places, only to find that they are spiritually dehydrated, shrivelling the soul. There is a famous Latin phrase that says we are made in the imago Dei – in the image of God. As human beings, we are made not only physically, we are also made spiritually. We are made in the image of God, who is spirit. When our spiritual lives dry up and are not nourished, it is as if a whole part of our existence is gone. It shrivels up and dies, and we think that what we have is enough to give us life, but in fact we are missing out on something really great.
I read a tremendous story about a couple and their children who left the Middle East many years ago to go to the United States of America. Before they left, their families got together and said, “If you are going to be travelling a long distance, you need some supplies to keep you going.” So they gave them what they could, which was many loaves of bread and many jars of water to drink. They were boarding a ship, and this ship had actually been seconded to take these people to the United States. They took their bread and their drinks with them on board, and sat in their cabin for days, not wanting to leave. They were afraid to leave their cabin, thinking someone would come along – and this is how bad life can be – and take their bread and their drinks. So they sat on guard, and they sustained themselves with the bread and the drinks, but after two or three days, the son said, “I am going to look at the ship. I am sorry, I can’t stay in this cabin any longer.” He was getting cabin fever. His parents said, “Okay, but make sure you come back. We don’t know what is out there, and this is a dangerous world.” The boy went out. After a while, he came to what was known as the Fifth Dining Room. There he saw fruit and meat, grapes and cheeses, wines, drinks and coffee. He was invited to sit down to drink and eat. He didn’t know what to do because he had been told it was a dangerous world out there, and if he takes these things then maybe he will suffer for it. But he was so hungry and thirsty for something good that he sat down with people and ate and drank. Finally, he went back to the cabin where his parents were with their bread and water and he told them about it. He said, “Mum and Dad, out there is just so much more. There are actually dining rooms full of food and drink.”
They said, “Son, that is not for the likes of us. We are poor people; we don’t eat and dine like everybody else. We’ve got our bread and we’ve got our drinks here.”
The son says, “No, Mum and Dad, everyone who has a cabin on this ship gets to eat there for free.”
The parents, you see, had such a vision of life that was so wounded, they were so beaten up by life that they could not see something greater than themselves was out there. They were so concerned about protecting what they had that they didn’t let go and explore what more was there.
I feel there are so many people, and you may be one of them, who says to yourself, “I have my life. Okay, I am not spiritually enlightened, but I am okay. I have enough to keep me going. Life is fine!” Then, in a moment of crisis, or a moment of uncertainty, you are thirsty, and think: “Hold on a minute, now. I have not been drawing from a well that is deeper. I have not realized what is there for me”, and that is the grace and the love and the well of God’s Spirit from which we draw. Thirst can be a negative thing. It can stop us seeing the really great things in life, and experiencing the wonder and joy that comes from the living relationship with God. When we had the marathon a couple of weeks ago, ask any runner, they will tell you not only to drink when you feel thirsty, but to drink ahead of time so when you are running, you have resources to draw from. The living water of God’s Spirit is a resource. We never know when we need it, we never know where to find it, but it is there for us, and when it comes, it makes an enormous difference.
The problem is that so many of us are reluctant to do that. We are reluctant to see the signs of our own thirst, and therefore we do not draw on the well when it is there for us. As you know, recently I have been sharing with you some of the parables from the Middle East, and there is a more recent parable from the Bedouins. The parable goes something like this, and these are Bedouins by the way who have gone out into the world. The Bedouin said that there was once a man who was flying a plane over the desert when the plane started to sputter and lose its power, and crash landed. After a day or two of walking through the desert, the Bedouin was starting to experience incredible thirst. He was dying out there. So he pleaded with God, “God, please help me! Send somebody to help me! I am going to die out here unless I have something to drink.” Over the next dune, he sees a man standing there. The man greets him, and he says, “Do you have anything for me to drink?”
The man says, “No, I am sorry, I am a necktie salesman. I can sell you a necktie.”
The Bedouin says, “I don’t need a necktie! I need water! I am thirsty! I am dying here.”
The man says, “No, seriously, you need a necktie. You really need one!”
The Bedouin says, “Oh, you are a fool! I do not need a necktie!” Then, he starts to curse God in the sky – just like the people did with Moses. He shouts, “God, why have you not given me water when I asked you? You send the man with neckties!” He carries on over the dunes and there is an oasis, a small town with a bar and a neon light flashing: Drinks for Sale. The Bedouin says, “This is fantastic! Finally!” He goes up to the bar. There is a bouncer standing outside. The Bedouin says, “Oh, I am so thirsty! My plane came down. I have walked through the sand. I am just so thirsty, please let me in!”
The bouncer said, “I am sorry. We will only let you come in if you are wearing a necktie.”
When we face a crisis in our lives we are often ill prepared, aren’t we? We are not ready to receive what God has given us ahead of time, so when the thirsty moments come, we are not ready. We should not wait for the thirst to happen. In fact, we believe and we draw on the resource of God’s love, and that is a daily relationship. It also means that at times we thirst for something more. It is not just about us, is it? It is actually about the world. In the Beatitudes Jesus talks about those who “hunger and thirst” for what? For righteousness and justice! In fact, our longing, our desires are not just for our own benefit; they are for the very things of God himself: for a just world, a righteous world, for the needs of others. The Spirit descends upon us to empower us to bring justice and hope to a world that is dying of thirst. That thirst can be everything from extreme poverty to extreme need to freedom and liberation. It can be a thirst for many things.
One of my great heroes is American, William Stringfellow. He was a lawyer who lived most of his life in New York City. He had a good life. He went to Bates College as a young man, and then to The London School of Economics. He went into the army in World War II and when he returned, he didn’t know what to do, so he did what everyone does – go to Harvard Law School! He gets admitted to Harvard Law School and he is an exemplary, outstanding, magna cum laude, student. He has a brilliant legal mind. He is destined to do great things. William Stringfellow is a Christian, and because he is a Christian, he seeks to find the guidance of God’s Spirit in his life. Rather than going to a high ranking position, he decides he is going to practice law in Harlem in New York in the late 1940s-early 1950s. He lives in a tenement building, and said, “My greatest friends were Bob and Jose, two big cockroaches, who lived with me.” For the next many years, he worked for justice and for rights of those who lived in Harlem, sometimes representing the most heinous people. People who others would not represent, he represented. He got a name and a reputation not only as a great lawyer, but a compassionate man. He said that it was the Word of God that caused him to do this. Then, in a wonderful phrase in an interview that was held – Daniel Berrigan, the famous justice writer from Sojourners, did the interview with him – he was asked, “What moved you to go to Harlem?”
He said, “The people were hungry and thirsty for justice and righteousness, and God sent me to them.”
That is the power of the Spirit of God!
In this whole encounter we see the Trinity, don’t we? We see God the Father liberating the people, setting them free through Moses. We see Jesus, “the bread of life” on whose well we draw for water and sustenance and life as the incarnation of God. In the Spirit, we see the power and the motivation of the One who quenches our thirst. To this God, in a thirsty world, I hope we all turn! Amen.