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Sermon – Living Water – June 8, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, June 8, 2014

The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Living Water

Psalm 104: 24-34, 35b; Acts 2: 1-21; John 7: 37-39

People of the ancient world knew that life somehow was present in bodily fluids and in breath. This apprehension of something mysterious and possibly holy led Jews and some other cultures to make taboos related to such fluids. Other religious traditions, especially in southern and southeastern Asia, developed ritually religious approaches to breathing. In both cases the concern was to respect what was life-giving.

At least one of our grade school teachers had us do deep-breathing exercises, insisting that it was good for us. My mother’s mother was a great believer in drinking eight glasses of water a day, the vogue for which died out for decades, but it’s back now, with many people carrying around water with them at all times as though they were crossing the desert. These are commonplace evidence of a human instinct to associate fluids and breath with vitality.

Many scriptures refer to the life-giving quality of water, and the life-giving quality of breath. Water sustains the creature whose life depends on inner fluids. Breath is associated directly with life– both with how lively a living thing is, and whether or not it lives. In Genesis, the older of the origin stories of our kind has God causing a mist to come up from the ground–that’s the moisture needed–and shaping dust, now clay, into bodies–and then breathing the breath of life into us. This basic, commonsense apprehension of the essentials of survival–fluid and breath– influences how the people of the Bible think about everything, including God.

The first verse of the Bible, Genesis 1:1, reads: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Prior to any of the pronouncements God makes which bring the stages of existence forward, there is breath working on what is wet. As already noted, something similar goes into the forming of Adam. The common sense recognition that bringing forth life needs moisture and air gives the Hebrews an additional layer of meaning in the way they imagine God. God is not only the source of understanding, naming the essential nature of things into existence. God also is present in the elements of creation, in moving air and in moisture.

The intimate connection between God’s life-giving breath and the lives of creatures is mentioned in the psalm we have read today. Speaking of the living things, both great and small, sustained by God, verses 29 and 30 read: “When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die, and return to their dust. When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” The second verse also may be read, “When you send forth your breath, they are created.” There is ambiguity between the words for “breath” and “spirit” in Hebrew, and a similar ambiguity between”wind”and”spirit”inGreek. Allofthetermsarerelated,andremainsoinEnglish, in which we speak of what our lungs do as “respiration” and the sudden apprehension of something greater than ourselves as “inspiration.” We would sort these out as the first being physical and the second spiritual, but the Bible’s instinct is more complicated. What we might think of as the matter of a body and the energy of its vitality are not clearly distinct- -one is of a piece with the other.

That’s why things like fluids, which seem to us on some level as merely physical, have spiritual ramifications. Many of the laws of the Old Testament make religious significance out of what we would regard as matters of hygiene. Some of the dietary laws also are related to scruples about the power of life-giving substances. The importance of such instincts in Judaism is shown by the fact that when the early Jewish Christians agreed on a minimum of taboos for non Jews to observe, half the requirements amounted to avoiding eating meat from which the blood had not been drained properly.

Some of what strikes us as odd in the Old Testament and perhaps in the New is related to the substantial holiness of any liquids associated with life. We have not lost the Biblical sense of such things entirely, however. We still refer to people’s blood being stirred up, or their blood boiling, to describe a state of their souls. We still use terms like “a breath of fresh air” and “exhilaration” to talk about things which change the state of our souls. One of the benefits of singing in church–of singing anywhere– is that it helps develop the lungs and a better exchange of air, and can lead, of itself, to a change in mood. Prayer changes the way people breathe, and proper breathing can make one more effective in prayer. The Bible’s instincts about living things, like everything from ancient times, sometimes have nuances of significance lost to us, and sometimes involve conclusions which seem naive to us, but have a large measure of truth.

There are two accounts of the gift to the disciples of the Holy Spirit. We have read the dominant one this morning, in which the Spirit descends on the disciples at Pentecost, a Jewish festival fifty days after Passover. The other is from John’s gospel, in which Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit onto his disciples shortly after the resurrection. Both accounts refer to moving air–the one from John’s gospel obviously, and the one from Acts in mentioning that the onset of the gift of the Spirit was signaled by a sound like a mighty wind.

Today we mark the Christian holiday of Pentecost, of the gift of the Holy Spirit to Christ’s church. Some churches identify themselves as “Pentecostal,” and they highlight the overwhelming experience of spiritual transport alluded to throughout the New Testament by “speaking in tongues.” Today’s story of tongues is not the ecstatic gabbling which is a sign of spiritual excitement– the idea in the Acts story is that the disciples by God’s spirit’s help suddenly begin speaking in all the languages that any passersby might speak. Still, in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and elsewhere, we hear that religiously-inspired vocalization, which is known in other traditions besides Christianity, also is part of the early history of the church.

It is not unusual for different church traditions to build their identity around a central part of their faith experience. There are many churches which echo the aims and efforts of an evangelistic tent meeting at every service, though the congregation may already be composed entirely of the converted. Pentecostalism counts on reproducing charismatic phenomena. I suppose a tradition like ours builds its service to a large degree on thinking together about the faith. What the holiday of Pentecost reminds us is that no matter what our primary practice, preference, or focus, Christianity includes the gift of Gods’ spirit. It may look different in different traditions, but we all should take seriously that we are not in the business of discipleship by ourselves, but have help in our effort to live for God. That help is God’s spirit giving us the power to make a difference in the world.

The image of something of God entering into us, and imparting to our own spiritual selves something of God’s spirit, makes sense in the symbolism of Biblical thinking. Wind or breath blows upon a person– that’s a symbol of refreshment, especially in a hot climate, and it also, because wind is associated with a change of weather, captures a sense of new events.

The other language the Bible uses, that of live-giving fluids, shows up in the ritual use of blood to address sin in the Hebrew tradition and in some of the New Testament’s thinking about the work of Christ. It also shows up in language about water. In John’s gospel, and later, again, in the Book of Revelation, there is a reference to God’s– or Christ’s– being the source of something called “living water.”

Some scholars say that the “living” in “living water” refers to movement, as flowing as opposed to still water, and others imply it may mean “effervescent,” as mineral water sometimes is, but the point is that it has energy. It’s not flat, it’s not at rest, it’s doing something.

When Jesus meets the woman at the well he speaks of making living water available, and again in today’s scripture. The language again is poetic, but it”s poetry rooted in a conception of energizing, life-giving substance. Jesus announces himself as the source of life-giving power. The desire people have to live beyond the ordinary, to have spiritual vitality and strength, will be fulfilled by Christ. In the story of the woman at the well, he says, “If you had asked me, I would have given it to you.” In today’s scripture he says, “Let any who are thirsty come, and let any who believe in me drink.” The promise is a promise of availability. To have God’s spirit is something one must first desire, and then seek. Those are the terms on which it is offered.

What the gift of the Spirit does is spread itself, by enlivening the spiritual appetites and insights of others of God’s children. Pentecost is not an end in itself, but a gift to enable those who believe in Christ to change the world, in little ways and in large, in service to God. Pray about your desire for God’s spirit, and see what God may do.


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