April 9, 2018
Opening Eucharist, Institute of Liturgical Studies
During the liturgy I was asked to get into the font for a portion of the Thanksgiving for Water. Here are pictures of the rehearsal, with my pants rolled up.
On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, 'Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.'" Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (Gospel, John 7:37-39)
GO WITH THE FLOW
“Just go with the flow.” Well, that’s easier said than done. If going with the flow means being less controlling—whether in our churches, in our relationships, or in our spiritual lives—we often go against the flow —resisting the very things that would open our hearts.
Most of us have just been in the flow of Lent, Holy Week, and the Three Days. We may be here for some respite, some holy socializing, some renewal to get our creative juices flowing. Whether burned out, just plain tired, or raring to go, many of us thirst to be in the flow.
Remember the book on flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi? We long for that deep immersion in some meaningful activity . . . beyond Facebook, that is . . . when time can zip by and we hardly notice. And for just a bit—we forget the hardships of life. It’s that sense of timeless flow that many of us believe can happen in liturgy, or particularly at the Easter Vigil.
The flow of tonight’s readings culminates in living waters flowing forth from the heart of the believer. First, living water means flowing water. Second, a more a literal translation is “flowing forth from the belly,” that is, the seat of emotion. Finally, the Greek is ambiguous—whether the living water flows from the believer, as we heard in the NRSV, or from Jesus. The RSV simply said: “Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.”
Why don’t we hear or preach this gospel very often? Lectionary nerds: raise your hands! It is assigned for the Vigil of Pentecost and the optional gospel for Pentecost, year A! Fun sermon fact, right?
Jesus is at the Festival of Booths. While commemorating the Israelites 40-year trek in the desert, they read the story of Moses striking the rock—and water flows. This is the most painted Hebrew scripture narrative in the catacombs, by the way.
At the Feast of Booths, a priest takes a small golden pitcher and walks to the pool of Siloam, a main water source for Jerusalem. At the pool, the priest fills the pitcher with water and processes back to the temple.
For those of us who like ritual, things now get exciting! The priests make a solemn single procession around the altar, chanting—from the psalms—“save us, we beseech you, O Lord! Give us success!” The priest holds the water pitcher before the crowd and then pours it into in a bowl with a spout that drains onto the altar. As God provided water in the past, they plead that God would send prosperity to the people in the coming year.
“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me,” Jesus says. We heard similar invitations at the Easter Vigil. Lady Wisdom crying out in the streets, “come and find insight.” Isaiah inviting all who thirst to come to the waters. And there is Ezekiel’s vision of water flowing from the temple, the riverbank full of fruit for food and leaves for healing. And the angel in Revelation showing the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God.
In John, the soul is the seat of thirst. Jesus offer the Samaritan woman living, flowing water. On the cross, he thirsts. Water and blood flow from his side, birthing a new community.
And what of this Spirit that “had not yet been given,” as John mysteriously notes? Though we live with a Lukan church year—with the Spirit poured fifty days after the resurrection—it is always mind-boggling and fascinating to consider the Johannine economy. Jesus’ death is his glory. As biblical scholar Raymond Brown suggests, water flowing from Jesus’ side is proleptic. The Spirit flows from the whole process of Jesus’ glorification. In John, Jesus’ passion, death, resurrection, and ascension are one. You gotta love it!
Sidebar: we’ve just come through Holy Week when most folks were formed to think of it as reenactment—walking with Jesus each day, with the accompanying emotions—a sad Good Friday and a happy-face Easter. What if we had a Johannine Triduum in which death and resurrection flow together? Oh! Actually, we do, but I digress.
Back to water—water that seems to want to flow. Rather than calling the beginning of creation the “Big Bang,” seminary professor Ben Stewart suggests we might call it “The Great Overflowing.” As we thirst for healing for our earth, for the church, for our country, for our lives, Luther reminds us that God’s goodness continues to flow to us. And if we believe the whole cosmos actually overflows with divine grace, we wouldn’t go about bragging as if we had life, riches, power, honor and such things in ourselves, Luther adds.
After this walk-in font with flowing water, I have to admit I have font-envy.* If we go back to early church documents we find the rubric that baptisms should be performed in a pool with flowing—that is natural, moving water.
For some of us, just having more abundant water is a start. So four urban guys walk into a Farm and Fleet store. No, it’s not a joke. We were there to look at horse troughs—for ceremonial purposes, I told the straight-faced sales person.
Merlin was baptized at the Easter Vigil in that makeshift trough-font. In some mystagogical reflection, Merlin said that his baptism felt delightful, disorienting, and immersive. He admits that he sensed being on the precipice of something new that he couldn’t predict or forecast or even understand before the actual water bath. Though he had a theatre background, he admits that nothing could have prepared him for the profound experience within a community. Sounds like Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s incarnational phrase, “Christ as community.” The idea of a Christian not attached to a congregation was unthinkable to Bonhoeffer.
In baptism we put on Christ and divisions break down as we are immersed in divine blessing. Through lifelong formation, we drink with delight from the bosom of mother church, finding nourishment in word and sacrament.
I didn’t expect water to be such a significant part of our recent trip to Africa in January. We began in Victoria Falls, seeing the rush of a mighty, waterfall, one of the seven wonders of the world. From there we moved to Cape Town where the water shortage was already on full display. Everywhere we went there were signs to conserve water: turn off the shower when washing, flush only when necessary, use hand sanitizer instead of turning on the faucet. Even then there was dread for the upcoming Day Zero, when the water was expected to stop flowing.
While the rich can afford to drill wells, one poor person lamented, “I don’t know what we will do if the taps run dry and water stops flowing. I guess we will eat less and find a way to buy bottles.”
Finally, we ended up in the Namibian desert. Our guide showed us river banks with no water flowing at all. They were empty, except for the sand. The last heavy rain that made water flow there . . . was in 2012.
Since then, I have been drawn to the spirituality of the desert mothers and fathers. In such a sparse environment, they knew an intense longing and desire that we could only describe as spiritual thirst. Even though I have so many material blessings and water just flows out of the faucet, sometimes I wonder if I am thirsting to thirst.
The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery spent time in the North African desert in the 1930s. He wrote of the passionate attentiveness he found there among the Moors. These Arab bedouins knew concretely that the God of the desert was not given to excess or waste. The French pilots would try to “tame the Moors” by taking them up in their planes or showing them the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
The Moors were not impressed with technological marvels. Yet they had never seen a waterfall, a river, a rose. Being in the desert had formed them to expect only shortfall and subtlety. They were used to walking for days only to find a tiny spring or a handful of palms.
When they saw a breathtaking, enormous waterfall in the French Alps, they stood in silence—mute and solemn. As Saint-Exupery notes, what came out of the belly of the mountain was life itself. The flow of a single second would have resuscitated whole caravans. It was a divine manifestation.
The Moors awaited the moment when God would grow weary of such extravagant madness. And they simply refused to leave. Knowing how absurd his words would sound, the guide finally said, “But you see, this water has been flowing for a thousand years!”
May we go with the flow—the flow of Jesus’ living water. Even when we are stuck in ingratitude, exhaustion, or cynicism, the waters still flow: the Great Overflowing of never-ending grace for us, for all living things, and for the earth itself. And the Great Overflowing is none other than God’s thirst for us.
Source for the Moors story: Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality.