Today on our fourth Sunday of Lent, we explore Jesus’ words about water of life – the heart of this season, what the whole six weeks are named for.
What makes an abundantlife, and who gets to have one?
We talk about surviving and thriving – why both matter, why survival is obviously very important, but why thriving is also what we are made for. It’s our birthright, our opportunity and calling as humans, to thrive.
Before we read the scripture for today, I want to read you another story. It’s a story Grace and I read to our kids many times, a story that was read to me as a child as well. And I’d like to read it to you.
What makes for an abundant life, and who gets to have one?
What does it mean to survive, but also thrive?
This is a winter’s story, about what animals who hole up in the ground in winter time need to make it back to spring.
And it’s a pandemic story too. What have we had, or what have we not had, these past two years to help us get to today with abundance of life?
Sometime in 2020, my family had a field mouse in the winter conversation. We got the idea online somewhere, and Grace and I told our kids:
This is a year when if we stay alive and stay healthy, that’s good enough.
And that at the time was a good enough conversation for us to have. Two years ago, our lives were shutting down. We were scared and didn’t know how bad this pandemic would be, how many of us would get sick, how many of us would die. We had to let go of some things. We were looking out for survival, entering winter and taking care of shelter and health and food and water.
Sometimes, that’s all we have. And sometimes, for a while, that’s enough.
The mice in Frederick need shelter for the wintertime. But eventually, they need the memory and hope of spring. They need food, but they also need poetry and song and color.
The same is true for us, isn’t it?
We aren’t satisfied just staying alive. We need love and hope, we need songs to sing and games to play, to touch and be touched, to love and be loved.
The traditional way of saying this is that we are people with bodies, but people with souls too.
We need water, and we need waters of life.
Let’s read a moment in the scriptures where Jesus affirms this. I think it deepens our exploration of this topic. It’s from the seventh chapter of John’s memoirs of the life of Jesus. It goes like this:
John 7:37-39 (New Revised Standard Version)
37 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,
38 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.’”
39 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.
This is dramatic. Jesus is at a festival, and he’s not the main act. He’s not the priest presiding over a ceremony. He’s a participant, among the crowds in Jerusalem, calling out:
Come get your living water. It’s a dramatic gesture.
Our narrator jumps in and interprets this. He’s like, ooo, this is foreshadowing. Jesus is alluding to the time after his death and rebirth, when he is not around, physically walking the paths of Judea with his disciples. Instead, a few weeks after he’s gone, at a different festival called Pentecost, people increasingly started experiencing the presence of Jesus and the God Jesus called Papa, through the Spirit of God, the unseen presence of God with us.
John is like:
This is what Jesus is talking about, the Spirit of God with you.
It’s hard to describe, but it’s like this thirst-quenching, satisfying, joy-bringing breath. It’s like a rejuvenating energy, like fuel for thriving.
How is this so?
I think the festival where Jesus is doing this maybe gives us a clue.
The festival was Sukkot, the festival of tents. It’s a fall harvest festival in Jewish culture. It remembers, and kind of reenacts the time when Jews’ ancestors lived free from slavery but not yet at home in the promised land, an in between time, a time when they lived as nomads, as pilgrims, not in houses but in tents.
You’d think this would be a festival about survival, like thank God we made it. Our ancestors could have died wandering around in that wilderness. Thank God we’re not living in tents anymore.
But it’s not like that at all. Sukkot is a holiday of rest, and joy, and abundance. Some Jews who celebrate today actually partially move out of their homes for a few days, into backyard tents, to remember this period. And both now and in Jesus’ time, the festival has times for rest – when you’re not allowed to work at all. And there are times for feasting, and there are times for singing and dancing, for joy.
Because in this festival, you celebrate that God gives us more than enough, even when our circumstances are modest. That joy is possible even in hard times. That abundant life is God’s good gift to all God’s children.
In Jesus’ era, it was a season when pilgrims to the temple in Jerusalem would bring water from a local spring to the temple. And that water would get poured out on the ground in prayer, symbolizing the prayer that God would keep bringing rain, watering the fields, producing grain, filling up wells and rivers with enough water to drink and bathe in and cook with.
I feel like when Jesus calls out, he’s like:
I know how to make this holiday all it was meant to be. I’ve got the secret to making your whole life like this festival!
Playing off the water imagery of the holiday, Jesus is like I have water for you too, all the water – a way of filling you with such abundant life that it wells up inside and flows back out of you.
I have water of life for you. Drink from me, and you will be satisfied, so much so that you become this water for others. Drink from me, and you will become a reservoir.
That’s beautiful when Jesus says it. But what does this look like?
Let’s talk about songs and church and prayer and rest.
Have you watched the videos of singing in Ukraine?
I’m thinking where are the American pop stars who travel the country singing to people for free just to live their spirits? It used to happen – Harry Belafonte, Pete Seeger, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, and more during the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. Where is that today?
When we were out on the streets of Boston last year, rallying for drivers licenses for all Massachusetts immigrants, documented or not – a bill that finally looks like it’ll pass this year, by the way – it was the band that kept us marching, kept our spirits up.
We need music to fight to, to give us strength.
And we need music to keep us from despair.
There’s that video of the little girl singing the song from Frozen to all the folks she was holed up with in a shelter. A week later she’s an exile in Poland, singing the Ukranian national anthem to an audience of thousands.
The people of Ukraine are singing in their fight, and singing in their fear. Because music helps us turn from despair, because music helps us access hope and joy and courage.
Singing isn’t a luxury. Like Frederick’s colors and poems, we need it most in hard times.
Singing and music are one of God’s gifts of the spirit, whether we connect them with God or not. In a talk to people that had never heard of Jesus, the speaker Paul says in Acts 14,
“God has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; God provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.”
Rain and food and everything that fills us with joy is an expression of a good God that wants us to thrive, a good God that has water of life for us all.
In many ways, this water of life thing is the whole point of church. You know I used to be a school teacher and a principal, and then I became a pastor. And sometimes that’s been a comedown for me, like I used to have a job that actually mattered, you know that everyone believes we should pay for through our taxes because kids need schools to learn. And now, I help lead a church that you know, we could all survive without.
I was talking this way the other week with one of our Board members, and she was like: no, no, no, Steve, we need this place. Even a year ago, when there were lots of parts of church we could only do from home, we needed this togetherness. We need this love of Jesus, this joy of living, this gift of community that church fosters.
It’s like Frederick’s colors and poetry and memory of sunshine. Church is about living into a life that doesn’t just mutter and talk but sings. And so to be in a church and to support a church is – or it should be – to invest in lives of hope and joy and love.
Song, church, prayer.
I don’t know what your experiences of prayer are like. I know most of us pray less than we might want to or think we should as if “should” is a very helpful word. But prayer isn’t really about what we do at all. It’s not mostly about what we say or ask or feel. It’s about where God is – with us – and about seeking to know this and pay attention.
We pray to remember that we are seen, known, and valued by a living God. We pray to affirm that we matter, and everything we experience and everyone we know matters to God. And we pray to know that we are loved.
A few years back, I tried the triathlon of prayer, the spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. It’s a very structured prayer experience that Jesuit priests go through over a month of silence before they can serve. And for those of us that don’t have a month to be silent full time, there’s a version of this you do over an hour a day, over nine months.
Highly structured, lots of Bible, lots of ways to pray and lots of time to do it in. When I completed the program, you know what my big takeaway was. That God really loves me. That God really, really loves me, that I’m loveable, that I can really love myself.
And now some of how I pray is just sitting still or walking and asking God’s help to remember God is with me and I am loved. Because when I know that, I’m stiller – less anxious, less driven, less restless. I know I’m OK. And when I know I’m loved, I’m braver. I don’t avoid difficult conversations so much. I try things that are hard, that I might fail. And when I know I’m loved, I’m better. I’m kinder to others, more generous, I treat other people more like they are really loved too.
This is why our guide for Lent features beautiful art and poetry, and short reflections on Bible passages each week, but also a direction for prayer each week, so that together we can keep learning to pray, to know that we and everyone and everything we’ll ever know are seen and known and loved by a God, to whom we all matter very much.
And here’s the way we invite you to pray in this fourth week of Lent. We’re inviting you to take a few minutes each day and enjoy listening to a bit of music. Close your eyes, hum along, move or dance if you want to – whatever, just enjoy it. And say thank you. Or swap it out for looking at a picture you like, or taking a walk along the water, or singing in the shower or hugging a tree for all we care.
It’s about taking a moment to be Frederick, to soak in the warmth of the sun, to notice and see the colors. And to remember that life isn’t just about surviving. It’s about thriving. We’re all worthy of abundant lives.
The very festival in which Jesus called out:
Get your living waters. Become a reservoir.
Was a festival of rest and of joy, of what Jews call Sabbath. Shabbat. Breaking our ordinary rhythms of survival, and welcoming abundance, letting God help us thrive again.
A little spiritual community I’m connected to outside this church, an Episcopal monastery along the Charles River, sent out this three sentence reflection last week:
“In a culture plagued by individualism, hyperactivity, and superficiality, prayer inspires purposeful action, balanced by deep rest and play. It empowers ordinary people to do things with extraordinary depth, substance, and love. The kingdom of heaven promises nothing less.”