An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Spirit Drinkers

A sermon on John 7: 37-39 by Nathan Nettleton

During my holidays in January, Acacia and I went to visit the Bundaberg Rum distillery. Margie was off SCUBA diving for the day, and I tried to explain to Acacia that I didn’t think a tour of a factory was going to interest a three and a half year old very much, but she was fascinated by the idea of seeing a factory that made drinks, even if she couldn’t drink them. And to my surprise, she was fascinated; so much so that when we picked Margie up from the jetty that afternoon, the first thing Acacia did, without even saying hello, was to pull out the brochure with the flow chart of the rum distilling process and begin explaining it all to her baffled mother.

Well, you won’t find a rum distillery in John’s gospel, but you will find a deep interest in the question of what spirit we are drinking and where the spirit comes from; and to defend myself against the accusation that that is an extremely silly word-play, Luke reports that when the Spirit was poured out on the day of Pentecost, the impression created to many outsiders was that the followers of Jesus were all drunk!

It is sometimes possible to get the impression from the book of Acts and the writings of Paul that the Holy Spirit is some kind of added bonus; the bestower of spectacular gifts that go way beyond the basic requirements of healthy living. But in John’s gospel, the Holy Spirit is depicted in less spectacular terms, but in ways that make it more obvious that we’d be lost without her. Perhaps best known of John’s images of the Spirit are the passages in chapters 14 to 16, where the Greek word “paraclete” is used. Incidentally, it is the only masculine words used for the Spirit in the whole Bible, so if you’re wondering why we often refer to the Spirit as “she”, it is because apart from these few verses, the Spirit is “she” or “it” throughout the Bible (despite what most English translations do). The word “paraclete” has no exact English equivalent, but you will find it variously translated as Advocate, Comforter, Backer, or Counsellor. The Spirit is being depicted as the one who will be there for us when the going gets tough. She will back us up, support us, encourage us, and even speak up for us or intervene on our behalf. Jesus speaks of the Spirit in these terms at a time when his followers are extremely anxious about their future and wondering whether they can survive. He assures them that they will be safer with the Spirit than they would be if he stuck around.

The passage we heard from John tonight is another one in which the Spirit is no added extra, but an essential: water to drink. “If you have a thirst that won’t go away, come to me and drink,” says Jesus. “I have rivers of life-giving water welling up from deep within,” and John adds an explanatory note to tell us that he was referring to the Holy Spirit who would soon be given to those who put their trust in Jesus. The context in which Jesus made this statement made it especially powerful. We are told it was on the big final day of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. Like all the Jewish religious festivals, this Feast was about remembering what God had done for the people in the past and reliving the meaning of those events in the present. One of the main associations of this feast was remembering how God had sustained and provided for the people when they were homeless wanderers in the desert. As anyone wandering in the desert will tell you, the number one essential for life is water to drink. And one of the stories retold during the festival was the story, which we heard a couple of months back during Lent, of the day when the people were almost dying of thirst and God provided water which gushed from a rock when Moses whacked it with his stick. Everyday during the feast, there would be a procession from the Temple to the Pool of Siloam. The priests would fill a pitcher with water from the pool and then the procession would return singing joyously to the Temple. The priest would process around the altar carrying the water and then pour it out as an offering to God. Songs like the one from Isaiah 12 would be sung, speaking of drawing water with joy from the well of God’s salvation. So when Jesus announces at the climax of the festival that he is the one from within whom rivers of life-giving water flow to quench the thirst of the faithful, he is identifying himself with the Rock through which God saves and gives life to the people. That might not sound that earth-shattering to us, but in that context it was a bombshell that ignited a storm of controversy.

I think though, if we really think about it in the context of our own society, it is still a radical and confronting claim. Perhaps the association with thirst is our way into it. If you are thirsty enough, you’ll drink anything, and I think Jesus is challenging us to think about what spirit we are going to drink and where it comes from. The image of thirsty people searching for a drink in a barren place is a powerful picture of people searching for something pure and trustworthy to live by. You don’t have to look far to begin seeing that thirst being exploited by those willing to cash in on it. Everyone with a message, a service or a product to sell will tell you how if you take what they are offering you will find it satisfying deep needs within you.

Some will invite you to drink deeply from the well of financial security. Invest in high-yielding stocks, and set yourself up for life, and your deepest thirsts will be satisfied, they promise. But the well is poisoned. Many have drunk deeply of the spirit that flows there, and come away crippled by anxiety and greed and with their relationships reduced to marketing opportunities.

Some will invite you to drink deeply from the well of social success. Get the right job, be seen in the right places, wearing the right clothes and driving the right car. Be beautiful and noticed; climb social ladder, and your deepest thirsts will be satisfied, they promise. But the well is polluted. Many have drunk deeply of the spirit that flows there, and come away poisoned by superficiality and competitiveness and by the fear that it can never last.

Some will invite you to drink deeply from the well of patriotism. Protect the borders, horde all our resources for our own enjoyment, insulate ourselves from the needs of others lest it cost us. Glory in the privileges of being Australian, and your deepest thirsts will be satisfied, they promise. But the well is putrid. Many are drinking deeply of the spirit that flows there, and being poisoned by it. Everything they once enjoyed becomes something to be jealously protected and everyone with a need becomes a threat to our rights and our lifestyle. The borders keep closing in until we have isolated ourselves from everyone and we are shrivelled and loveless.

Come to me, all who are thirsty, and drink deep, says Jesus. And here, where we gather to drink deeply of the Spirit that flows from Jesus, we find a Spirit that flows from self-sacrificing love. Here as we see bread broken and wine poured, as we are reminded of one who hung on a cross and from whose pierced side water and blood flowed, we know we are being offered a very different kind of spirit. Here we drink of a Spirit that is poured out for the common good, a spirit that binds us together as one body, so that we may in turn be broken and poured out for the common good. Here we drink of a Spirit that flows like life-giving water, so that we might in turn be springs of life-giving water, for it is in this Spirit of self-sacrificing love that flows from the Christ, that our deepest thirst is satisfied. Come, Holy Spirit, come.


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