Tonight I’m going to be flying across the Atlantic to the U.K., but the first time I made that journey I was going in the other direction; it was September 1967, I was nine years old, and we were travelling by ship. Tonight it will be a journey of about eight and a half hours, but then it took five days to go from Liverpool to Montreal. When I think back on that, I realise again how vast that Atlantic Ocean is. That’s a huge amount of water!
Of course, centuries ago those trips took even longer. In the days of sail, ships were totally dependant on the prevailing winds. Sometimes, in calmer climates than the north Atlantic, ships would lie still for weeks on end because there was no wind. And sometimes, tragically, they ran out of drinking water during those times, and people began to die of thirst. It was this kind of situation that gave birth to the famous line in Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ ‘Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink’. Some people were so crazy with thirst that they did try salt water; of course, this only made things worse, and they died even sooner because of it.
Psalm 42:1-3 says:
‘As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God?
My tears have been my food day and night,
while people say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”’.
In this passage of scripture, ‘thirst’ is used as a powerful image for our deep human longing for God. This longing isn’t satisfied by ideas about God, talk about God, or membership in organizations that work for God. It’s a longing for God himself, and for personal contact with God. When we have this longing, we realise that all the God-substitutes we so desperately embrace amount to nothing but salt-water; they only increase our deep inner thirst for the true and living God.
In today’s Gospel reading Jesus uses this metaphor of thirst. The seventh chapter of John’s Gospel is built around the annual Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. This was a very popular feast, a kind of harvest festival. Over the years it had also acquired a sub-theme of longing for the end of this present evil age – the great final harvest, when God will bring in the Kingdom and the new age of his righteousness will begin - the time when the Holy Spirit will be poured out on all people.
Every day during the Feast of Tabernacles, water was drawn from the Pool of Siloam and carried in procession to the Temple while the words of Isaiah 12:3 were sung: ‘With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation’. Also the prophecy of Zechariah 14:8 would be read: ‘On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea; it shall continue in summer as in winter’. This verse is a summary of a longer prophecy in Ezekiel 47: the prophet sees a vision of a river springing up in the Temple and flowing out into the desert, bringing new life and fruitfulness wherever it goes.
In this context – surrounded by all this imagery of water – listen again to the words of our Gospel reading:
‘On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let everyone 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 this he said about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified’ (John 7:37-39).
It’s as if Jesus is saying to his hearers, “All week long you’ve been enacting symbols about God’s salvation coming like water onto a thirsty ground. Well, I am the reality those symbols point to. Come to me, and drink deeply from those wells of salvation”.
Listen to these words from the prophet Jeremiah:
‘Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
send to Kedar and examine with care;
see if there has ever been such a thing.
Has a nation changed its gods,
even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
for something that does not profit…
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns that can hold no water’ (Jeremiah 2:10-11, 13).
God’s people turned from the true and living God who was like a stream of fresh water, and instead they made idols for themselves that were like cracked cisterns, unable to hold water. This was their version of the becalmed sailors drinking salt water – it couldn’t satisfy. And today people still turn to idols - God-substitutes that claim to be able to fill God’s role, but actually they can’t.
One of the most common, of course, is materialism. We spend years trying to accumulate more and more stuff, even though the ‘more and more stuff’ we’ve already acquired hasn’t satisfied us. The one who dies with the most toys doesn’t win – they just die.
A second very common idol, often linked to the first one, is success. A lot of people gauge their self-worth with this one: if I can just get ahead in my career, so everyone will see I’m doing well, then I’ll find the satisfaction I’m looking for. Sometimes the worse thing that can happen to these folks is to actually achieve that goal; they feel satisfaction for a few days, maybe, but finally they realize it isn’t giving them the lasting happiness they were hoping for. They still haven’t found what they’re looking for – whatever it is.
A third idol that’s quite common is the liking and approval of others. This is especially seductive to people who have problems with self-esteem. ‘If I can just get people to like me and approve of what I’ve done, then that inner ache will go away; I’ll be able to relax and know I’m a worthwhile person, because other people like me. But wait – some of ‘me’ isn’t very likeable, so I’ll just hide my shadow side and pretend to be something better than I really am, so I can get people to like me’. This is the lie the idol persuades us to believe, but it never works. We still feel the emptiness, the spiritual thirst – and we also carry around the burden of having to continually fool people about who we really are.
Sad to say, the institutional church can also become an idol for some. The church is meant to be a community of faith, gathered around the living Lord Jesus Christ. However, some people have never made a connection with the risen Lord, and so they turn to the church instead. It’s unfortunately possible to go through all the motions of Christianity – church attendance, baptism, confirmation, Holy Communion – but stop there, without making a real connection with the risen Christ.
I think this might be the most insidious idol of all, and I’ll tell you why. People who worship this idol think they’ve tried Christianity and found it wanting. But in fact they’ve only tried ‘churchianity’. What they’ve had is the spiritual equivalent of a vaccination. You know how a vaccination works; you inject a tiny quantity of the disease into people’s bodies, and this awakens their immune system to protect them against the real thing when it comes their way. In the same way, people who worship the idol of ‘church’ have taken a tiny bit of Christianity to protect themselves against the real thing.
All these God-substitutes are nothing but salt water. In the end, they will only increase our spiritual thirst. Maybe you’re feeling that thirst today. Maybe you’re thinking “Yes, I know that nothing can take God’s place, and in fact I’m really thirsty for him”. Good - let’s think about drinking!
Jesus says, ‘“Let everyone 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 this he said about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive’ (John 7:37b-39a). So the way to quench our thirst for God is to come to Jesus and drink. When we believe in Jesus – that is, when we put our faith, our trust, in him – he gives us the Holy Spirit who becomes to us like a river of living water in our hearts.
You might ask “How does this happen? How do I come to Jesus and drink?” First, we need to know that all followers of Jesus have the Holy Spirit living in them. Paul says, ‘For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 12:13). If you aren’t sure whether this verse applies to you, you can be sure. Simply pray, committing yourself to Christ in faith and asking him to live in you by his Holy Spirit. Then, if you haven’t been baptized at some point in your life, get baptized. If you’ve already been baptized, as most of us have, then the commitment of faith is all you need to complete the process.
Some people find this idea of a commitment of faith intimidating; they’re not sure they have enough faith to make it work. Don’t worry about that; Jesus once said that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, that’s enough. Here’s how I see it. Imagine I’ve made a series of poor choices in my life and as a result I’m experiencing significant health issues. So in desperation I make an appointment to see my doctor. He examines me, and then he sits me down and says, “I know how we can get you out of this mess and back to heath. It’s going to take a while, but we can do it. Will you let me help you?”
How do you reply to that? I think the simple word “Yes” is enough, don’t you?
And this is where we’re at. We find ourselves struggling to connect with God and find the way of life we were designed for. We’re addicted to all sorts of negative behaviours and we know we’re chasing after the wrong things. So we go to Doctor Jesus and ask him to help us. His reply is, “Yes, I can help you. Will you follow me?” Faith is simply saying “Yes” to that invitation. That’s all it takes to get the ball rolling.
But of course, that’s not all it takes to continue the process. If we want to have our spiritual thirst quenched – to go back to the original metaphor – there needs to be a daily drinking. Let me suggest a couple of things for you.
First, pray daily to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Yes, we all have the Holy Spirit, but we need to ask him each day to fill us. I once heard a good illustration of this. An old fashioned gas furnace has a little pilot light burning inside, and that’s vital. That’s like the gift of the Holy Spirit we were each given when we became followers of Jesus. But that won’t be enough to heat the whole house! We need to turn up the thermostat so that the pilot light fires the burners. And in the same way, we need the Holy Spirit to fill us to overflowing.
Sometimes this happens in a dramatic way. That’s how it was for the apostles in our first reading today, when they experienced tongues of fire and speaking in other languages, and it was so dramatic that a crowd of people gathered to see what was going on. But it doesn’t always happen in a dramatic way – in fact, that’s not all that common. Mostly it’s quiet: a gentle sense of connection with God - a joy that’s there in the background even when we don’t notice it – the experience of finding ourselves equal to challenges we were sure would be too much for us.
So before you start each day, take a few minutes to pray and ask God to fill you afresh with the Holy Spirit for the day ahead. You’ll be surprised how much difference that simple prayer can make.
Then there’s the daily experience of keeping in step with the Spirit. In our pew Bibles, Galatians 5:16 is translated as ‘Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh’. But the original Greek says ‘Walk in the Spirit’, and the NIV has the lovely translation ‘Keep in step with the Spirit’. I love that! It gives me the sense of the Holy Spirit as a companion walking beside me. I’m not sure which way to go, but the Spirit knows, and if I watch and listen, the Spirit will guide me.
One way the Spirit will guide me is through the Scriptures, especially the teachings of Jesus. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that 90% of the guidance I need for living my daily life is already there in the Scriptures. There are lots of stories of people setting bad examples to avoid! And sometimes we come across good examples to follow. There are simple commands that revolutionize our lives: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ – ‘Don’t lay up for yourselves treasures on earth’ – ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who hate you’ – ‘stop lying to each other’ and so on.
But there are also little nudges we get from the Holy Spirit sometimes. With me, it often takes the form of a person coming to mind, with the little thought that I need to call them or send them an email. Sometimes it turns out to have been a mistake, but more often than not it doesn’t. What I’ve noticed is that if I obey those little nudges of guidance, they tend to come more often. But when I don’t, they stop coming. Simple lesson there? If I want to experience more of God’s guidance, I need to be sure I pay attention when it comes!
One last thing. If we want to keep in step with the Spirit – if we want to drink of this ‘river of living water’ that Jesus is talking about – then we will want to pray. And when I say ‘pray’, I don’t just mean ‘Come to Jesus for five minutes every day with a shopping list of wants’.
We’re all busy people, but I have discovered that my days go much better if I start them in prayer, and if that prayer includes a healthy portion of silence. So I try to get here earlier than I need to most days, and then I can sit in quiet for a few minutes. I don’t necessarily say very much. I just sit in a chair and pay attention to the presence of God. Sometimes it’s a struggle; my brain is buzzing and there are so many internal distractions. Usually it takes longer than five minutes to get past them. Usually, after about ten or twelve minutes of silence, I begin to feel like I’m getting through. But I’m not trying; I’m just sitting and paying attention. And eventually, most days, I do get a deeper awareness of God’s presence and more joy as I go into my day.
Jesus says, “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’” (John 7.37-38). Notice the direction here: out of the believer’s heart. We might have thought it would be the other way – into the believer’s heart – but it’s an outward flow. And so it is for us. When we come to Jesus and drink of the gift of the Holy Spirit, we become a refreshing presence in the world around us. The blessings of God flow out from us, touching other people and giving them a sense of God’s love for them as well. That’s God’s will for all of us. I can experience it and so can you.
So – will you come to Jesus and drink?