Listen to this reflection here.
“Anyone who believes in me may come and drink!”
Candles and Rain
As you may have heard, as a church we’ve just entered our 80th year, and we’re marking that entrance by reflecting on our name, “Living Waters”, and where that name carries us together. So we’re spending January in John 7, listening to Jesus’ words about thirst, about a life of faith and what he calls “living water”.
For some people New Year’s Eve is all about the three Ls: laughter, libation, and libido as the clock ticks closer to midnight and you start looking round the room for a kiss. For others it’s less lively, and more about the three Bs: bed, book, box of wine. My New Year’s Eve was all about candles and rain. There was a power outage in part of Fort Langley and Kwantlen. We were on our way home from the grocery store and half the village went dark. Elevators tend not to work without electricity, so the stroller, groceries and baby all had to be hauled upstairs to our third-floor apartment. Once inside it became about finding the flashlights and lighting the candles and waiting in relative quiet for the power to switch back on and the gadgets to beep alive again. I say relative quiet because of the audible downpour outside. It had rained all day and showed no sign of slowing into the evening. Living on the top floor of our building we’re very aware of how much rain we’re getting on nights like that. And living in flat-roofed building and hearing that much rainfall, you begin to wonder if at some point it’s all going to come gushing through some previously unnoticed crack in the ceiling. You soon start taking internal inventory of just how many buckets you have on hand.
A night full of candles and rain. Flickering lights in the dark, and torrential water. And I couldn’t help thinking, a very fitting night to reflect on John’s Gospel. Spend any time in John’s rather poetic take on Jesus’ life and we’ll notice two prominent images put hard at work: steadily growing light and rushing water.
Light and Water
It’s no wonder John leans so heavily on these two images as they’re elemental to human life, and indeed, planetary life. You don’t need a PhD in biology or botany to know that without light life is simply not possible. When we lose power we’re inconvenienced, but the primal need for light runs much deeper. The light plays a starring role in John chapter one, drawn from Genesis chapter one. In the beginning the light comes first and the rest of creation follows. So in John chapter one Jesus is set up as the light who makes new creation, new life possible – light means life. And the same goes for water. We’ve been reminded recently of our need for water in hearing the reports about the Australian bushfires, or the devastating drought in Zambia, which gets less attention in the news cycle – water also means life. Jesus’ first miracle John’s gospel is when he turns water into wine at a wedding, and at Jesus’ crucifixion blood and water burst from Jesus’ side on the cross. In part this is why John’s gospel makes so much of both images for Christ. For John, Christ radiates life, Christ bleeds life.
So what comes through for us in John’s use of these two elemental images is just how dynamic, how crucial, Christ is for human beings, not to mention creation as a whole. John’s drives at a point that we’re unable to miss. Life is not possible without light and water – think about Jesus like that.
Universal and Unique
The invitation, then, from Jesus to “come and drink” reaches into the very depths of our humanity. It’s what we might describe as a universal and unique.
When Jesus stands up an announces publicly “if anyone is thirsty, come and drink” it seems he really means it. I recently heard someone say that “At Christmas we’re dealing with a God who doesn’t have to be persuaded to be interested in us.” (Rowan Williams), and that same sentiment is true of Jesus’ words here. But often so muddied are our thoughts about God that we’re not always sure Jesus really means what he says, or perhaps that his words even apply to us. We convince ourselves, or others do a good job of convincing us, that God mustn’t be interested in me, mustn’t be inviting or drawing me. And so we hear words like these from Jesus and the tendency might be to skim them like or spam email. We assume we’re reading someone else’s mail. But if everything we hear at Christmas is true, that God welcomes everyone, that must include you and me. So this offer to “come and drink” is one that counters and negates all the ways in which we disqualify ourselves from trusting and knowing God. “If anyone has ears,” Jesus says elsewhere, “let them hear.” (Mark 4.23).
St. John records Jesus’ invitation to “come and drink” at something called the Festival of Tabernacles. In part that ancient festival celebrated God being found, not far away, but among people. And this is what St. John says of Jesus in chapter one, that Jesus is God making his home, (or tabernacle-ing) amongst humanity. So it is a little perplexing when rush out of Christmas so quickly. We spend all December singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and then we box Jesus up as quick as we can on December 26th. But John says that Jesus didn’t come to visit for a long weekend. God came to stay, to be known. The invitation to “come and drink” is to find God among us still. The words “you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here”, are words we never hear from Jesus. This is an ever-open invitation to each of us.
In part this is what Epiphany, the season following Christmas, is all about. At Epiphany we remember a somewhat detached group of people invited by starlight to meet the infant Jesus. It’s the time of year we celebrate God’s revelation of himself through Jesus, not just to a select group, but even to those we might think of as remote or removed. In a time when the actions of governments and world-powers seem to be saying that there are some human lives which are remote or removed enough to be snuffed out, some lives detached enough to be discarded, the truth behind Epiphany shines out all the brighter. The magi, the strangers from the East, stand for those on the outer edges. All of us are drawn, invited into God’s ever-expanding life through Jesus. Every human life is equally valued by, treasured by God, drawn in by God’s love. That includes your life and my life.
So, “come and drink” are inclusive words, universal words, for each one of us, and secondly they are unique words.
In reading John’s Gospel we’re doused again and again with the impression that Jesus doesn’t belong in the categories in which we put the rest of life’s contents. For John, Jesus is not just some self-help Instagram influencer; Jesus isn’t like a bit of paprika to be sprinkled on so that life tastes a little better; Jesus isn’t a dish in a spiritual buffet we can serve ourselves or not. Christ is true light from which all other light is born. Christ is true water from which all creation drinks. Christ is the very spring of existence itself. So, when Jesus’ says to come and trust, to come and drink, the invitation reorients us entirely. When searching for the source of our value, meaning, our life, God says through Jesus. “come to me for that”.
The invitation is one that’s bound to evoke our deepest longings and thirsts as persons. And it’s not only for the needs that we know about, but an invitation so deep it reaches to the needs we don’t know about or would rather not think about – like the kinds of needs we become all too aware of when we face our failures or our mortality. What does “come and drink” mean? At the very least, it means to trust Jesus and to relate to him as our life’s source, center and nourishment. To trust God with our most essential and overwhelming of human concerns. At the end of the day, where do we think life comes from? Where are we going sink our trust when we face the darkness and the drought of our failure or our mortality? What do we do with the things we can’t control? When the prognosis is bad? When the marriage falls apart? When we flunk the class? When that all too familiar temptation slices us open yet again? Where do we turn with our deepest questions and fears? The invitation is unique, Jesus is unique, because he says, “anyone who trusts me, will not be left in the dark, will not die of thirst, will not be left to their own devises; they will be trusting, clinging to, drinking from the source of all life.” So this is a unique invitation because the offer is to trust without conditions, to learn what it means to repeatedly put all of our eggs in one basket.
That’s why an Instagram-influencer-like Jesus, or paprika-like Jesus doesn’t really help us. When we objectify God as just a tool to enhance life on our terms, we’re quickly disappointed, because we’re not dealing with the real God. Jesus’ invitation is to see through him the reality of our reliance on God as life’s source. It’s to truly recognize our thirst for God-dependence, and to find that God is dependable, in life, and even in death, which is what own Jesus’ death and resurrection affirms. We’re invited to give to God both the things we think we can control and the things deep down we know we can’t.
Candles and Rain
Thinking back to New Year’s Eve and my evening full of candles and rain and concerns about a flat roof and unwelcomed water pouring through the ceiling, it doesn’t seem as though God’s like that. Jesus invitation to “come and drink” is universal and unique, but it is a genuine invitation.
In other words, God won’t water-board us. The more we learn about Jesus the more we come to see that God isn’t someone who comes crashing through the ceiling unwelcomed, he’s not not an intruder, but an inviter. Christ doesn’t gush through into where he isn’t welcomed, but invites us to trust, to welcome him as our source, our sustenance. So a life of faith takes our participation. God, after all, is not an imposing policy but a person. So as we face a new year and new decade together, can we hear God standing up today in the middle of this gathering? Standing up and inviting trust and reliance?
Sometimes I think my job as a preacher is to help us see and hear scripture clearly, even to apply Jesus’ words to everyday life. And sometimes I think my job as a preacher is just to point to Jesus and his words – just to point to the light of a candle, just to invite us to listen to the rain, and to ask:
Who here today needs the light? Who here today needs the water?