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We just heard two selections from different parts of the Bible. The second one, from the Gospel of John, begins with the words “On the last day of the festival.” Now festivals happened all the time in ancient Jerusalem. It was the temple city, and the goal of many religious pilgrimages. What Mecca and Medina eventually became for the Islamic faith, Jerusalem was for Jews in Jesus’ time, before the Second Temple was destroyed. People came from far and wide to the religious festivals held in Jerusalem, but the one mentioned in John 7 wasn’t just any old festival. It wasn’t mentioned just to help the reader build a mental picture of the backdrop for another of Jesus’ speeches.

It was a harvest festival of a sort, at least thematically similar to the Thanksgiving holiday we have coming up pretty soon. The Jews call it Sukkot, and we actually just missed it. The “last day of the festival” this year happened a month ago yesterday.

Like many harvest festivals, Thanksgiving included, Sukkot has at its core a celebration of a successful harvest of the bounty of the earth. A way of showing gratitude for the gifts of nature that make full, happy lives possible. It’s also tied up with a remembrance of the Israelites’ exodus into the wilderness from the land of Egypt, and how dependent they had been on God’s will in that time. Which is another way Sukkot has similarities with our American Thanksgiving. The “First Thanksgiving” a lot of us learned about in school took place on the first harvest after the Pilgrims (on an exodus of their own) survived their first winter in their new home. Not only was their very survival dependent on the mercy of God, it was due in large part to the generosity of Massasoit and Squanto and the other native people that lived in the region.

So the days-long festival that was taking place when Jesus addressed the crowd was in the spirit of thanksgiving, celebrating the harvest and raising gratitude for the bounty the Jewish people had been granted. Now every holiday has its own traditions and its own rituals. Thanksgiving’s is cooking a giant bird, sitting around a table with the ones you love, and arguing about politics and football. In the time of Jesus, Sukkot in Jerusalem had a number of different rituals, but one I want to bring special attention to had to do with water.

During the ceremony, the people would come to the temple with palms and willows, and march around the great altar. While they did this, a priest would take a golden pitcher to the pool of Siloam, fill it with water, and bring it back through the Water Gate. People would recite Isaiah 12:3, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation,” and the water would be poured out on the altar as the people gave thanks to God.

It was at the same time a prayer of thanks and a prayer for rain so that the next harvest would be bountiful and life giving.

In my head, I like to think that it was at the very end of that ritual on the last day of the festival that Jesus’ words rang 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.’” The passage from John doesn’t specify exactly which moment Jesus chose to address the crowd on the last day, but even if it wasn’t during the water ceremony itself, nobody there could have failed to be reminded of it and all it represented when Jesus began to speak of water.

When the people in Jerusalem on that day thought about water, they thought about rain, about God’s life-sustaining mercy, and about the life-giving bounty of the harvest. They thought of the days of draught in the wilderness outside Egypt, and the providence of God that had rescued them from Egypt’s injustice and sustained them on their way. I don’t think Jesus did a lot of things by accident, and using the language of water in that moment was a calculated decision.

“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 the Scripture says a lot about water. Eight hundred years before Christ addressed the people of Jerusalem, the prophet Amos addressed them saying, “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph… But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

There’s that image again: water running down. Whether it’s rain falling from the clouds or a stream flowing down from the mountains, it comes from above and it waters the crops and we are grateful.

But there’s a nuance in the passage from Amos and in the words Jesus spoke in Jerusalem, and it isn’t just about water coming in out of nowhere. Jesus says “‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” And the long version of the passage from Amos essentially says, in true angry-prophet fashion, God doesn’t care about all your festivals and your thanksgivings and your fancy music if you aren’t establishing justice: letting it roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. In God’s world, there’s more to water than just rain from above.

Jesus says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me,” but then he tells us too that “‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”

Just like the Great Flood from Noah’s Ark, when the flood came down from the clouds above and up from the earth below, the living water of God comes from two places as well.

Remember the Pilgrims’ first winter: their survival came from both the mercy of God and the generosity of the Native Americans. And you may recall, it was survival by the skin of their teeth. They couldn’t have done it at all if either of those was missing.

We pray for rain for our parched world… but sometimes the water has to come from us. There’s a piece by songwriter Bo Burnham called “From God’s Perspective,” and it ends with the words… “If you want love then the love has gotta come from you.”

Jesus is the source of living water, but as followers of Jesus we’re called to be sources as well. To join Christ’s bucket brigade and share God’s living water with those who need it. To let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. To allow rivers of living water to flow out from our hearts.

There’s two things we can do when crops need water. We can pray for rain, or we can build an irrigation system. These Scriptures seem to say that we can do both. Or rather, that we should do both. Maybe that’s the way it works. We pray to God for the water to heal this thirsty world… and out of the believer’s heart flows rivers of living water.

It really encapsulates the idea of stewardship. We don’t just wait for God to help the poor and fix all the problems of our community and our world. We do it with God. Right alongside. We work alongside Jesus, the source of living water, to quench the thirst of the world in all the varied ways we find it.

And we each are called by God to join that work in different ways. Some of us are called to give money to charities, or to pledge to the church. Some of us are called to volunteer our time and energy, and do good in the lives of others through our labor and skills. Some of us are called to advocate or legislate or vote, to ensure that the systems of our community and our nation do justice and let righteousness flow. Some of us are called to teach, or to protect, or to offer a shoulder to cry on. Some of us are called to help out at the food pantry for a couple hours a week. Every one of us has ways we can provide living water for others. To see justice and righteousness done in this world of ours.

And that’s what this stewardship season is about. It’s about taking the time to discover the ways that God is calling you to join Jesus in letting the living water flow.

There’s a lot of suffering in this world, and so, so much injustice. Even in our town there are people struggling just to survive; whether it’s the jobless, the homeless, the addicted… or people whose struggle to survive is on the inside, where we can’t see it. People, young and old, trying to decide whether the pain and the hatred and the alienation of this world is worth living for, or if it would just be easier…

Water is for the thirsty. Justice is for the oppressed, and for those whose voice isn’t heard. Righteousness is for those who need it most. Following the way of Jesus is about making sure that nothing stands in the way of the living water of God.

My favorite use of our reading from Amos came from Martin Luther King in his “I Have a Dream” speech. He was speaking about justice and righteousness too. His struggle was for racial justice: for fair opportunity, social equality, and freedom from abuse for African Americans. He knew his hopes for his people and for this country were righteous in the sight of God… but he knew it wasn’t just gonna happen with prayer alone. It would have happened a long time ago somewhere across the hundreds of years of oppression if it were that easy. His dream was for justice and righteousness to flow freely, and he knew just as Jesus did that we humans have a critical role in seeing that dream become a reality.

Whether it’s racial justice, or mercy for the poor, education for our children, love for the outcast and the looked-down-upon, wholesome example for those with none, compassion for the grieving, welcome for the stranger, strength for the weak, safety for the insecure… we come to Jesus, the source of living water… and in turn we pour it out, sharing it from our hearts with the world that desperately needs it.

I can’t do King’s words justice myself… so I’ll let him say it.

“No, no, we are not satisfied and will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

 

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted: every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plane, and the crooked places will be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

“This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our Nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together; to pray together; to struggle together; to go to jail together; to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”

 

That is the rain that I pray for. Now… let’s all grab some buckets.

Amen.