In St. John’s Gospel the evangelist weaves things together very, very tightly. Very intimately! “I and the Father are one,” Jesus says in John. There is no Father without the Son.
Here in our Reading, St. John adds the comment, “…as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” And in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ glorification is primarily the cross. So there is no Father without a crucified Son. And now…there is no crucified Son without the Spirit either.
Tying everything up nice and tight, the Father is there at the cross in the crucified Son. The Father is there pouring out the Spirit like rivers of living water from the pierced side of that Son. Oh yes…that’s very graphic! Very intimate! Very tightly woven together. So on this Day of Pentecost we hear these words of our Gospel Reading flowing to us out of this tightly woven fellowship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The context of this Reading is the feast of tabernacles, called Sukkoth, an annual festival in Israel to recall the forty thirsty years dwelling in tents/tabernacles in the wilderness. And during this festival of remembering the thirsty years, Jesus cries out to the crowd in the temple courts, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. Whoever believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”
For St. John, this is the heart of Pentecost. This tightly woven fellowship of God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—now together with the people He calls to Himself; people out of whose hearts flow rivers of living water.
Now we Christians are, of course, many things in this world…just like everyone else. As Luther lists in his catechism, we are “a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, worker” and many, many more. But at heart, we are people from out of whose hearts flow rivers of living water. Yes, that makes us holy people…but not in the way we often think of holiness!
From Jesus’ words it is clear we are not the sort of holy people who go off to live in caves or to sit on mountaintops practicing our codes of holiness or our methods of meditation…or whatever else may dazzle and impress in the world of spirituality.
But holiness, as it is commonly understood, tends to divide and isolate. Israel of old was called to be a holy people, separate, called out from the world. The laws of holiness in Israel isolated them as a peculiar people. And holiness still does that…ensuring that it becomes very clear as to who is holy and who is not!
Instead of a holiness turned in upon itself, St. John writes that we are people out of whose hearts flow rivers of living water. That living water flows outward sweeping up more and more people in its flood! From the divine Father, living water flows outward to the Son, the crucified Son. From that crucified Son, living water flows outward by the Spirit into the world by the people of that Son. Woven into this fellowship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, by the water of life in Holy Baptism, living water has caught us in its flood and flows outward from us. Outward!
So what are these rivers of living water in whose stream we have been caught up? And what does it have to do with holiness?
There is a famous altar painting in Isenheim, Germany, done by the 16th Century painter, Matthias Grünewald. The painting is the crucifixion. The scene itself is magnificently brutal in its portrayal of the Christ writhing in agony, His hands visibly twisted in grotesque pain. But over to one side, under the cross, stands John the Baptist, pointing a long, bony finger at the crucified Jesus.
In that painting John the Baptist isn’t doing anything more obviously holy than stand there and point! He who had done so much that might be credited as holiness…washing all those penitent sinners who came to him at the Jordan River. Baptizing Jesus in the Jordan! Calling King Herod to account for his dalliance. But the significance of his life was to point to Jesus!
Ah…John the Baptist pointed, because John was woven into that tight, intimate fellowship of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, caught up in the outward flow of living water…which flowed outward from John by his pointing! John did not exist to make himself holy. John’s holiness came in being caught up in that much greater river of living water!
All of which brings us to the crucial issue of this Day of Pentecost. What does it mean for us…this being a people out of whose hearts flow rivers of living water?
Instead of a holiness which isolates and divides, instead of a spirituality which turns us in upon ourselves and our own piety, St. John, in his creative way, is wrapping us tightly within this whole image of a flowing stream, sweeping us along…first toward the cross. “I thirst!” Jesus first said that to the Samaritan woman at the well. Yet this thirsty Christ also told her that He had living water to give her, water of which she could drink and never thirst again.
Then on the cross, Jesus again says “I thirst.” Yet also on that cross this thirsting Jesus is again the font of living water, who pours a stream of living water from His spear-pierced side.
So on a first level, that rivers of living water flow from our hearts means that we have been caught up…in a crime. For the woman at the well, it was her messed up life; but ultimately for us all it’s a murder. There’s no point in dressing it up the cross. Murder is what it was. And not only that, but it was the religious, holy people—the sort of holiness concerned with itself, that isolating, condemning sort of holiness too many spiritual gurus are trying to get us to be—they’re the ones that killed Jesus!
And not just the religious folk back then. As we sing in Lent…if we listen while we sing, “Whence come these sorrows, whence this mortal anguish? It was my sins for which Thou, Lord, must languish…”
Seeing that crime, seeing ourselves caught up in it, there’s no use pretending any longer. We cannot aspire to be good, holy people, paragons of virtue. What we find, is that our mouth gets so dry, our tongue mutes in thirst by the realization of what we have done…by what we do in the name of religion and holiness.
But those rivers of living water do not come to an end, swallowed up at the cross. They flow onward, outward…as we are continually amazed to discover. Had it all been swallowed up at the cross with the death of this thirsting sacrifice, we would have no choice but to cover up our involvement. Hide it. Bury it in the ground. Put the evidence in a dark cave and roll a stone in front of the entrance…and hope no one will ever pay attention.
But when we had done our worst at the cross…when our self-styled efforts at holiness inevitably turn ugly…and, man!, do they get ugly…God is at His best. Out of that dead tomb flow the rivers of living water…of new life…resurrection life… eternal life… flowing like a mighty stream from the resurrected body of the Son.
“Come to Me,” is what He now says. That’s all He needs to say! For the Father dwells as one in that Son, who through that Son pours out His Spirit. Rivers of living water flow from the heart of the Father through the Son by the Spirit…sweeping up those who thirst. Sweeping us up…not in thirsty judgment, but into a soul-quenching, life-restoring fellowship. Tightly woven. So intimate. So alive!
God doesn’t need our self-styled holiness, our sanctimonious disciplines. They only separate and isolate, judge and condemn. God has all He wants and needs in the cross and resurrection. And this Day of Pentecost sweeps us into the life of that cross and resurrection.
“You will be clothed with power from on high,” Jesus told us last week on Ascension. And so we have; power, like a mighty flowing river…not to destroy and isolate…but rivers of living water which have wrapped us up in the holiness of the Holy Father and the Holy Son and of the Holy Spirit…from whose heart rivers of living water flow…flow onward…flow outward. And now on this Day of Pentecost, St. John gives us to see that those rivers of living water flow even from us thirsty folks. Oh yes…even from us!