Living water

12 June 2011
The Feast of Pentecost
Pentecost A (RCL)
Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:25-35, 37b
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
John 7:37-39

For starters, the NRSV does a hatchet job on this passage from John’s Gospel. Richmond Lattimore translates as follows: “On the last great day of the festival Jesus stood forth and made a declaration, saying: If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. For one who believes in me, as the scripture says, streams of living water shall flow from deep within him. This he said concerning the spirit, of which those who had put their faith in him would partake; but the spirit was not yet because Jesus was not yet glorified.” The NRSV punctuates the Greek so that the phrase “the one who believes” qualifies the one who will drink. That is a strained punctuation. If John is quoting Isaiah 55:1, which he seems to be, there is no qualifier. Everyone who comes will drink freely. So, why limit the waters to those who believe?

And then, secondly, the word which Lattimore translates “deep within” and the NRSV “heart” is “koilia”. It translates roughly “innards.” BUT, in the New Testament, it is used for womb. We might translate it “belly,” as in “Mommy has a baby in her belly.” The Feast of Booths involved a water libation on the altar. On each of the seven days of the Festival, priests in procession brought water from the Pool of Siloam and solemnly poured it out (along with wine) onto the altar. Imagine Jesus standing in the Temple, as water is being poured over the altar, saying, “Whoever is thirsty, come to me and drink. For out of the womb of the one who believes will flow rivers of life giving water.” The imagery is spectacular.

From chapter 2 onwards, one of the great themes of John’s Gospel is Jesus’ replacement of the Temple. All of the Temple festivals find their culmination in Jesus. Another great theme of John’s Gospel is the identity of God/Jesus/Community. Everything that God is, Jesus is. And everything Jesus is/was, the community is. God indwells the community, just as God and Jesus are one. Out of the believer’s womb will flow streams of life-giving water.

What is the world thirsty for? Are we providing that? What is coming to birth in us? The story of Pentecost in the Book of Acts is often called “the birthday of the Church.” What a rich image of living waters! God’s spirit moves over the waters of chaos at the beginning of creation. I have always taken this as a sex-y image: God and chaos consorting. Certainly, that would fit the Canaanite context which the biblical story takes over. The dipping of the paschal candle in the font is equally sex-y. And it used to be more obvious. The prayer in the Sarum missal at that point speaks of God’s spirit inseminating the waters, so that those born from them will be born anew.

Pentecost, then, is the feast at which we celebrate the divine life coming to birth in us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *