Sunday, November 22, 2015


A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 22, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 7: 37-43
Exodus 17: 1-7

Here is an audio version of this sermon available to stream or download,  please take a listen, this one is powerful to hear beyond reading. 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

I am super excited this morning. I'm super excited because baptism is so special. It is such an important event in the life of the church, welcoming in new members, the connection of the ritual all the way back to Christ, the countless followers of Christ who have been marked in this special way for over 2000 years, the fact that Jesus himself was baptized in the Jordan by John, that we are connected to Christ in this way, that Christ himself gave commandment that we were to go therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Today, it is extra special, because we officially welcome into the Body of Christ someone who has already touched this congregation with so much love. Kelsey is just wonderful, I can't state it enough, or find words that match what she means to us, because they all fall short. We love her, she makes us smile, and she serves so willingly, giving of herself, always. I am happy, too, because I get to hop out of the Gospel of John journey a week early, and that is strangely freeing after preaching week after week in order for an entire year, but  given the free choice of scripture lessons, wouldn't you know it, I returned to the John's gospel, but back a few chapters to 7. . . remember the context here, in John 6, Jesus fed the Five Thousand and walked on water, but by chapters end most people had fled because Jesus started talking strange about his body and his blood, and the beginnings of Jesus' mixed reviews is in full swing, and chapter 7 opens with Jesus' own brothers unbelief, telling him to stay home, but Jesus, of course, journeys on, and here the Pharisees have just sent officers to arrest Jesus. These words are spoken in response to those searching for him. John 7:37-43:
37 On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38 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.’ ” 39 Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit,  because Jesus was not yet glorified.
40 When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, “This is really the prophet.” 41 Others said, “This is the Messiah.”n But some asked, “Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? 42 Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?” 43 So there was a division in the crowd because of him. 44 Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him. [1]

There you have it, the living waters. . . "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. . . Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water." I thought it interesting to compare this passage with the Old Testament reading. . . because the image is the same. . . think about it. . . desert, thirst, grumbling, and God pulling water from a stone, and then again in the Gospel we have a desert, people do not know of their worth, that God loves us enough to become one of us, to be with us, to show us, to save us, and so a desert, and there is a real thirst for understanding, for salvation, for meaning,  of course there is grumbling, you can see it in the chapter, but we are human, so grumbling is  never really out of the picture, and finally you have God pulling water from a stone again, but this time it is the hearts of stone, hurt from years of wandering in desert, lost, confused, disillusioned and afraid, hearts have become like stone, but God can pull living water out of even the most stone filled hearts, and the flow is a river, and the waters are the waters of life. . . Water is the key element of our survival on this Earth, but it is not so simple to be perfectly safe, because with the blessings of water come the harshness of a storm, the ripping away of land that we know as  erosion, the raging waters of a flood, and of course the fear of drowning altogether. Water gives life, but that life has an edge. I was thinking about water earlier this week, when I wrote a poem about trees growing by the waters edge a Blue Ridge. . . I want to read that to get your mind's outside of themselves, looking beyond to the poetry to the image, and beauty beyond the literal. . . just a taste. . .
As Yet

We’ve all seem them standing, tall,
Yet leaning, strong, yet vulnerable,
For they cling to the water’s edge.
What can we learn from them:
Their presence, their struggle,
Their boldness, firm, and unfailing,
Strong, thickly rooted in the mud?
How has time’s slow passage formed them?
How have life giving waters,
Filled their roots, while washing away
The very foundation those roots grasp onto,
Grain by microscopic grain, piece by unseen piece.
As dust to dust, the edge encroaches slowly,
So slow, no motion is ever seen.
The leaving, the absence, captures it completely,
A lone testimony to the delicate cycle,
Exposing the unearthed limbs in their fight
To hold on, and, so far, they have.
In the water their leaves have gathered,
And slowly decompose into those nutrients,
So by dying they make the clung to mud,
As if it is all a fleeting attempt to fill in
The waters, and build back the bank
Before it is all washed away. The cost
Is just to let go of a little fragment of life.
Can they die fast enough to save their lives?
Such is the paradox they seem to state,
In their autumnal fire-leafed evensong,
And though the gyre keeps spinning,
In seasons of life and death, each one
Leaves its ring. The thick one’s represent
The winning years, of which there have been many,
But with each the weight of the matter grows.
How many thin rings in a row, lean ones,
Will it take to increase the lean, so much,
The whole tree falls? It hasn’t happened
As yet. . .
Obviously there is more to that story than simply trees and the waters edge. . . we are those trees, and we are on the water's edge constantly, but what can we learn from them? What can we learn about water?
For water has been around since the beginning, and God seems to have an interesting relationship with Water if you read the Bible. In creation story, there is water, at the beginning, and the Spirit soars over the waters, and there is also formlessness and void, but that word void, doesn't really exist in Hebrew, they didn't have a word for the lack of stuff, why would you have a word for nothing,  so in conceiving it, in communicating what the world was like before God created, they used a compound word, and that of which half of the word is filled with water. . . is the word to-omb and that to-omb is the void part of formless and void. . . and it's onomatopoeia, it's a sound word, and it mirrors the sound of a stone being thrown into a deep well, and hitting the water, and the sound echoing up the shaft, to-omb. . . that is how they conceived of void, emptiness. . . there's water there, and if you look at the next parts of the story, creation, if taken literally, is God holding back the waters, dividing the waters to create a space for life. He builds a firmament to  hold back the waters of the sky. . . he builds land to hold back the waters of the sea, and in that space he makes life to fill it. Water comes again when God seeks to destroy the world. It is as if  he just lets go the holding back of the waters, but he saves life, two by two, and Noah and his family, in an ark, and an ark is a vessel protected by the promises of God, and after saving them, he shines light through the water and says never again. . . what an image is a rainbow, when taken in symbolic context, especially after a year of reading the Gospel of John, you have two of the great images, light, and living water, and they just happen, when combined, create a rainbow, a sign of a new covenant and a new relationship. Again water. . .
And water remains important for the story, for there is need again for another ark, there is need again for God's protection and God's deliverance. . . for Pharaoh has made a decree, all first born male children are to be destroyed, but not Moses, he is put into an ark, you see the Hebrew word is the same as back in Noah's days, basket loses so much of the poetic relevance. No Moses is placed in an Ark, and set adrift in the river Nile, and he is delivered from the decree of Pharaoh. Moses will know thirst, because he has walked across the desert. . . Moses will know deliverance because on the other side he found a well, a new life, among the people of Midian, but he returned, and brought the people out, through the parted waters of the Red Sea, and back into the desert. . . Manna fell from heaven, attached to the dew, how appropriate, and water flowed from the stone. . . they went astray, they grumbled, and so they wandered for 40 years before being led across the river Jordan, and into the promised land.
So again and again the earliest parts of the Old Testament, the foundational stories, they are flowing with the importance water, but if you read further, one aspect of water seems to gain importance, and that is thirst. . . that God provides for our thirst, that God is the remedy for our thirst, the quenching of our deepest desires for life itself. Look at Psalm 42:
As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
2     My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God. [2]

Or Psalm 143
I remember the days of old,
I think about all your deeds,
I meditate on the works of your hands.
6     I stretch out my hands to you;
my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.[3]

Psalm 107

Some wandered in desert wastes,
finding no way to an inhabited town;
5     hungry and thirsty,
their soul fainted within them.
6     Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress;
7     he led them by a straight way,
until they reached an inhabited town.
8     Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind.
9     For he satisfies the thirsty,
and the hungry he fills with good things. [4]

Of Course 23

Leadeth me beside the still waters

or 1

Happy are those who delight in the law of the Lord and meditate on it day and night, they are like  trees planted by streams of water. . .

But I think my favorite and the greatest of them all on this theme is 63 which I used for this morning's call to worship:
     O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
2     So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
3     Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
4     So I will bless you as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
5     My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, 
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
6     when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
7     for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
8     My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me. [5]

So beautiful, thirst, clinging, and the protection that lies in the "shadow of your wings." One of my favorite of the Northumbria Communities Celtic Prayer office, in the Evening Prayer evokes Psalm 63. . . "In the shadow of your wings, I will sing your praises, O God. Whom is it that you seek, we seek the Lord." And that is it right, that is what this thirst imagery is all about, that is what this clinging imagery is all about, that's it. Seeking, but seeking, not just like looking, seeking as if it is life itself that you are struggling after, like it is very survival that you are seeking. . . like your very life depends on it.
A few years ago, I was introduced to a motivational video that my students were all into. The guy was talking about what it takes to be successful, and he was laying it on thick. He was talking about work, and studying, and paying dues, and he was saying, you might think you've worked, but you haven't worked, you might think you've struggled, but you haven't struggled, you might think you've worked hard enough that you've deserve success, but you haven't. . . you haven't unless you have wanted success as bad as you wanted to breathe. If you were buried in a pool of water, and you were underneath the surface struggling and fighting and doing everything you have just to breathe, that's what it takes to have success, he says. . . imagine seeking God in such a way. . . in that grasping for air kind of way. . . its alot like the thirst you'd have crossing the desert. . . with your mouth parched, and your skin peeling off your face, your tongue swollen from dryness, and heat, and the sun burning down on it, you're so dry you can't even sweat. . . all the natural cooling mechanisms that God put into you start to fail, and your body starts to shut down, and it gets so bad that you start seeing things that aren't there. . . that is thirst. . . what if we realized our need for God like that? What if we sought God that way? What if when we said we were seekers of God we did so in a way that was so desperate for the truth, so desirous of the life giving waters, so in need of the living breath of God, that we wouldn't take no for an answer, we wouldn't choose the else. . . often we don't thirst like that because we haven't let ourselves out into desert yet. . . away from the comforts of safety and home, like Moses growing up in the Palace of Pharaoh, still not pressed by circumstance out into the desert to be tested to his limits. . . Jesus likewise heads out into the desert to be tempted. . . maybe the reason why we don't seek in that aggressive way is that we haven't allowed ourselves to be vulnerable enough to feel we need salvation. . . is that it? That we haven't entered into the desert? But look at the desert that this world is. . . desperately in need of life giving waters, but so many mirages offer empty quenches, how many mirages must we go for before we realize how truly thirsty we are and begin desiring on the edge the life giving waters that Jesus offers.
If you are that thirsty, desert kind of thirsty, parched, swollen tongue, kind of thirsty, then water burns when you finally get it. . . it hurts because it is such a shock to your system. If we can imagine seeking like we're thirsting in the desert, imagine conversion, like the burning first drops of water on your swollen tongue, you'd feel it, deeply, and the hurt, the shock, would just leave desiring more and more and more. That is what Christianity is supposed to be, that is what following Christ is, that is what discipleship is all about, because that is what love is. Jesus says to love your God with all your heart, your soul, your strength, and your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. . . and he's quoting from Deuteronomy 6, so these words are their Hebrew equivalents. . . All your heart, is the word Laybob, your inner parts, everything that is in you, would include emotions like we think of heart, but also mind. . . Soul, is nephesh, it means your essence, the thing that makes you in a spiritual sense, so you have like mind and spirit, but the last, strength, is the word Me-od, and it means your all. It literally means to the last of you, like you have just walked across the desert, and every last bit of your body has collapsed. . . think of the scene in the 10 Commandments, I've alluded to its Biblical counterpart a couple of times already. . . but the scene where Charlton Heston is Moses and has just been sent out of Egypt, the Pharaoh in that great voice, says, "The name of Moses should be stricken from every pillar and tablet, every. . . " Rameses tells gives him a staff to rule over snakes and scorpions and lizards, he says free them if you will, leave the Hebrews to me, and he makes his way across, with the music playing. . . and then Cecil B. Demille's voice says,
Learning that it can be more terrible to live than to die, he is driven onward through the burning crucible of desert, where holy men and prophets are cleansed and purged for God's great purpose, until at last, at the end of human strength, beaten into the dust from which he came, the metal is ready for the Maker's hand.

If you've got that image in your mind, Moses, half dead, with nothing left, all in God's hands, the very end of your energy, that is what Me'od means. . . So Love God with all your Laybob, your Nephesh, and your Me'od. . . to do that you truly need living water. . . the kind that flows out of your heart like a river. .  .
Today we baptize Kelsey, and in doing so we remember our own baptisms, where we are bathed in living waters, washed clean of the desert of our journey, like Moses, through the wilderness of sin. . . we think about the water that Jesus pulls out of the stone of our hardened hearts, we think about the promise of light shining through the waters, arraying our lives with an entire spectrum of color. . . we think about the thirst we have, that we need water to live, to exist, that we are made up mostly of water, but that the water that God has for us does more than keeps us existing, but shows us that life is about more than being, but about loving, about giving of more of yourself, about being in the image of God with all the majesty of it. . . water is what we need. . . O that we could be bathed in those waters again. . . that we could be planted beside those life giving waters, that we could seek them as if they mattered more than any other thing. Man. . . the poetry of the Bible is more vivid than anything we could ever imagine, help us seek it fully with a thirst for real, true, life. . . amen.

My Baptismal Hymn


The Poem, "As Yet" is about the trees clinging to the land, desperately trying to stay alive. . . subtly though it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Could we trust those waters enough to not live on the edge, but instead to completely submerge into those living waters. . . what faith would allow us to do just that. . . may God give us the faith, in Jesus name we pray, amen. 

n Or the Christ
[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 7:37-44). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ps 42:1-2). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[3]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ps 143:5-6). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[4]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ps 107:4-9). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[5]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ps 63:1-8). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.