This sermon was prepared and preached for a seminary course called Preaching the Gospel of John: Abundant Life as a Vision for Christian Community, at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.
A reading from John (7:37-39).
And on the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus had stood up, and he cried out, saying, “If anyone thirsts, let them come to me and drink! The one trusting in me, as the scripture has said, rivers will flow out of their womb, of living water.” And he said this concerning the spirit, whom the ones who trusted in him were about to receive; for the spirit was not yet, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
Word of God, word of life.
Thanks be to God.
Are you thirsty? Are you? Are you thirsty?
It is on the last day of the feast of the tabernacles, John tells us, that Jesus stands up. It is day seven, or maybe day eight of a weeklong festival. Harvest has come, and worshippers are thankful for God’s abundance. Thousands of people crowding the city of Jerusalem, sleeping in tents and remembering together the story of Israel in the wilderness after the exodus. The story goes, the thirsty wilderness people of Israel quarrel and ask themselves, “Is the LORD among us or not?” So God tells Moses to strike the rock, and water comes out so the people can drink. At the feast, priests remember that gushing rock as they process through the streets of Jerusalem carrying water, past Jesus and the rest of the faithful feast-goers, and up and around the altar where the water is poured out as a libation, day after day.
And on the last day of that feast, the great day, Jesus stands up and cries out: Are you thirsty?
Who could still be in need of a drink at the end of a festival like this? A feast of such watery abundance? But Jesus perceives the hidden thirst. Jesus names the thirst that is just under the surface of the feast. And Jesus makes an invitation, addressed directly to those thirsty: Here is a place for you. Come and drink.
This invitation is for all of us. There’s nothing more human than the experience of thirst – we know humans can only survive a few days without something to drink. Actually, there’s nothing more life-like than being thirsty; our thirst connects us not only to other humans but also to all life on earth that depends on water to live. There’s nothing more life-like than being thirsty.
And there’s also nothing more vulnerable than being thirsty. It doesn’t feel good to be in such acute physical need. It is risky to be honest about my need with the people around me. See, I learned that it is my responsibility to provide for my own needs. I learned that to need something was weak or shameful.
I learned this in part from the particularities of my home context. But even if I hadn’t learned it there, I would have learned it from the world around me. We all learn to be ashamed of the things we need because we live in a world where our survival actually depends on us being able to provide for ourselves. We must be productive citizens. We must be self-sufficient. If we are not able to pull ourselves up (which is all the time, because of course it is actually impossible to survive alone) we experience real, material consequences.
The intersections of capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, all systems of domination, create a reality that is simply not made for the thirsty to survive. Water costs $2/bottle… or else the price of a mortgage in a neighborhood with adequate treatment plants. There are fountains made for ‘whites’ and fountains labeled ‘colored’ – and now we know that I’m talking about literal water – yes – but also all of the things that humans need to experience abundant life. In this world, made for the hydrated, the implication is that if you can’t quench your own thirst, it’s your own fault when you perish of dehydration.
“If anyone is thirsty, let them come to me and drink!”
Jesus’s invitation ripples deep in my bone marrow. Jesus is exposing something true about me, something that I avoid or hide whenever possible: I am in deep need.
I am thirsty for a life that I can’t get for myself by earning it. I can pretend like I don’t need it. I can keep trying to buy the water of life with my own strength or achievement or self-sufficiency.
But Jesus’s invitation cracks open the lie that my thirst is a problem – at this feast, my thirst is what puts me on the guest list. My thirst is all I need to be qualified to drink from the living waters of God in Christ, and to drink also from the gushing springs of water that God makes to flow through my siblings by the spirit.
Are you thirsty? Are you? Are you thirsty?
Wow, yes, I am thirsty. I admit to myself, yes. Erin, you are thirsty.
God, I am thirsty. My thirst draws me to God.
I imagine coming to Jesus to drink like this: my hands are open to receive, cupped to hold water, outstretched in expectation, my gaze focused downward.
Water is poured into my hands and overflows. I receive it, and I drink.
And when my belly is full, my hands lower and suddenly my gaze lifts – I see other hands cupped like mine. I see faces, thirsty and weary like mine, gathered around the water to drink.
Are you thirsty, too? Friends, I am thirsty. My thirst draws me to the indwelling God in you.
Let me tell you a little bit about my thirst. I’m in need of a prayer. I’m vulnerable and afraid. It makes me anxious to preach in class. I’m in need of your mercy, because sometimes it feels like I’m always doing the wrong thing. I need you to see that I don’t have it all together. I doubt my ability to do this vocation that we’ve been preparing for.
Here, with you, at the fountain of life, my thirst stops being my shame. My thirst isn’t proof of my failure; my thirst is what draws me to God and connects me to you. My thirst becomes power, our power, the power of the spirit that ties me together with you and with all people – and with all of creation that thirsts for abundant life.
Because when know that we’re all thirsty, we are able to build deep and meaningful relationships with one another, relationships not built on any false foundation of ego, or merit, or status, but built on the truth of our common human need. And those relationships, grounded in solidarity, are strong. Those relationships are resilient. Together we can take risks, and work together. We can decide that it’s not right to be thirsty alone. We can trust in, and work towards, the better world that God is birthing: a world where children don’t learn that there’s something wrong with having a need, where people can depend on one another, where there is no shame. God is creating a world where thirst is holy, and the sacred thirst of all creation is honored.
In all this, it is God who interrupts the feast-as-usual to invite you, the same God that cries out from the glorious cross of God’s own suffering, “I am thirsty.” God is with you in your thirst. It is God’s mercy that quenches your deepest need, and that fills your bellies with water that flows out in rivers of life to me, to this community, to the church, and to the whole world. Thanks be to God.