Rev. Danielle K Bartz October 23, 2022
John 7:37-44 “Water from the Whitewater River”
In January of this year, as we were approaching the Sunday when we remember the baptism of Christ, I had an idea. Jesus was, as we know, baptized in the river Jordan. So I decided I wanted to have a glass pitcher of river water on the altar for worship that Sunday, and I wasn’t going to let the fact that is it was January in Minnesota get in the way. So, I called up my uncle Tom, my mom’s younger brother, who had moved back to Minnesota to be closer to family to request some help. As an avid fly-fisherman and someone who likes to spend his time driving around the back roads of Minnesota, I knew he could help me find an open (that is, unfrozen) source of river water that had a walking bridge over it so we could gather the water without needing to get into it. 24 hours after I made the request, my uncle called and said he had found a location. All I needed to bring was a rope, a bucket, and something to transport the water in.
The bucket and transport device were easy to find. The rope was a bit trickier, but after a quick call to Nick Edstrom, I located rope long and strong enough for the job. Though, Nick did ask me several follow-up questions as to why I needed rope for church. So, on a Thursday afternoon I told Ganga, our administrative assistant, that I was off to collect river water for worship (again, several follow up questions were asked) and met my uncle at Mauer Bros bar in Elba for a quick drink before heading out on our expedition. I asked him if this was the type of shenanigans he expected to happen after moving home to be with family, and it says a lot about my family when he said that this was exactly the type of thing that he expected to happen.
Our source of river water was the Whitewater – easily accessible and big enough that there was no ice. Just outside of Elba he had found a small footbridge over a section of the river that we could get to fairly easily from the road. After walking through a field where luckily the snow wasn’t too deep, we got to the bridge and noticed a problem right away. The bridge should be condemned. It was in horrible shape – missing boards, rotted boards, and covered in ice. But, not to be deterred, we braved it (only almost falling a few times). We tied the rope to the handle of the ice-cream bucket I took from the church kitchen, dropped it over the bridge about the 15 or 20 feet to the river and started to scoop water. That’s when the rope came undone and the bucket floated away. As my uncle is, as I said, a fly-fisherman and tying good knots is a key part of that hobby, I spent the next several minutes making fun of him as we came up with an alternative plan. I had an empty orange juice jug that I was going to use to transport the water, and he had brought an empty glass beer growler as back-up. So, we tied the rope to the beer growler, my uncle spending more time securing the knot, and tried again.
The mouth of a beer growler is not all that big, and positioning it so the water was flowing into the growler and not around it was not easy. But after several attempts, we eventually were able to fill the entire OJ jug with crystal clear Whitewater River water to sit on the altar for Sunday’s worship. As we were visible from the road while doing this, I kept rehearsing what I would say to the sheriff if he drove by asking what we were up to, but luckily no one asked any more follow up questions. I have several pictures, and one rather sad video of the bucket floating away if you would like to see them after worship. I put a couple of the pictures on the church website, under the Worship at Home tab, as well.
I tell you this story not to prove to you the lengths I go to to make our worshipping life richer, but rather because it is one of my favorite memories from this last year. It was an act of devotion to God, and to you, but one that filled me up. It still makes me smile, and both my uncle Tom and I love to tell the story. And I thought of it this week as I read the scripture lesson. Undoubtedly Jesus referring to living water is what triggered the memory, but it stuck with me for another reason. In this text, Jesus describes the Holy Spirit as the living water that comes from our faith. It is not actually water, of course, but a beautiful and relatable metaphor of how faith can provide life-sustaining nourishment and sustenance. Faith, Jesus is saying, can be the source of our strength. And for me the memory of an afternoon in Elba with a rope and bucket over a river is nourishment as well.
So often we talk about having faith in a way that lends itself to the idea of ‘work.’ Having faith leads to having a desire to do good in this world, to serve God by serving neighbor, of bringing the Kingdom of God to everyone. I often describe faith that way. Theologians describe this as ‘works righteousness’, meaning that we try to prove our loyalty and devotion to God by doing good work. As this idea carries with it the assumption that God’s favor can be won by how we act or what we do, theologians across the religious spectrum preach away from works righteousness. God’s favor is with us because of our very creation, and there is no check-list of actions we can take to put us higher on the list of God’s belovedness. But that works righteousness idea still seeps into so much of how we understand what it means to live out our faith. We do and do and do, we give and give and give – and think to ourselves, well now God knows I love God. We try to prove a point that doesn’t require proving. And this exhausts us, it depletes us and, building on today’s metaphor of faith as living water, our wells start to run dry. But today’s scripture is a reminder that having faith isn’t just about doing or giving away of ourselves. Faith is also about receiving.
Jesus taught in today’s scripture that “if anyone thirsts, woman or man, come to me and drink. The one who believes in me…from their belly shall flow rivers of living water.” Jesus is reminding his followers, us, that faith is a source of life and life abundant. This is the gift from God, a gift we are free to receive without guilt or expectation. The living water of faith is what we receive. Faith is not meant to deplete us. It is not meant to create guilt. It is not meant to be a task list of things to get done in order to earn God’s love.
Let me be very clear. I am not saying that our faith and belief in God does not inspire us to do good for this world. As Easter people, people who believe in the promise of life in places that feel like death, we are inspired to do good for this world. To love our neighbor by serving our neighbor. But we do this not because we must, but because we can. Good work done in response to the gift of the living water of faith is work that fulfills and does not deplete. This difference, between guilt and inspiration, is something we must always remember. It was a core message of Jesus – throughout the Gospels he reminds the people that simply following the religious laws was not the way to serve God. Service to God is belief in God and that belief is what inspires us to do good, and it is what inspires us to serve. And that inspiration, that faith, Jesus says, is like living water.
10 months ago, I headed out in an act of devotion to God and this community for an odd little adventure on the Whitewater River. It still makes me smile and that smile is a reminder of the living water of my faith and how it sustains me. You may not have a story like that, but I know you have plenty of stories, memories, of moments when you were serving God in a way that didn’t drain you but filled you up. Even if it left you physically exhausted, needing to rest your body, your spirit was not tired but rather filled with life. Strengthened for whatever would come next. And as we all struggle to find strength again after hard years, let us return to those memories and use them to inspire us to make more. That is one of the greatest gifts of this community – the opportunity to serve alongside friends and strangers, filled with laughter and honesty, devotion to God that we sing out and share. If something is draining you, don’t be afraid to name it and step back. We don’t have to earn God’s love. Step back to create space for something new, perhaps an unexpected way of swimming in God’s living water. Write poetry, join the choir, share a meal with the community during Soup-er Thursday, worship in-person, engage in Bible study, or come up with something entirely new – drawing energy from this place. Our faith in God is not a depletion and our service to God’s creation is not chore. It is a gift, a nurturing and life-sustaining gift. Let us all allow ourselves to be filled up with living water. Amen.
God, you who are our source of life and nourishment, we come to you in prayer seeking to be filled up with your living water, giving us the strength we need for whatever is to come. For this gift, freely given, we are grateful. And it is in this spirit of gratitude that we pray.
Life-giving God, you inspire us to do good for this world, to serve you in old and new ways, and to share your life-giving presence with all those we encounter. And you remind us to pause and rest a while, you welcome us to remain still in your comforting embrace. A true miracle of our faith in you is both this inspiration and this comfort.
One of the ways we can remember your sustenance is in the act of prayer for others and for ourselves. In these moments of silence, we turn over to you the prayers of our hearts, prayers that are too deep for words…
God and loving God, you are our source of life and nourishment. We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, our teacher and guide, the one who pointed to you and inspires us to look. We pray now in the way he taught by raising our voices together…Our Father…