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Rivers of Living Water - Dr Katherine Abetz : John 7:37-39

Reflection for Pentecost on John 7: 37-39 (Rivers of living water)

Remember the days when the service always included a children’s story? Even if there aren’t any children, Walter and I often put in what we call an adult-children’s story. It helps to focus the service on the theme of the day. So here’s a children’s story for Pentecost. A preacher brought a toy car to church, bigger than a match-box car and nice-looking. He showed it to the children and asked what was missing. One bright child said it needed batteries. So the children were given the batteries and the car went into action with lights flashing. Pentecost, said the preacher, was the day God put the batteries into the Church.

We’re familiar with the account of the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. We know about the wind and the fire and the speaking in tongues. These things were evidence of the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. I want to ask three things about the gift of the Spirit: what is it like; what does it do; what is it for? The lectionary supplies a number of readings for Pentecost. In order to try and answer these questions, I will begin with what Jesus says about the Holy Spirit in John 7 and glance briefly at the other readings.

What is the gift of the Spirit like? “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink,” says Jesus. “He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water’”. Here the Spirit is likened to a thirst-quenching spring. The scriptural passage referred to by Jesus seems to come from Isaiah 58:11: ‘you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters fail not’. But in the description by Jesus, the water supply is enormous, enough for more than one river. N. T. Wright goes so far as to link ‘rivers of living water’ with the ‘great river which flows out of the restored Temple in Ezekiel 47’, to the rivers flowing from the Garden of Eden, to the river of Revelation 22. Rivers of living water are all about creation renewed, says N. T. Wright.

What does the gift of the Spirit do? When the resurrected Jesus breathes on the disciples in John 20, the Spirit is said to bring peace and a power which has to do with the forgiveness of sins. 1 Corinthians 12 offers a lengthy itemization of varieties of gifts and different ways in which they work. The chapter concludes with the exhortation to ‘earnestly desire the higher gifts’. This seems like an echo from the book of Numbers 11:29. Moses is told that two of the elders are prophesying without supervision. Far from objecting, Moses states: ‘Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his spirit on them!’

What is the gift of the Spirit for? Acts 2 associates the coming of the Spirit with conversion. Corinthians 12 tells us that the gifts are given for the building up of the Body of Christ. There are multiple purposes which we are called to tap into. They are God’s purposes, not ours. Here’s a picture from N. T. Wright to sum it up:

There is a place in the Scottish Highlands where the broad and tranquil River Dee is funnelled in a swirling and seething foam through a gap in solid rock, narrow enough for a foolish teenager to jump across. (Don’t ask me how I know that.) So it is here. The four great rivers that flowed from the [Garden of Eden], the great new river that will stream from the Temple, are to come rushing and churning into, and (equally importantly) out of, the one who believes in Jesus … Don’t trivialize Pentecost. Think how the Spirit-imagery works. Water, wind and fire are not tame.

(From N. T. Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays: Reflections on Bible Readings Year A.)

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The School of Faith is a ministry of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations within the Uniting Church in Australia


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