Drinking from the Water of Life -- a River Crossings Sermon (Revelation 7:9-17)
Note: Since I'm not preaching today due to my sabbatical, I thought I might share this sermon that speaks of the Water of Life. The picture above was taken of the spring that serves as the headwaters of the Sacramento River and is located in the Mount Shasta City Park, which is where I am spending this weekend. Therefore, this sermon seems a fitting #RiverCrossings message.
On this fourth Sunday of Easter we continue our journey through the Book of Revelation. When we last gathered, we found ourselves standing before the throne of God. We were singing praises to God and to the Lamb who was slain. This morning, we again find ourselves standing before the throne of God. We look around and we see a great multitude that is drawn from every nation and tribe and people and language. Together we declare that “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
There is a company of people robed in white garments standing in the midst of this multitude. One of the twenty-four elders asks John: “Who are these, robed in white, and where do they come from?” While John didn’t know the answer, he learned that they are the faithful witnesses who stood firm in the midst of persecution at the cost of their own lives. These martyrs stand before the throne of God waiting to receive their reward. This is their reward: they will hunger and thirst no more because the Lamb will be their guide. The Lamb of God will become the shepherd who leads them to the springs of the water of life.
John lifts up these martyrs, inviting us to honor them for their faithful witness. I know that the Jewish community listens carefully to the voices of those who survived the Holocaust. Their numbers are growing thinner with time, but their voice remains powerful. In the ancient church, those who endured persecution and remained faithful were honored by the church. Many were named as saints of God. Consider the witness of Perpetua, a young woman from Carthage, who was willing to brave the arena, even though she was at the time of her martyrdom a nursing mother. Her witness served to encourage others to remain faithful in their witness.
Our reading not only speaks of the witness of the martyrs, but it also speaks of the reward: “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more.” This morning I would like to draw our attention to this promise. The Fourth Sunday of Easter is designated “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The Gospel reading from John speaks of hearing and heeding the voice of the shepherd. Those who are part of the flock will hear and respond only to that voice (John 10:22-30). In this reading from Revelation we hear that the Lamb of God has become the shepherd who guides the sheep to “springs of the water of life.”
It is this image of the “springs of the water of life,” that caught my eye when I first read the passage in laying out the sermons for this season. Water is such an important element in our human existence. The ongoing crisis in Flint is a good reminder of this. We take for granted the expectation that when we turn on the tap, safe and secure water will emerge. We expect to shower in clean water. We expect to drink safe water. Unfortunately, many people in Flint must turn to bottled water, like the water being distributed at Vermont Avenue Christian Church, for their daily needs.
Although an El Nino season has brought to California much needed rain and snow, which has filled many of the lakes and rivers to capacity, the ongoing expectation is dire. You see, the drought was so severe that Californians had to dig deeper and deeper wells so they could tap into the deepest pools of underground water. These pools of water have been gathering for thousands of years and now are being depleted. That water will not be easily replaced.
Water may cover 71% of the earth, but only 2% is freshwater. We who live in Michigan are surrounded by the largest quantity of freshwater in the world. These waters must be protected. They must be treasured. Diana Butler Bass writes in her latest book that “Water is life; life is water. Living water is God; God is Living Water” (Grounded, p. 77). That means that we need to attend to the water of life. Yes, we must drink from the water of life!
Water plays an important role in the biblical story. There is water in the beginning. In Genesis 1 the dry land emerges out of the waters. The people of Israel cross through the sea to obtain their freedom, and they cross through the Jordan to enter the Promised Land. Jesus begins his ministry in his baptism by John. Many important conversations throughout the biblical story occur at wells. There is the story of Jacob and Rachel, who meet and fall in love at a well (Gen. 29). Then Jesus encounters the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well and that leads to an important theological conversation (John 4). Because we live in a well-watered region, it’s easy to forget that water is a rare commodity in that part of the world. Therefore, it often has deep symbolic meaning.
In Revelation 7 the Lamb becomes the shepherd who leads the martyrs to the spring of the water of life. The imagery here seems to parallel the imagery in Psalm 23. The Psalmist declares: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul” (Ps. 23:1-3a). In Revelation 7, the Lamb of God, the one who was slain, becomes the Good Shepherd, and guides the flock to “springs of the water of life.”
Last week I invited us to release our holy imaginations, so we could experience this call to enter the heavenly court and join in worshiping the Living God, and the Lamb who was slain. Sometimes it’s helpful to connect our imaginations with our own life experiences.
When I think of springs of living water, my imagination takes me back to the City Park in Mount Shasta, California. In that park, you will find a spring bubbling out from an outcropping of rocks. This spring, which is fed by the melting snowpack of Mount Shasta, serves as the headwaters of the Sacramento River. The water that’s emerging from this spring is clear, clean, cold, refreshing. Whenever we pass through Mount Shasta on our way north to Oregon, we will stop at the park and visit the spring. When you stand there looking at this spring, you need to start imagining how this spring gives birth to a great river that provides drinking water to millions of people, even as it serves to irrigate fields and orchards throughout Northern California. Peaches, pears, plums are all fed and watered by this river. Of course, if the snow fails to come to the mountain, the spring could dry up. If the spring dries up, well the river dries up. That means that the fields will dry up, while millions of people struggle to find water to drink.
Water is essential to life. It is a gift of God that can’t be taken for granted. That is one of the key messages of Earth Day, which we will observe on Friday. Earth Day was born after an oil platform off the coast of Santa Barbara ruptured in 1969, creating enormous environmental damage. This disaster caught the attention of the world, and it helped mobilize the environmental movement. Unfortunately, we continue to despoil the earth. Just to name one challenge, the oceans have become a dumping ground of all kinds of garbage. Even though the oceans may be vast, the effects are dramatic. I remember recently reading about a pod of beached whales. The stomachs of these whales were filled with plastic that they had taken in along with fish they needed to eat to survive.
We come today as servants of the Lamb of God, the Good Shepherd, who leads us to the “springs of the water of life” so that we will thirst no more. That is the promise of God. It is our hope and our dream. But, even as we anticipate that great day, the image of the springs of living water can stir us to action.
We have been entrusted with the stewardship of God’s creation. This is part of our witness as followers of the Lamb who is the shepherd. Therefore, as we tend to the waters, let us sing God’s praises. Yes, “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
April 17, 2016