John 7:37-39; Acts 2:1-12

Perhaps the most important verse in this passage from Acts is the very first one: “All the believers were together in one place.” Maybe this disqualifies me from post-Enlightenment Protestant individualism, the belief that each of us by ourselves knows best, but oh well – it doesn’t need me. I value solitude as much as anyone, but the Holy Spirit demands more than one person most of time. There is something in community that none of us alone can be. Community, despite and because of all its difficulties, is the place of God’s Spirit.

The difficulties are real, of course. Life with others means dealing with different knowledge and ideas, conflicting priorities, and troubles communicating. Whether we’re talking about a congregation a household, a community, or a political system, something is always lost in translation from one person to the next. That is to say that we never really know each other’s experience. We can never quite see from the same place – and wouldn’t life be so much easier if we could! But God saw fit to make us different, and I think it’s with good reason.

Most of you know that I run. You may also be aware that I have a dog. When we got this big, shaggy dog, I looked forward to running with him. I had memories of my older brother running with our dog Morgan when I was younger, and I was hoping for some of the same. Well, it turns out that there are running dogs and lazy-bones dogs – you can guess which kind I have now. Sometimes I deal with this kindly, and other times I grumble and stew.

About halfway on a four-mile run a while ago, I found myself asking why I bother bringing this dog with me. Then I realized that the real question was, what am I to learn from this situation? Of course, I don’t take Duncan on very long or very hot runs – he’s just not up to it – but I knew that bringing him on this one was right – why? Well, it’s because running with him is better than not-running without him; as the African proverb goes, “To travel fast, go alone; to travel far, go together.” It’s because this Friday he stopped to poop right by where someone was living in the woods, and now I’m that much more grateful for what I have without deserving it. It’s because he loves spending that time together with me (even if he hates the activity), and this reminds me that I run because I love it, not to be fast (which I’m not).

So on Pentecost, when the church is all together, God does something with all these people. The Holy Spirit comes on the people to let us communicate with each other, and listeners from all over the world hear the Good News in understandable terms. Pentecost (Shavuot in Judaism) is the festival of Law-giving, the celebration of when God gave the Hebrews their Law; now God gives Good News to all people. It’s a reversal of the Tower of Babel story, when the diversity of languages was imposed to keep us from working together; now God gives us the means to understand each other. But this Pentecost is not just to repair something that was broken; God does a new thing here.

Later in this chapter of Acts, Peter will quote the prophet Joel’s vision of the end times, God’s new thing. Earlier, in our John reading, Jesus quoted the prophet Ezekiel. That was at a different festival, Sukkot (the Festival of Shelters). The Festival of Shelters commemorates Israel’s wilderness journey, when they lived in tents and God provided for them. In Jesus’ time, it was also a harvest festival that acknowledged that God still gives water and food to the people. In the Ancient Near East, people prayed for the winter rains that would restore the earth for next year’s harvest, so there were prayers about water on every day of Shelters. I’m thinking of Shelters now as we’re still behind on rain, though we’re not as critically reliant on it as people in Jesus’ world were.

So Jesus stands up at the end of this week of praying for rain and offers them “living water.” He’s quoting Ezekiel’s prophecy of the restored Temple with a stream flowing under its door to water the land, and Jesus claims this “Temple” as the faithful hearts of God’s people. Ezekiel goes on to suggest that the living water from the Temple would replace the salt water in the Dead Sea, to give freshness and life to what was dead. As Harry Emerson Fosdick pointed out, the Dead Sea is salty because the water that flows into it doesn’t leave except by evaporation, then it leaves its minerals behind until nothing can grow. In our part of the world, we’re as different from the Dead Sea as we can be: just north of us is a continental divide, where no water flows to us, it only flows away. So there are no salt lakes here. The rain refreshes us (most of the time) and the water carries excess minerals away to share with others.

Jesus is talking about turning human hearts into sources of life-giving water for each other. The water comes, springing up or raining down from heaven, then flows on, transforming us from Dead Seas (turned on ourselves, stagnating) into fountains of life (giving life to everyone “downstream”). By “living water,” I think he means a compassionate understanding of another person’s experience – God’s understanding of us in Christ and our knowledge of others. God rains this understanding on all of us – we’re all God’s beloved – but some of us cling to this idea for ourselves, while others share it with other people. Holding God’s love jealously to yourself means drying up and choking on the accumulated salt. Sharing with each other tends to resist stagnation. It preserves our life even as it gives life to others, and this makes more life in the world.

That’s why the Holy Spirit came when the believers were all together because it needed them to share knowledge and love with each other, to keep their new life fresh. The Holy Spirit is most reliable when we’re learning about someone whose experience is very different from ours, as different as the lives of people from Galilee and Rome. The disciples’ ability to speak other languages points to the gift of understanding other people’s lives, and that’s a sure sign of God’s presence!

The church has learned new languages and cultures again and again, and God has expanded the Good News every time (how very Pentecostal). We’ve learned about another religions, as missionaries or simply as neighbors, and we’ve found new ways that God reveals Godself in the world. We’ve gotten to know people in more difficult circumstances than our own and found ways to embrace rather than recoil. We’ve listened seriously to the unreflective comments of children and heard deep truth or profound questions in that disarming simplicity. We’ve been called to pray for those who hate us or for those with whom we fundamentally disagree, and we’ve found our own ideas growing. We’ve been put on the spot to give money, food, or help to someone we’d otherwise reject, and we’ve felt God’s joy at simply sharing goodness with the world.

When we’ve gotten to know each other’s languages, we’ve found our inner life renewed. We’ve felt the living waters flush away our deadening stagnation. We’ve found deeper sensitivity to others and less loneliness in our solitude. We’ve discovered ever more resources to share with others, even as we give them away. We’ve worried less about right or wrong, deserving or undeserving, and true or false. Sharing truth with each other teaches us something different about what we already knew and opens us up to a new sense of God’s love. This living water flows from our hearts and gives life to each other and all the world.

Amen.

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