By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John 9:1-11
During my sabbatical, Britt and I visited my family in Pennsylvania. My sister lives in Johnstown and, generally, when we visit there, Britt and I book a room at a hotel about a mile from my sister’s house. In part, because my sister’s house is somewhat small; but, more importantly, because it has become a beautiful custom and a delight for the great nieces and nephews to enjoy the hotel swimming pool. The kids range in age from 20 months to 11 years. I’m not really a swimmer but I love to sit poolside and watch the kids play in the water. During this summer’s visit, my niece’s husband, Cory – who is often on the road for work – was home and it was a delight to watch the kids in the pool crawl on him and clamor for his attention, eager for Cory to lift and catapult them into the water.
Water is not only fun; it is fundamental to life. The human body is about 60% water. In Genesis 1, our first biblical account of creation, we often think of God’s first “action” as separating light from darkness. Yet, even before that, Genesis tells us that God’s wind or breath, God’s Spirit, swept over the face, or the surface, of the waters.
I spent five days of my sabbatical at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, a Cistercian monastery; a silent monastic community, except during worship, of course. There are eight daily prayer (or worship) times, beginning with Vigils at 3:15 a.m. At the final prayer time of the day, Compline, the service concludes with the worshipers being invited forward for the abbot to sprinkle us with holy water; this daily dousing a rather peculiar practice for a lifelong Protestant, right?
And yet, not so much as one might think. For each of us who have been baptized into the faith have been doused with holy water… whether sprinkled or immersed in the holy waters of baptism.
As many of you know, I’ve spent a goodly amount of time at Benedictine monasteries over the past couple of years. Don’t worry; I’m in no danger of converting. But my time in those monasteries has inspired this observation, this “traveler’s reflection” if you will: that we Protestants, birthed by the Reformation, have had a tendency to throw the baby out with the bath water… water pun intended here, I might add. We’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water because in our Reformation efforts to rid the church of superstition and ritual corruption, we have turned our faith into a heady, cerebral, even disembodied thing. And yet, ours is an embodied faith, an incarnational faith. Jesus became incarnate; he took on human flesh and not just as an adult when it came time to launch his public ministry. No. Jesus was in this flesh thing for the long haul; the presence of God poured out into a vulnerable baby born to 1st century Galilean peasants.
So, as I continue to share with you some of my reflections from my sabbatical travels, today we’re going to consider the element of water and how this physical, earthly stuff becomes holy; how it conveys to us the grace of God and how the presence of water in our daily lives can become something more than physical refreshment knocked back to quench a dry throat; but can be a visible and tangible reminder of the saving grace of God.
Jesus, throughout the gospel of John, identifies himself with water. In John, chapter 4, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well. Remember last week I preached about the fact that we can have those divine encounters anywhere in life if we are open to them. Last week I encouraged us to be present to the present moment and to begin each day with the prayer: “God, take me where you’d like today and show me what you’d like me to see.”
God is present in everything going on around us. So, in John’s gospel, the Samaritan woman comes to the well to draw water and Jesus asks her for a drink. His request seems really to be a ploy to open up a dialogue with the woman. She is surprised that Jesus would ask anything of her and says so and then Jesus gives this very enigmatic response, “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”[i]
Later, in John, chapter 7, while Jesus is in Jerusalem to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles, he stands up in front of the throng of pilgrims and proclaims, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.”
Jesus, my friends, is a tall glass of water; but not in the way we usually use that old cliché. Rather, Jesus, as living water, serves to remind us – in fact, he embodies, even effects – salvation just as God has used water since the beginning of time, the genesis, to create, restore and sustain life. Jesus, as living water, continues God’s ongoing work of creating, restoring and sustaining life.
Water is often God’s vehicle or venue of salvation. God saved the Israelites through the Reed Sea as the murderous Egyptian army was bearing down on them. God saved Noah and his family through the flood. God saved the Israelites and led them into the Promised Land by parting the waters of the River Jordan. And every human life takes shape and form in the watery fluid, the amniotic fluid, of a womb. These are all truths, biblical truths, that we proclaim every single time we carry out the ritual of baptism. We read those words in our hymnal; words that remind us that water – this basic earthly element – is God’s means for creating, restoring, and sustaining life. And we are surrounded with it each and every day.
In this morning’s gospel story from John, chapter 9, Jesus uses matter, the physical stuff of this world, very basic elements, to effect healing in the life of the man born blind. Jesus uses earth or dirt and spittle (his own internal water) to make mud that he smears on the man’s eyes as a kind of poultice and then he sends him to a pool, a body of water, to wash. But not just any pool. A pool named Siloam, a word that means “sent,” a significant word because Jesus, within the gospel of John, has already been identified as God’s sent one. Even within this story, Jesus speaks of himself as the one who has been sent.
So, what a beautiful and powerful image we find in this healing story. The man washes physically in a pool of water. But he is, in a sense, being spiritually immersed into Jesus’ presence. He is immersed in Jesus… symbolized through his washing in this pool of water.
My sabbatical began at Benedict Inn south of Indianapolis for the second of my clergy women’s renewal retreats, called Women Touched by Grace. And, during that retreat we were given the gift of Holy Water. At Benedict Inn and at Gethsemani Abbey, each time you enter the chapel, you encounter a pool of water, you dip your fingers into it, and make the sign of the cross, reminding yourself that you are baptized, a beloved child of God, immersed into God’s very being through his Son, the “sent one.” And there is amazing power and even healing in that water as a physical, tangible reminder that we belong to God, the one who creates, restores, and sustains life.
Friends: holy water is ordinary water in the physical sense. But it is also sacred, holy, because as we pray and sprinkle that water we celebrate that Jesus is living water, the one Sent by God to renew, restore and sustain our lives. At times our lives may feel dry and parched and barren. And when they do, Jesus beckons us to holy water (just as he did that women at the well), he beckons us saying as he said so long ago, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me.”
This morning, during communion – after you receive the bread and juice, I would welcome you to come forward and be blessed with holy water. This water is, in part, a gift from the nuns at Benedict Inn. It’s not magical; but it is special because – you may not know – that the task of those Benedictine sisters is to be in prayer for the world – for us – each day. Each day, at least three times a day, they come together to pray for the world. And so their prayers are poured out over us as is this water.
And I, too, will pray for you as you come forward. Holy water reminds us of our baptismal identity as God’s beloved sons and daughters; it reminds us that God creates, restores, and sustains our lives; it refreshes us when we feel dry and weary; it cleanses us from all unrighteousness; it renews our spirits.
My first year in ministry, Britt and I were pastors to a three-church parish… which meant that, each week, one of us needed to preach at two churches. One Sunday morning, it was my turn to preach twice and I awoke very early to review my sermon. Before my feet even hit the floor I felt the cramps in my stomach. I ran to the bathroom and there’s where I spent most of the next hour… leading me to make a very foolish choice: in order to get through the morning, I reasoned, I would not consume anything – no food or beverage – in hopes that I could get through my sermons without dashing out to the restroom. Now, I’m a tiny person and I dehydrate really quickly. By the end of the first service, I was starting to feel a bit light-headed. Just a couple minutes into my sermon at the second service, I knew I wasn’t going to make it. A chaplain attended that church. So, I stopped preaching and said to the congregation, “This morning, I woke up sick. I thought I could get through church, but I can’t. I going to ask Steve to come up front and finish my sermon.” Leaving my sermon notes on the pulpit, I turned to exit the sanctuary through the choir loft which went off to the left… up a series of steps and out into the fellowship hall which led to the parking lot. As I began to mount the steps, the room began to swim and my flesh got very clammy, my vision got blurry, and the last thing I recall was a bass in the choir – a big guy booming out in his distinctive bass voice: “Oh my God, she’s goin’ down.” And, I did. I collapsed; out cold. My next memory was waking up in the arms of Walt, the big guy who sang bass, who had scooped me up off the floor and carried me out to the fellowship hall. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life!
Reflecting back on that experience I realize: I didn’t collapse because I had the flu. I collapsed because I was dehydrated. We need water. We cannot live, cannot even function, if we are all dried up.
Perhaps there is something going on in your life right now that is drying you up, that has left your spirit dry and parched; perhaps there is something that is causing you pain or sorrow or shame or regret; something that needs cleansing. So, as I anoint you with this holy water, may you experience its healing, restoring, liberating power; may you feel it cleanse and refresh you; may you be reminded that you have been doused with the living water that is Jesus, the Son of God; the one sent by God that you might have eternal life.
Let us celebrate Jesus as Bread of Life, Cup of Salvation and Living Water as we move into our communion liturgy…
[i] John 4:14-15
On a lifelong journey of seeking to live out God's call on my life and to reflect His grace.
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