Scripture: John 7:37–39
The people of first century Palestine were at each other’s throats.
Over these last few weeks of the Season of Creation, we have been looking at the politics of land and land theology. The voice of Scripture has been pretty consistent: The earth is God’s and everything in it; we as humans are stewards of that gift and not owners of it. But also consistent has been the faltering of humanity in response to that calling. Throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites fail to understand that they are stewards and not owners. They fall into the same patterns of Empire—learned by the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians—and lose the land as a result.
Now in the New Testament, things aren’t much better. Land politics continue to be a theological mess. People who lived in Samaria hated people who lived in Judea. People who lived in Galilee hated people who lived in Samaria. Judeans kind of hated both the Samaritans and the Galileans, but in different ways: they considered Galileans a little backwards, but they thought Samaritans were really the worst. They all thought the other didn’t deserve the land on which they lived, and they had constant disagreements about who were the true beneficiaries of God’s land of promise, and on whose land the correct worship center was located. We see these political geography spats throughout the Gospel of John, from which we read this morning. An example comes from the passage right after where I just read. Jesus has spoken this word of hope and peace, and all the people can do is argue about geography:
When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, “This is really the prophet.” Others said, “This is the Messiah.” But some asked, “Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?” So there was a division in the crowd because of him. Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him. Then the temple police went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, “Why did you not arrest him?” The police answered, “Never has anyone spoken like this!” Then the Pharisees replied, “Surely you have not been deceived, too, have you? Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, which does not know the law, they are accursed.” Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before and who was one of them, asked, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” They replied, “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.”
It sounds like a schoolyard spat, doesn’t, it? “Why didn’t you tell that guy that he was dumb face? He’s from Galilee, and the Messiah can’t come from Galilee, because they have cooties. In fact, Nicodemus, if you love people from Galilee so much, why don’t you just go marry them!” Real grown-up stuff, right?
I want to suggest this morning that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Here we are, 2,000 years later, still at each other’s throats, and still arguing about land politics. We use different terms now, like water rights and climate change.
But look at the way that the discourse has changed in the 100 years or so around land politics. I’ve said before that creation care used to be a heart issue for social conservatives. Republican Theodore Roosevelt a primary political mover behind the conservation movement, protecting federal lands, creating the Forest Service, and moving toward the creation of the National Park Service. Republican Herbert Hoover expanded our national parks by 40%. Republican representative John Saylor was such an advocate for wild land and wild rivers that environmentalists called him Saint John. Republican congressman Pete McCloskey wrote the Endangered Species Act and co-founded Earth Day. Republican president Richard Nixon signed into law the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency. I ran across a study this week from 1976 in The Sociological Quarterly that reported that at that time there was absolutely no statistical difference between members of the political parties on issues concerning the environment. Republicans and Democrats simply did not differ on this issue. Both saw value in the conversation, and believed in a need for action.
But then something happened. I believe that the Republican party began moving away from social conservatism and toward fiscal conservatism. Besides a couple of wedge issues, they abandoned a host of social issues, including creation care efforts, because they would cost too much. Even if they were the right thing to do. By the end of the 80’s, the party of Theodore Roosevelt had absolutely abandoned its commitment to creation care, in favor of the bottom line. Then, in came the Democrats to save the day, right? Not really. They talk a good talk, and raise a lot of campaign funds with climate change buzzwords. But when we see Democratic politicians driving just as big of gas-guzzling cars, or flying back and forth across the country to their $100,000 a plate campaign lunches, we don’t want to hear their hypocrisy! At the end of the day, they talk a good talk, but so many don’t follow that talk with their actions.
And the end result of all of this is a deeply divided discourse on land politics, with both sides throwing big money buzzwords around while the world burns. In contrast to that study in 1976, a 2021 report by the Council on Global Affairs, 7 in 10 Democrats say that they prioritize the impacts of climate change over than economic growth. while 7 in 10 Republicans, say that they prioritize economic growth more than the impact of climate change. Your political party determines what you believe about the environment, even in the church! We can’t have an honest conversation about what Scripture says about this, about the call of the Church, without folks parroting back talking points from their favorite cable news or social media source. And I get sick and tired of that discourse feeding back into the church, telling us what we are supposed to believe more than the Bible does. More than our history, our theology, our faith. Forgive my cynicism. I just yearn for a better way.
I believe there is one. Again, the Old Testament is filled with stories of folks missing the point about land theology. But it also is filled with beautiful examples of when we get it right, Scripture painting a picture of a God who lovingly created and invites us to care for the land and the animals and the entire creation. John follows this tradition. He continues the Scriptural tradition of healthy ecological spirituality and land theology, reminding us that the “earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” Look again at the ecological Gospel that is John:
• Chapter 1 is filled with Creation language, basically a theological re-write of the Creation story with the Logos, Christ alongside from the beginning.
• Chapter 2 tells the story of the wedding at Cana, a celebration of the fruit of the earth and the joy that it brings.
• Chapter 3 is his conversation with Nicodemus, filled with these beautiful creation images: the wind, the wilderness, “for God so loved the cosmos.”
• Chapter 4 is the first time we see Jesus use this language of the Living Water. It is an ecological term, meaning a natural spring and not a human-dug well. In fact, the woman he speaks to there is confused at first, thinking that he owns a spring somewhere that means she won’t have to come to this well anymore.
• And by the time we get to Chapter 7, Jesus preaches that same Living Water Sermon, this time in the holy space of Jerusalem. John notes that he preaches this sermon during the Festival of Booths, or Sukkot. This is an ecological feast, as the festival was connected to the harvest, and revived memories of the gifting of the land to the people. Two water stories were important: the parting of the Red Sea, for the people to pass through and escape the Egyptians; and then the gift of water from the rock that helped the people to survive. So at the Festival, there was a water ceremony in which the priest held up a vessel of water and thanked God on behalf of the people by pouring the water out as a symbol of God’s providence.
• John builds this ecological theology chapter after chapter, until Jesus stands at the pinnacle of ecological theology, asking the people to see how their political divisions are obsolete, and he has come to be the life-giving, nourishing stream to all those who thirst. But again, just like the land politics of our day, the people completely miss the point. They are at each other’s throats, and before long, will be at Jesus’ throat, as well.
But the good news is that not everyone misses the point of the Living Waters Sermon. When Jesus preaches the Living Waters Sermon in Chapter 7, they are ready to kill him. But when he preached it in Chapter 4, the whole village come down the aisle at the altar call! They got it! They understood the message, that Jesus is not beholden to political and partisan differences and distractions. What he is up to is restoring and refreshing and constantly remaking the dry and barren land. Jesus is the living water. Jesus offers the living water for us as believers to quench our thirst and then share with others. Instead of a human-made, sad approximation of a water source, Jesus is the real thing! A stream of water that nourishes! There is a better way.
I invite us today to follow that better way. To follow in the footsteps of the Chapter 4 believers, not the political discourse of land violence. It really is the way that the Church has lived for 2,000 years, despite what today’s politicians would have you believe.
Let us follow in the footsteps of Basil of Caesarea, a bishop and church leader in modern-day Turkey all the way back in the 4th Century? Basil preached about the danger of giving too much power to money or possessions, inviting us instead to celebrate God’s goodness and power, in creation: “Look at a stone, and notice that even a stone carries some mark of the Creator. It is the same with an ant, a bee, a mosquito. The wisdom of the Creator is revealed in the smallest creatures. It is he who has spread out the heavens and stretched out the immensity of the seas. It is he who has also made the tiny hollow shaft of the bee’s sting.” 1700 years ago, a faithful follower of Christ understood: “out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”
Let us follow in the footsteps of Hildegard of Bingen, the director of an abbey and an author in the 11th Century. She wrote about the concept of viriditas, or the greening power of God in creation. She railed against those who failed to see that power, or took it for granted: “Now in the people that were meant to be green there is no more life of any kind. There is only shriveled barrenness. The winds are burdened by the utterly awful stink of evil, selfish goings-on. Thunderstorms menace. The air belches out the filthy uncleanliness of the peoples. The earth should not be injured! The earth must not be destroyed!” With a clear eye, she saw the way that humans treated the earth, even then. But she knew there was a better way: “Glance at the sun. See the moon and the stars. Gaze at the beauty of earth’s greenings. Now, think. What delight God gives to humankind with all these things. . . . All nature is at the disposal of humankind. We are to work with it. For without we cannot survive.” 1000 years ago, a faithful follower of Christ understood: “out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”
May we step back toward the living waters of Jitsuo Morikawa, an American Baptist pastor and denominational leader born in 1912. He preached and led during an era where a lot of Christians saw evangelism as a kind of head-hunting, numbers game, designed to wrestle someone to your side. But he talked about a new evangelism, that understood the importance of a commitment to the earth and ecology. Sometimes called the Father of Baptist environmentalism, he once wrote, “We have obscured the gospel, distorted the gospel by assuming that evangelism was primarily and fundamentally winning souls to Christ and saving them from eternal perdition. We have missed out on the larger horizon of the redemption of the cosmos, the restoration of God’s universe.” He worked to help American Baptists reorient their priorities, to create a “just and ecologically whole world, for God sent Jesus that we might have life, and have it abundantly.” 75 years ago, a faithful follower of Christ understood: “out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”
Despite what the world of politics and partisan division would have us believe, the message of Scripture has been consistent. The message of the church has been consistent. The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. The God of love, who created this world like a playful child with a set of finger paints, invites us to delight in that world. To care for it. To notice when it cries out in agony, and to make sacrifices in the way that we live, in the name of the one who taught us how to carry the cross.
As God’s people, we can choose a better way. The way of living waters. Springing forth from the heart of believers. Springing forth from the creative love and righteousness and shalom peace of God.