A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
a new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Pentecost Sunday, May 19, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Revelation 22:1-5 and Acts 2:1-21
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

In a way, today’s sermon (which concludes this sermon series on water) brings us back to the first sermon in the series.  In that sermon, I spoke about the spirituality inherent in the poetry of the first creation story in Genesis 1 and the spirituality inherent in the scientific explanations of creation.  But the major point was about the necessity of water for the creation of life as we know it.  Without a liquid of some sort, life would not have evolved, and without water, life would not have evolved as we know it.  And I concluded that therefore we have a duty to protect it.

Today we come back to the water of life, but rather than being the water that enabled life, this is the water of a renewed creation.  Have you ever heard someone described as, “So heavenly minded, he was no earthly good?”  Yeah, well this applies if you’re not careful to interpreting the book of Revelation.

Revelation is written in a style that is strange to us 21st century types – not a Gospel or a letter, but a work of “apocalyptic literature.”  Somebody suggested that we might think of Revelation’s genre as a cross between the satire of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and the scary imagery of a Stephen King novel.[1]  Such writing is meant to pull back the veil, to expose the truth, opening life up to a new and deeper understanding.  Revelation employs symbolism and satire to expose the great power of the time: the Roman Empire.  And, as we’ll see, much of that imagery comes from the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, especially Isaiah.

What John does with this imagery is challenge the imperialist view of the world by suggesting a lamb, rather than the emperor, is on the true throne.  By chapter 21, Revelation is describing a rejuvenated, holy city – the “new Jerusalem” – which proceeds from God.  Heaven descends to earth, renewing humanity and the earth with a bustling, holy city.  Rather than God plucking us off to some magical planet far away, God comes home to earth.

Unfortunately, too often this image is missed.  Some Christians have a tendency to think, “Well, if I’m off to heaven, I shouldn’t care much about this silly earth of ours.  It’s just a temporary home, after all.”  In fact, Revelation suggests the opposite:  the earth isn’t truly “left behind,” but is being renewed, becoming the very dwelling place of God.  The images from Revelation 21 and 22 call us to care for creation as part of God’s homecoming.  They speak of a new heaven and a new earth, but it’s not a replacement heaven and a replacement earth.

John the Revelator speaks about a renewal of heaven and earth.  And water plays an important part in this renewal.

This actually isn’t a new image in the Bible.  Isaiah speaks of the power of water to renew.  “Waters shall burst forth in the desert, streams in the wilderness; torrid earth shall become a pool; parched land, fountains of water.”[2]  And this is only one of many instances in the Hebrew Scriptures where divine salvation is articulated in terms of the renewal – not the destruction – of the earth.  With so much (dare I call it wrongheaded; I think it is) Christian theology and politics anticipating destruction, it is imperative that we recover the renewal vision.

The “streams in the desert” tradition suggests that Israel’s prophets understood that the arid climate of their Palestinian homeland was not natural.  Rather, their deep memory understood the desert to be the result of historic processes of desertification, the result of centuries of relentless economic exploitation of the land of the Middle East – much of it (probably most of it) at the hands of economic empire.  The same is true today:  desertification continues because of economic imperialism.[3]

Consider the specific prophetic lament about the clear-cutting of the forests of highlands in Lebanon.[4]  The mighty cedars of Lebanon were cut down by Israelite kings and the kings on conquering empires.  In one case, Isaiah railed against the king of Babylon for clear-cutting the forests.  Yet he holds out an image of Yahweh’s liberating plan portrayed in terms of reforestation, of arid lands once again hosting those cedars, “the glory of Lebanon.”[5]  What makes this “greening” of the desert possible is that water will flow again.

Isaiah says that these renewed streams will also quench the thirst of the “poor and needy” – those marginalized by violence and oppression.[6]  Just as Pharaoh’s army was drowned in the Exodus story, so in Isaiah, the imperial pillaging of natural resources and the ecological side effects of the pillaging disappear under water.  These are extraordinary visions of social and ecological redemption as rehydration.

Israel during the biblical period was indeed a dry place, with few perennial streams, inconsistent springs,[7] and just a handful of actual rivers, most of which were relatively far from populated areas like Jerusalem.  Those living in this arid climate were primarily familiar only with the stagnant water found in small ponds, seasonal wells, catchment tanks, ritual baths, or clay pots.  Domestic water quality was often poor (hence the advice of 1 Timothy 5:23 to stop drinking only water, and use a little wine to offset stomach illnesses).  In Palestine, water was – and is today – an issue of environmental sustainability and social justice.

John’s vision of the River of the Waters of Life that we hear about in today’s reading stands in stark contrast to the realities of his readers at the time.  It “shines like crystal.”  This is not a supernatural claim, but a poetic observation:  pure water indeed appears crystalline when it is flowing freely from its earth source.  Who hasn’t been mesmerized by the dancing silver strands of a mountain stream?

His phrase “river of the water of life” connotes exactly that – the running, bubbling, lively water of a spring or brook.   We hear echoes of the image Jesus used to describe himself in the Gospel of John, chapter 4 – “living water.”  It is a strong image precisely because experiences of living water were rare indeed for this desert people.  This river signals a dramatic restoration that brings life to the land and those dwelling on it.

John the Revelator acknowledges this ecology of grace: water is a divine “gift.”  “Let the one who thirsts come forward, and … receive the gift of living water,” he writes later in chapter 22.[8]  Here he appropriates another subversive promise of Isaiah, which envisioned an end to the commodification and privatization of water by the powerful.   As Isaiah put it, “All who are thirsty, come for water, even if you have no money.”[9]

The Revelator’s River of the Waters of Life runs “through the middle of the great street of the city.”  The Greek word used here connotes the main thoroughfare of a Hellenistic metropolis.  It’s used earlier in the book, but in this earlier case it is a space of political violence, where the bodies of two prophets murdered by the imperial Beast lay in public view for three and a half days as a spectacle of state terror.[10]  Here at the end of the Revelation, this street becomes “transparent as glass.”[11]  It is as if New Jerusalem’s Main Street dissolves into a purifying river that washes away the blood of empire.

These living waters of life “proceed from the throne of God and of the Lamb.”  Elsewhere in Revelation they are depicted as a spring.  The martyrs “will not thirst anymore” because they are led to God’s throne, from which flow “springs of living water.”[12]  This echoes Isaiah’s vision of liberation from empire in which prisoners are led to water.[13]

The notion of Yahweh as a cosmic fount is found in several places in the Hebrew Bible.   “With you is the spring of life,” sings the psalmist.[14]  Jeremiah laments that his people have abandoned “the fountain of living water” for their own stagnant and leaky cisterns.[15]  And there are others.

These biblical metaphors identify water tightly with God, so consider what water can teach us about the character of God.

  • As I talked about in my first sermon in this series, there can be no life without water.  Likewise, there can be no life without God.
  • Water exists in three forms – liquid, solid, and gas – and these forms may help us start to wrap our minds around the concept of the Trinity.  But more important than that, these different forms are part of a great cycle that may help us understand the renewing nature of God.  Water moves from the heavens (condensation, precipitation) to earth and beneath (infiltration), to the sea and other large bodies of water (surface runoff, groundwater discharge), and finally back to the heavens (evaporation).   The analogy is not exact, but there is something in that cycle and movement that connects with how God moves to renew all of the planet, including us.
  • Water can be patient and accommodating, flowing around obstacles.  Yeah, that’s God, patient and accommodating, flowing around me when I’m an obstacle.
  • Yet water also has the power to wear down the greatest physical structures (or burst them apart through expanding ice); it thus makes hard things smooth over time.  When I need busting open, God will do it.  And God smooths my rough edges.
  • Water is a symbol of justice.  When a fluid, it flows downward, seeking the level.  This is a poignant metaphor of God’s concern for the “lowest.”  No wonder Amos appeals for justice and righteousness to flow down like an every-flowing stream.[16]

Today is Pentecost, the day we remember God crashing down on a group of scared followers of Jesus.  Luke uses the metaphor of God coming as the rush of wind and as tongues of fire.  This was, I believe, the beginning of God’s new river, the beginning of the River of the Waters of Life.  The time for the new creation is now, both in our lives and in the whole created order.  The Spirit comes to transform our lives so that we can be part of the transforming of the world.

The time has come for the old ways of using up the earth, of treating creation as a trash can for waste, of trashing the atmosphere with carbon dioxide to end.  The time has come for a river flowing with the waters of life – waters that renew creation, that bring justice, that offer healing – to flow freely.

We can no long think that how we treat our fellow human beings is one matter, and how we treat our environment is another.  We can no longer consider right behavior toward a neighbor apart from the land, water, vineyard, crops – in short, the fruitfulness of creation which ensures our neighbor’s life.  And biblically, the definition of neighbor expands not only across geographical and racial boundaries, but through the boundaries of time, from the present into future generations.

The prophetic visions in scripture call us to be part of God’s restorative justice for society and for the environment.  Our lands are parched.  Our lands are parched by imperial hubris.  Let the waters of life flow, bringing redemptive rehydration, a quenching of every thirst.

Just as the Holy Spirit calls us into the church, the Spirit calls the church to be a river of life for the healing of the nations and the earth.


[1] Adam Copeland was the one who suggested this.

[2] Isaiah 35:6-7.  This and the other quotes from scriptures are, I believe, Ched Myers’ own translations.

[3] See for instance, the documentary “Blue Gold: World Water Wars.” The documentary is available on DVD and has been posted on line in a few places, including https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjOn2THsQZg (14 May 2013).

[4] See, for instance, 1 King 5:6ff; Zechariah 11:1ff; Isaiah 14:3-8, 37:22-24.

[5] Isaiah 35:1ff.

[6] Isaiah 41:17ff.

[7] For examples, see James 3:12 and 2 Peter 2:17.

[8] Revelation 22:17.

[9] Isaiah 55:1.

[10] Revelation 11:8-9.

[11] Revelation 21:21.

[12] Revelation 7:16ff.

[13] Isaiah 49:9-10

[14] Psalm 36:9.

[15] Jeremiah 2:13; 17:13.

[16] Amos 5:24.

This sermon relies very heavily on Ched Meyers, “Everything Will Live Where the Water Goes,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/everything-will-live-where-water-goes, posted 26 April 2013 (downloaded 14 May 2013).  Also used as resources for this sermon:
Adam J. Copeland, “On Scripture: Earth Day, God, and the Apocalypse,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/blogs/2013/04/24/scripture-earth-day-god-and-apocalypse, posted 24 April 2013 (downloaded 14 May 2013).
Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, “Earthkeeping,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/earthkeeping, posted 15 April 2013 (downloaded 14 May 2013).