Tag Archives: Isaiah 55:1-9

Fresh From the Spring

(An Online Sermon for September 6, 2020,  based on Isaiah 55:1-5 and John 7:37-39)

In yet another reason I really miss being with our church’s children in worship, recently I heard a story from another pastor about a children’s sermon gone… awry!   Apparently the lesson for that particular day was about Christian hospitality; and the question she asked was this: “What is the first thing your parents say when someone comes to visit?”

Now, here’s a little insider information; when we ministers ask questions like that, we’re actually kind of hoping and expecting those kids to answer certain ways, like “they say, ‘hello, come on in, have a seat,’ or ‘aren’t you going to stay for supper;’” that sort of thing. But this time, it was not to be.  For when the pastor asked, “What’s the first thing your parents say when someone comes to visit,” immediately a little hand shoots up, and a young boy answers – and quite loudly – “My Mom and Dad say, ‘Can I fix you a drink?’

And that, dear friends, is the joy… and the danger (!) of a children’s sermon!

Actually, though,that little boy was on to something there; in fact, he’d unknowingly lifted up a deeply rooted biblical tradition, in which one always offers a visitor, be the visitor a friend or a stranger, hospitality in the form of a drink of water, food and even a place to rest for the night.  You see this all through scripture, particularly in the Old Testament; an expression of welcome was central to Jewish life and culture, and was considered to be a sacred obligation and an act of faith.  It’s a tradition of hospitality that’s still held to today in the Jewish faith; granted, not always for spiritual reasons but, yes, it remains as a way of expressing friendship and affection and welcome.  And although I suspect that in his children’s sermon revelation, that little boy wasn’t referring to his parents offering up a cup of cold water, nonetheless he was right in that drink that so often serves as a primary means of showing care and kindness!

I mean, is there anything better than when you’ve been outside on a hot, humid afternoon – mowing the lawn, doing the garden, whatever – to have someone bring you an ice-cold bottle of water?  To say that it’s cool and refreshing is to put it mildly; and the fact that someone actually brought it to you as a gift; well, that’s even better!  But more than merely a friendly gesture, ultimately the purpose of water is that it quenches thirst; it hydrates and renews the body; and it restores energy for the work that’s ahead.  What’s interesting to me is that if go to any convenience store today, you’ll find all manner of “energy drinks,” and most of them are chock full of electrolytes and vitamins, and mega doses of caffeine and sugar; but ultimately, it’s not all those additives that make the difference – actually, all that extra stuff can be counterproductive if not harmful!  In the end, it’s the water that does the job; it’s water that provides true refreshment; it’s water that gives us life.

And that makes sense, because after all, because whether we are talking about the body or the soul, water is life.

I say this this morning because in both of our readings today, water actually stands as the prominent symbol of true spiritual life.  It is no coincidence that when the prophet Isaiah was seeking to bring Israel to a renewal of their covenant with God, he begins with what might be called “a call to the thirsty:”  “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.”  I love that, if for no other reason than its utter enthusiasm; in fact, some bibles translate that verse as “Hey there! All those who are thirsty, come!”  In other words, the refreshment you need?  The life that you’ve been longing for?  It’s right here; and all you have to do is to “come to the waters” and get it!

The people of Israel, you see, having dwelt in a desert land covered with mountains and valleys, where water was not easily accessible, and where cities could rise and fall on the basis of its availability, understood the power and importance of such a thing.  They knew that to be without cold, clear water was to feel that unquenchable thirst and to live in helpless desperation; and truly, that to live without God was no different.  In fact, you’ll find that in many places throughout the Old Testament, thirst itself becomes a metaphor for a broken relationship with God; a reminder to Israel of the many ways they’d broken covenant, all the times they’d hardened their hearts and in disobedience, turned away from the Lord.

Actually, I’m wondering just how many of us here this morning can relate to that; how many of us might just know a little bit about that unquenchable thirst and that feeling of helpless desperation; when life becomes for us a dry and thirsty land, a place where hope cannot be found and love seems like nothing more than a distant dream.  How many of us have felt that kind of profound emptiness in our hearts;  a parched space within ourselves that we’ve tried to fill in just about every way possible, yet never goes away no matter what we do or how hard we try.

So isn’t it good news that it’s precisely into life’s desert wasteland that our God comes – freely, lovingly, and abundantly – and says to you and to me, hey there!  “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters, and you that have no money, come, buy and eat …why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”  None of the things you’ve been trying, says God – money, worldly accomplishment, physical pleasure – none of it works.  Oh, you might feel like helps for a fleeting moment or two, but all too soon, you’ll be thirsty and desperate all over again.  You need water… the pure, clear, clean water that only I can provide …and the best part?  It won’t cost you a thing.  Because, says God, you’re mine, I love you, and I want you to live.  So come to the water, and let me get you a drink!

What a gift; what a blessing that is! 

And yet, still, there are so many of us who aren’t sure they can accept that.  Some, quite frankly, cling to the belief that surely there has to be something better waiting in the cooler, so to speak.  And then, there are others don’t even realize they’ve even been thirsty; I just read recently that in the southwest United States, it is an increasingly common thing for people to be hospitalized and sometimes even die from dehydration; but the thing that makes this even more tragic than it would be ordinarily was that these people never even know that they’re thirsty!  You see, most often, especially around here where it can be humid along with hot, you go outside and you start feeling thirsty immediately; you know that you have to hydrate, and soon! But often in a desert climate, the heat is so intense and dry that one doesn’t perspire, and thus doesn’t even start to feel the need to drink some water until it’s too late!

Think of that as a parable, friends, and the point is that there are so many of us who are swiftly becoming spiritually dehydrated, and yet don’t know or won’t admit what it is we truly need to live.  It’s as though we need some kind of proof; someone to personally give us what we never knew we’ve needed all along.

Well, the good news is that we do have that, and it comes to us in the person of Jesus; the one who said, in a loud voice to the people on the last and greatest day of the Feast of Tabernacles, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.  As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believers heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” 

It’s interesting, you know?  Remember how I said a few moments ago that in scripture, thirst is often used as an image of a broken relationship with God?  Well, conversely, what we find throughout history is God has used water in one way or another to give his people what they needed to have that relationship, and to have it in abundance:  God showed salvation to Noah through the waters of the flood; God brought forth a gushing spring of water to Hagar and Ishmael; God parted the waters of the Red Sea; God brought water out of the rock at Meribah; and this is just to name a few examples.  And now, what God does is to bring us living water, so that in drinking of it we might never, ever be thirsty again.  It’s Jesus who brings that water, it’s Jesus who is that water, and all you and I have to do is drink!

Here at our camp in Maine, though we’ve always had running water (we get that water pumped up from the lake), we’ve gotten our drinking water elsewhere; and when I was young, the source of that was a nearby “spring house” that was built upon this glacial spring that still runs nearby to the camp.  And, in fact, from a very early age it was my job – my job (!) – to run down the pathway that led to the spring house, so to fill up a couple of jugs of fresh water and bring it back to camp.  For years I did that, often several times a day, every day, all summer long; admittedly there were days I did so begrudgingly (I could not figure out how three people could possibly drink that much water!), but mostly, I loved going there, because this was absolutely the clearest, coldest, best “tasting” water ever; it still is! I’m not kidding when I tell you that there was something invigorating to me to drink the water that bubbled up fresh from that spring!

All these many years later, I still think about “the spring” in regard to my life and faith.  Friends, I am here to tell you this morning that there’s so much in my life that is very good, and very satisfying. I am a very blessed individual, and I know it… and yet, I still get thirsty sometimes.  There are times and situations in which my life feels as dry and parched as a desert; moments when I know that I need something more.  I need a drink from that river flowing with living water; to have my thirst quenched from the only one who can really provide it: and that’s God, made real and manifest in Jesus Christ our Lord. 

How it happens, why it happens, I don’t know for sure; I just know that what Christ gives to me is cold… and clear… and refreshing… and when I’ve taken a drink from that spring, not only do I feel better… not only do I feel as though I can set out on the next part of the journey wherever it might lead… I also feel like I’m alive …really, truly, vibrantly alive!  It is “living water,” after all, that which flows out of a believer’s heart!

So hey there, friends!  Ho!  Why do you seek to find refreshment from that which only offers it fleetingly?  If you’re thirsty, why not come to the spring that bubbles up with the kind of water that only God can provide …the kind of spring where you shall indeed “go out in joy and be led back in peace;” a spring where “the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”

Sounds good to me… how about to you?  Let’s have a drink together from that spring.

And as we do, let our thanks be to God!


© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

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Posted by on September 7, 2020 in Jesus, Life, Sermon, Spiritual Truths


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Changing Your Mind

(a sermon for March 24, 2019, the 3rd Sunday of Lent, based on Isaiah 55:1-9 and Luke 13:1-9)

“Pastor, I would like to have a talk with you about your sermon.”

Friends, let me just say from personal experience that there’s hardly ever anything good that follows a statement like that!  And so it was on this particular morning when a parishioner from the church I was serving at the time came to confront me – in Christian love, of course (!) – as to her great displeasure with my message from the Sunday before. I do not think of myself as a Pharisee, she began; and I don’t appreciate your intimation that I am some sort of vain sinner!   Furthermore, she went on, I don’t come to church so you can tell me what I’m doing wrong in my life; I want to know that I’m doing everything right!  I want to leave worship on a Sunday feeling warm and fuzzy and as though in the midst of everything in this life I’ve done pretty well, and maybe even doing just a bit better than everybody else! I don’t want, nor do I really need you to tell me to repent!

Well… I thanked her for her feedback; told her how much I appreciated her honesty and that I was sorry she was upset; offered to give her a printed copy of the message so perhaps she could prayerfully reflect on it all a bit longer; and then I urged her to return next Sunday when perhaps the message would be, well… warmer, and fuzzier.

Honest; that’s what I actually said to her!  Of course, if I am being honest, how I really wanted to respond to that – gently and yes, with all Christian love – was to say, have you read the bible?   Do you even know Jesus?  I mean, talk about the need for having ears to hear the gospel; it ain’t all about “the warm and fuzzy,” you know!  There is more to our Christian faith, after all, than simply manger scenes and Easter eggs and sheep safely grazing in green pastures!  There’s also the matter of redemption, about the fallen nature of humanity and of sin; you can’t just ignore that!

Well, at least that’s what I wanted to say (and thank you for letting me get that out!), and yet… I also have to confess, all these years later, that I do kind of understand where she was coming from! A lot of it comes from the nature of the word itself: repent!  For a lot of us who’ve grown up in the church, this word repent immediately brings forth the image of some sharp-tongued preacher standing in a pulpit or from the television screen, shaking a judgmental finger and threatening that unless “unless ye repent, ye shall likewise perish!” (KJV) Never mind that this is not the tone by which we usually proclaim that portion of the gospel, at least not in our tradition of faith; but truth be told that’s the image of church and Christianity that a whole lot of folks carry with them!  And I’ll grant you, the words do sound harsh, it feels utterly judgmental and in all honesty, that parishioner was correct in pointing out that it’s not what we want to hear when we come to worship on a Sunday morning (at least not when we feel like it’s been directed at us!).

But here’s the problem:  biblically speaking and in terms of the meaning of our Christian faith, it’s not inaccurate.

Consider our gospel text for this morning, in which Jesus is asked about a recent event involving some “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,” which, though we don’t know the exact set of circumstances, appears to refer to a massacre of a group of Galilean pilgrims in Jerusalem at the hand of the Roman Governor. Moreover, at about the same time, there had been a structural collapse – without warning and wholly accidental, apparently – and this “tower of Siloam” fell and killed eighteen people.  And so now, in the aftermath of all this and in the midst of their grief there’s people coming to Jesus and asking a perfectly legitimate question:  why?  Why would such a bad thing happen to good people; or rather, Jesus, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”  Did this happen, God forbid, because they… well, deserved it?

And Jesus answers them in a very interesting way:  “Do [I] think those murdered Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Not at all.” [The Message]  But, says Jesus, “unless you repent, you will all perish like they did.”  Oh, and those eighteen people who died in the tower accident?  They weren’t any better or worse than than your average Jerusalemite; but “I tell you… unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

And there it is, not once but twice in five verses:  Unless ye repent, ye shall likewise perish!

I love how Matthew Skinner at Lutheran Seminary reacts to these verses in Luke:  “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling?  Not here. This time it’s loudly and pointedly.”  Suddenly it’s not about why bad things happen, nor about how “the godless will be struck by an asteroid,” and definitely not about how the fact that we haven’t yet been struck down is evidence of a special blessing.  No, what Jesus is talking about here is the need for us to repent of our sins and to do it now… before it’s too late.

No wonder that woman was upset with me – or with Jesus, actually – because no matter how you hear it, there’s an admonition that cannot help but hit us right between the eyes. I mean, Jesus, is that really true?  Am I really all that bad of a person that I am quite literally one misdeed away from a major catastrophe?  What about forgiveness, Jesus?  What about the love you have for all the little children, of which I am one?  Surely, when you say that “unless you repent, you’ll die,” you’re not talking about… me?

Apparently, yes… and therein lies the challenge of this text, and indeed, of our very faith.  But let me suggest to you, friends, that it’s also our good news.

You see, as Jesus often does, he follows this call to repentance with a parable: the story of a man, his vineyard and an utterly barren fig tree.  In biblical times, and even to this day, fig trees were often planted in the midst of vineyard gardens for the sake of its always delicious and usually very abundant fruit.  However, as Jesus tells the story, this particular fig tree had yet to produce any kind of fruit for three years now, and it’s not seeming likely that this is going to change anytime soon. All this tree is really doing is taking up space in the soil and sucking up valuable water in the vineyard!  And so, as any wise gardener would suggest, the time had come to cut this barren fig down; to tear down its roots and perhaps start afresh with a new seedling, one that might actually grow to bear fruit.  This tree’s done nothing, so hack it down!

But no… as Jesus tells the story, the vinedresser says otherwise:  “’Sir,’” he says, “’let it alone for one more year, until I did around it and’” put…. [fertilizer!]… on it, and “’if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not you can cut it down.’”

A reprieve!  And, might I add, an opportunity.

Turns out that Jesus’ story isn’t as much about judgment and punishment as it is mercy! That useless, withered fig tree could have easily and legitimately been destroyed, and yet it isn’t; it’s given another chance to grow and to become fruitful.  Turns out that this is a story all about expectation, “the expectation,” writes James Lemler, an Episcopal priest and writer from Connecticut, “of a radical change and turning about of things.” Because make no mistake, it’s not simply that the barren fig tree is saved from destruction, it’s that now there’s an expectation that next year things will be different. “The tree must change.  It must produce fruit by this time next year – or else.”

Same with you, says Jesus.  You’ve got the opportunity here; you’ve been given that second, third, and fourth chance to grow and to finally bear the fruit of life and faith, but now what matters is what you do with that: and unless you repent, change, turn around and do what needs to be done to bear that fruit, just like any other barren, lifeless fig tree that’s taking up space in the garden, you’ll perish!

What’s interesting, you know, is that most often when we in the church talk about repentance, we’re kind of thinking apology!  You know, referring to the deep regret we feel over our transgressions, about moving from egregious sin to moral uprightness, about making that 180-degree turn from where we’ve been to where we’re headed; which, actually, in some places in scripture is an accurate definition: it’s the Greek word metanoia, which translates as turning around completely.  But here when Jesus talks about repentance, he’s not merely speaking of changing your direction but also, and primarily, changing your mind, and your heart, and your soul, and your life.  James Lemler again:  Jesus’ call to repentance was a plea “to turn to the God who loves and redeems his people.  He wanted them to change their minds and their lives to reflect the compassion and care that God had given to them.  And he wanted them to bear fruit: the fruits of repentance, of new life in God and God’s love – the fruits of grace, joy, hope, and peace.”

Friends, it’s about being on the journey of life and living, doing things the way you’ve always done them regardless of the consequence or even of its futility; but then, all at once, changing your mind and going another way that you know is going to be the better pathway.  Repentance is simply, and not so simply, changing your mind; or, as Frederick Beuchner has beautifully said, it is “to come to your senses.  It is not,” he writes, “so much something you do as something that happens.  True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ than to the future and saying, ‘Wow!’”

Repent, says Jesus, or else you’ll perish. Change your mind, because if you don’t, very soon you’ll be headed in a direction you don’t want to go. Turn around, and take a different pathway, because right now you’re going nowhere fast. Come to your senses, otherwise you might well lose yourself, and you’ll miss everything that is to come and what, by God’s grace and infinite love, has been promised and is even now being set before you.

“Unless ye repent, ye shall likewise perish!”

So… here’s Jesus, simply sitting there, quietly and patiently, waiting for us to respond to what’s he said to us.  That’s the thing about Jesus, you know – and by extension, that’s the thing about preaching his gospel – he’s waiting for us to give an answer to what he’s said.  Sometimes it’s not about the “warm and fuzzy,” with everything all tied up in a nice purple bow for Lent; sometimes  Jesus’ words just hang in the air before us and we end up leaving this place today wondering… how we’re supposed to respond and what happens next.

I wonder as we’re sitting here this morning about the ways our minds and hearts need to change; I wonder about the fruit that we haven’t borne.  Have we failed to acknowledge the reality of the living God even when we’ve known just how much we’ve yearned and hungered  for that presence and power in our lives?  Are there mistakes or transgressions – no, let’s call them exactly what they are – is there sin in our lives that has gone unconfessed?   And by the same token, is there forgiveness that we’ve refused to accept… or to give?  Is our behavior – our attitudes, our language, our treatment of others, our priorities, our practice of everyday life – is it less than it should be as one who has been named and claimed as a child of God? Has what we’ve been doing, how we’ve been living proven to unite those around us or is it divisive; does it make for peace or does it create injustice; is it about love or something else; but most importantly, does it honor God and model his son Jesus, and does it further the work of his kingdom?

If not, I would say that the time has come to consider changing our mind, and our hearts, and our lives;  because, hard as it may be for us to hear, the time for that kind of change won’t last forever.

And besides, why wouldn’t you want to? In the words of Isaiah: “Why do you send your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy… incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live… seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.”

The time and the opportunity for repentance is now, beloved. May it be for each of us time well spent and…

…may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.



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