A rainy Memorial Day weekend. Very rainy. Torrential at times. It’s Springtime in Boston, always an iffy proposition. Of course, we need the rain. That was my mantra yesterday when I got caught in a downpour, stuck in snarled traffic, with zero visibility. We need the rain. It’s a way to make virtue out of vexation.
Of course we do need rain. All of us need rain: there’s always drought someplace in the world. It’s easy to forget that. We only occasionally get a bad one here in the Northeast. Our faucets routinely deliver great gushing quantities of water. It’s not the same elsewhere.
Sometimes, when I stand at my sink with the tap open, I try to imagine a life without easy access to water. I think about the exhausting grind of lugging water from a shared village well or a muddy stream. I think of places where control of water determines the balance of power; where water is used to subjugate, punish, and pacify, as it often is in Palestinian refugee camps. I think too of all the cities and towns of Israel where people have water, but where Israelis yearn also, as Maureen Kemeza says, to “drink the cup of security instead of the bitter dregs of terror.”
I watch the rain wash out my week-end plans and say, “Oh well, we need the rain.” I say it in the resigned, noble, yet slightly resentful way only someone divorced from the daily struggle for subsistence could say such an obvious thing. Meanwhile, somewhere else, a human being who had no week-end plans, no prospects at all in fact, looks down at dry cracked earth and prays for the rain I have resigned myself to; prays also perhaps for that other refreshment – for justice, as necessary for life as water itself.
In the gospel of John, Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Festival of Tabernacles, a week-long autumnal harvest celebration. By his day, it had taken on the character of a festival of rain. Each day of the observance, priests and people processed to the great fountain on the northeast side of the Temple. There a priest filled a golden pitcher with its water, as the choir sang a verse from the prophet Isaiah, “With joy you draw water from salvation’s wells!” Then back up they processed, through the portal called the Water Gate. When they arrived at the altar of sacrifice, they marched around it, singing psalms. Finally, the priest ascended the ramp to the altar and poured the precious water from the pitcher through a silver funnel onto the ground.
Unlike us, who are disappointed when it rains on our parade, the celebrating Jews prayed fervently that it might rain during the Feast of Tabernacles, for rainfall during Tabernacles was taken as a sign that God would send the abundant Spring rains necessary for a good crop the following year. I have read that even in recent, more bitter years, Jordanian Arabs, who are not enamored of the Israelis, continue to keep their eye on the weather during the Jewish feast of Tabernacles, hoping for the rainfall that portends a good harvest for their own people too – common needs betraying a common humanity, in spite of everything.
In the midst of this festival of rain, surrounded by his people’s prayers for life-giving water, Jesus stands up, as if in answer to them all. He cries out that he is water, rain, the life we need. He stands up and promises that if we drink from his well, if we return repeatedly to the springs of wisdom, mercy, reconciling grace and generosity that flow within him, that he embodies, then living water will also flow from us who accept his invitation – we will ourselves become like fountains.
John tells us parenthetically that by “living water” Jesus was referring to “the Spirit” that would be bestowed upon his disciples after his death and glorification. The gift of this Spirit is the momentous religious experience we commemorated on Pentecost Sunday.
We associate Pentecost more with wind and fire than with water, because those heartier images are the star performers in the account of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles that we customarily read on that day. Thus we trend to think of the Holy Spirit as power and enthusiasm, impetus and ardor – a force to be reckoned with, transforming fear to boldness, inhibition to freedom, doubt to conviction. And so it is.
But Pentecost is also a festival of rain. And the Spirit is like holy precipitation. The rain we need. In Acts, we hear a Spirit-filled Peter try to explain to the stunned crowd what is happening. This, he says, is the drenching that was promised by the prophet Joel: “In those days, says the Lord, I will pour out my Spirit on everyone…” Pour it out, like water from a golden pitcher, like torrents from the sky.
Pentecost is a downpour, a soaking, a flood – a flood of life and possibility; and, miraculously, a flood of mutual understanding that washes away, if only for one blessed day, the desiccating divisions of clan, nation and tongue. It is like water turned mysteriously to wine, making the world giddy with hope and joy. It is a baptismal immersion from which the church rises, dripping wet, waterlogged with grace. The call given to us in those fathoms is to go and drip on everything; to rain on the drought-stricken world the rain of kingdom life.
Many congregations prayed for wind and fire last week. I wonder how many prayed for rain. As I was watching it fall very hard yesterday and late into the night, I hoped some did, because we really need the rain. We really need The Rain.