One of my favorite places in Chicago is the beautiful Buckingham Fountain. It sits on a large plaza between Lake Michigan and a spectacular wall of skyscrapers. A big wedding cake of a fountain, it’s sometimes called Chicago’s front door.
I grew up not too far from the Windy City. I remember Mayor Daly greeting Queen Elizabeth at the fountain in 1957. She had come down the St. Lawrence Seaway on the royal yacht all the way to Chicago. Flags and bands and rifles and national anthems and so on, ladies curtsying. The queen and the mayor were a study in contrasts. Fifty-four years ago Elizabeth looked and spoke very much the elegant young queen that she was. Mayor Daly looked and spoke very much, well, Mayor Daly—the jowly, rotund boss of a huge political machine. You could imagine him smoking cheap cigars (of course, we’re talking about the first Mayor Daly, not the more recent one).
Well, the queen and the mayor are neither here nor there, but it was all pretty impressive to an 8 year old kid from Coal City, Illinois—even on black and white TV. So back to Buckingham Fountain.
Jets and sprays and a wedding cake of pools of water, sculptured fish spewing streams of water—allegorical figures in theatrical poses: it’s a delightful baroque style fountain. What is it about fountains that we find so exhilarating? I’m not quite sure, but it’s the image I bring to these verses from John we’ve just heard. Verses that I find delightfully refreshing, even exhilarating. Especially this one: “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”
On the first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came down in tongues of fire. Today Jesus offers us another image: the Holy Spirit, the Living Water, emerging from within us. We are conduits of the Living Water. It’s as if when we are baptized, we are incorporated into a great fountain.
Paul calls us the temple of the Holy Spirit. Jesus calls us a fountain of the Holy Spirit, because the Living Water flows out from our hearts. The invitation to us is to open ourselves more fully to the Living Water of light and love that desires to emerge from deep within us, from some mysterious well—and then to flow out from us again. “I saw water flowing from the right side of the temple…,” we sing in the Vidi aquam, a vision from Ezekiel. Christ is that temple and fountain; we are that temple and fountain.
How do we know when rivers of Living Water are flowing out from our hearts? How do we know if the Holy Spirit is bubbling up from the depths within us and proceeding forth from us? Paul gives us the signs. “…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faith, humility, self-control.” [Gal. 5:22-23] These things are goodness and love expressed in word and deed, the living water of the Spirit of Love active within us, flowing forth from us.
Now if the Living Water flows like a river from our hearts, what is the cholesterol of the soul? What is the artery-blocking cholesterol of the soul? I’ll talk about two kinds. One is fear. Fear of failure. Fear of not being loved. Fear of want. Fear of loss of dignity or status. Fear of loss of control or power. Fear of death. Fear can clog the arteries of our souls. The more we fear, the less we love.
But the more we love, the less we fear; the less we fear, the more we love. Sometimes we can address our fears head on and simply dismiss them—or at least manage them. Sometimes love can overwhelm our fear. Sometimes doing some completely gratuitous act of loving-kindness will break through the sclerotic accretions of fear and the fountain begins to flow again. The more we love, the less we fear; the less we fear, the more we can love. If we exercise our bodies, we can lower our cholesterol. If we exercise loving-kindness, we can re-open the clogged arteries of the soul. So that Living Water can flow through and out from us.
Another cholesterol of the soul is cynicism. Cynicism is highly sclerotic and leads to some serious blockage. Perhaps it’s cynicism that Jesus is addressing when he refers to “the believer’s heart”. A close translation of that sentence would be something like: “the one believing in me, out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water”. “The one believing in me”—it’s hard to know exactly what is meant by that. What does it mean, after all, to believe in Jesus? That sounds like a life’s work, actually: to find out what it means to believe in Jesus.
But I’ll make an attempt, a provisional attempt. Among other things, believing in Jesus means believing in the possibility of love, incarnate love. That is, to believe that love can be embodied in this world, that the grace and truth of Christ can be manifest in this world. And, specifically, by us, by human beings. To be cynical, in this context, would mean not believing in this possibility. Cynicism would deny the possibility of incarnated love, embodied love; deny the possibility of love made manifest in word and deed.
“Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” But the cynical heart, the heart that does not believe in the possibility of love, is a sclerotic heart, a hardened heart. And no river of Living Water will flow forth from it.
But a Christian cannot be cynical: a Christian must believe in the possibility of love made manifest in this world. Love made flesh in countless ways, small and large. A Christian simply must believe in the possibility of love—as elusive as love can sometimes be.
As we prepare to affirm our baptismal promises, we remember that we are baptized into Christ’s very being—into his death and resurrection, into his love. And, as it were, into a great fountain. The invitation to us today and every day is to reclaim our place there among the jets and sprays and wedding cake of pools. To reclaim, to reaffirm our place in this fountain, knowing that rivers of Living Water are welling up even now from the depths of our being. Welling up from the depths of our souls, desiring to flow forth from us, to make Love manifest in this world again and again.
Even you and even me. You can be from Coal City or Kansas City or the Windy City or New York City or the Emerald City or any city or no city. You can be a queen or a mayor; you can even smoke cheap cigars. Everyone is invited: it takes all kinds to make a fountain.
“I saw water proceeding from the right side of the temple; and all to whom that water came shall be saved, and shall say, ‘Alleluia, alleluia”.
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