When scientists are searching for life on other planets, what is the first thing they look for? Water.
Without water, there can be no life. Without water, there are only rocks and dust where nothing can grow and flourish. On the other hand, where water is plentiful, life is plentiful. Plants grow green and lush, food is abundant and animals can thrive.
We are blessed with abundant water for our needs. It is piped right into our homes. We do not have to walk miles to find it or wonder whether there will be enough.
But this was not the case for Jesus and his fellow Israelites. They were a desert people trying to make a living in a dry, hot climate. Water was a precious commodity for them. Their livelihood depended on it. Whenever they could find a source of pure, fresh water, they took it as a special blessing from God.
Today’s gospel reading takes place in Jerusalem during the Jewish Feast of Booths. It was a celebration of God’s goodness to Israel during their 40 year sojourn in the desert. The feast reminded them of how the Lord provided manna for the Israelites when they were hungry and how, when they thirsted, Moses struck a rock with his staff and made water come gushing forth for them to drink. For the people of Israel, it was also an expression of faith that the God who fed and nourished them in the desert would continue to provide for them.
It was during this feast that Jesus cried out: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me to drink.” It must have caused a disruption to the service. Imagine someone standing up in the middle of Mass and yelling out, “I am God!”. The effect must have been the same. Jesus was telling the crowds that just as God provided water for the people of Israel in the desert so He would provide the Holy Spirit to all who would believe in Him.
There are many symbols for the Holy Spirit. Most often He is pictured as a dove coming down from heaven. Other times He is depicted as fire like the tongues of fire which alighted upon the apostles on Pentecost. But Jesus describes the Holy Spirit as water. Just as water is vital to the life of our bodies, so the Holy Spirit is essential for the life of our soul. We affirm this whenever we proclaim the creed together and call the Holy Spirit “the Lord and Giver of Life.” Without the Holy Spirit our souls are as dry and dead as the desert. Without the Holy Spirit who was given to us at baptism and confirmation, we can have no life within us. It is when the Spirit is poured out upon us that we start to come alive in our faith, grow in our knowledge of God and live with genuine freedom and joy.
The image of water gives us much insight into the Holy Spirit’s presence and action in our souls. There are three services that water provides for us that correspond to how the Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of those who believe.
First, like water, the Holy Spirit cleanses us. Just as water washes our bodies, the Holy Spirit brings the gift of forgiveness to our souls. When Jesus first appears to the disciples after His resurrection, the first authority He gives them when He breathes the Spirit upon them is the power to forgive sins. We first received the Holy Spirit in the waters of baptism which cleansed our souls from the guilt of original sin. When the Spirit is active in our lives, our shame is taken away, we are strengthened against sin and we find the power to forgive others. The gift of the Spirit is inner healing and peace that comes with the cleansing of our guilt.
Secondly, like water, the Holy Spirit nourishes us. Through the gifts of wisdom and knowledge, our minds are fed with the truth. Through the gift of counsel, our soul is strengthened to make good and holy choices. And by the gift of reverence and piety, our spirit drinks in the glorious presence of our Lord and God. Just as water helps our bodies to grow, so the Holy Spirit expands our inner being - spirit, soul and mind - so that we can thrive and flourish.
Thirdly, like water, the Holy Spirit refreshes us. After working in the hot sun, there is nothing more soothing than a cold glass of water. It cools our bodies down and relieves our aching muscles. Just so, when life has beaten and worn us down, the Holy Spirit comes to refresh us. As Saint Paul teaches us in the second reading, “The Spirit comes to our aid in our weakness.” He reminds us that we are children of God and that nothing can separate us from His love. He recalls the promise of Jesus that He would be with us always and that with Him nothing is impossible. And He works to restore our joy and peace. When we are feeling discouraged, we can always call upon the Holy Spirit to awaken within us a new sense of purpose.
Today we celebrate the feast of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured down upon the apostles and Mary. Like a river overflowing its banks, He lives in the hearts of all believers bringing life to everyone He touches. As Jesus promised, that wellspring of life is within each of us through faith and baptism. Like a fresh, flowing stream, we can go to that Spirit to be cleansed, nourished and refreshed. Then we will flourish with the abundant life of Christ.