This sermon was preached on the 26th Sunday after Pentecost, November 17, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The Revised Common Lectionary, Proper 28C: Isaiah 65:17-25; Canticle 9 (Isaiah 12:2-6); 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; and Luke 21:5-19. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)


Illustration of Chinese Fifteen Buckets Idiom“You shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation.”

Their placement in the Book of Isaiah suggests that these words were written early in the career of the first prophet whose writings are collected into this book (there are three), a time when Judah had been conquered by and was a tributary-state of the Assyrian Empire. In the first eleven chapters of the book, Isaiah had prophesied against the Jewish people and the nation’s leaders, condemning their failure to follow God’s Law, their failure to take care of the widows, the orphans, the poor, the resident alien. He had even given his son a prophetic name, Maher-shalal-hash-baz — meaning “He has made haste to the plunder!” — to reflect God’s judgment against them. Isaiah prophesied of desolation and loss, and those prophecies seemed to have come true. It was a time such as Jesus describes in the Gospel today, a time when nation had risen against nation, kingdom against kingdom. Yet, in the midst of it, Isaiah offers this song of hope.

“You shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation.”

I once worked with a man who blew, as the saying goes, hot and cold. If you asked him, “How’s it going?” you’d get one of two responses. If things were OK, he’d say, “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.” But on another day he’d answer, “The world’s going to Hell in a hand-basket!” There was no in-between with him, no shades of gray, no shades of anything! Either everything was great, or everything was awful. Isaiah’s message in our Gradual today is a message that even when everything is awful, even if the world is going to Hell in a hand-basket, God’s still in his heaven, God’s still in charge and eventually all will be right with the world.

“You shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation.”

One of the things we preachers do is look back to see if we said anything about a Biblical text the last time it came up on the lectionary rotation, so that is what I did. The last time we had the First Song of Isaiah as part of our Sunday worship, it was the Sunday following the Sandy Hook School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. I didn’t preach on this particular text that Sunday, but it would have been a fitting text; it is a message of reassurance for the worst of times.

“You shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation.”

So . . . there are three themes or images in this one verse that I’d like to explore with you today: drawing water, rejoicing, and the springs of salvation. And I want to begin with the middle one because that is the way Isaiah begins.

Chapter 12 is only six verses long but, for some reason, when it is used liturgically as a canticle, the first verse is dropped off: we begin with Verse 2, “Surely, it is God who saves me . . . . ” But Isaiah began his song this way: “You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me.” (v 1) “I will give thanks to you, O Lord . . . .”

This is more than a polite “Thank You” note. This is a song of praise that describes, that would accompany a physical expression of gratitude. The Hebrew word here is yadah, which signifies the stretching out of one’s hands in thanks while singing.

It’s like . . . do you know the 1964 movie Zorba the Greek? It’s based on a novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis. It is the story of Basil, a young English-Greek intellectual played by Alan Bates, and his encounter with a vibrant Greek peasant, Alexis Zorba, the title character; it is a story full of betrayal, death, and failure. But, at the end, as Basil is preparing to leave Crete (where the story is set) and return to Oxford, he asks Zorba to teach him to dance. What follows is this wonderful scene in which Anthony Quinn, who plays Zorba, lifts his hands and begins slowly to demonstrate the sirtaki. The music, by Mikis Theodorakis, builds as Quinn and Bates dance, with their hands raised, faster and faster, laughing, and overcoming all the darkness and tragedy that has gone before. That is yadah!

That theme is continued in this pivotal verse: “You shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation.” The word yadah is not repeated; here we have another word sawsone, which means “joyfulness,” or “mirth,” or even “giddiness,” translated in our Prayer Book text as “rejoicing.” Nonetheless, the meaning is the same: an exultant joy which requires physical expression.

“You shall draw water with rejoicing” — with dancing and singing and laughter and giddiness — “from the springs of salvation.”

The next image to consider is the drawing of water from a well. That’s not something many of us are familiar with, even if we live on farm properties with wells those wells are equipped with electric pumps and we get our water from a tap at the sink; we just turn a handle and the water comes out. Not so in Isaiah’s day or in Jesus’ time, nor even for some of our grandparents. In those days you took your bucket to the well and you lowered down, filled it, drew it up (not with a turn crank, by the way, but by brute strength), and then you carried it into the home, however far away that might be.

That day to day reality would most certainly have been in the minds of Isaiah’s first audience, but perhaps for them it would have been overshadowed by memories of an annual ritual. An important part of the celebration called Sukkoth or the Feast of Tabernacles was the “Festival of Water-drawing.” In this ritual, on each morning of the seven days of Sukkoth, a young priest would take a golden pitcher to the Pool of Siloam and fill it with water. He would then carry the water in a procession with lighted torches up to the Temple where the water was poured upon the altar, and the people broke out into jubilant song and dance.

The ritual of water-drawing was a reminder that God’s Presence is as fundamental and basic to human life as the water that falls from the sky or springs up from the earth. Life-giving water symbolizes God’s power. The image here is of water flowing with abundance, spilling over, and flowing out to the whole earth. In Isaiah’s song, the ritual of water-drawing leads directly to the proclamation of good news to all nations. The good news of God’s salvation cannot be contained; it must reach out to all the world.

Now something lost in the English translation is Isaiah’s use of singular and plural “yous,” his address is first to individuals and then to the community as a whole. In the ritual of water-drawing, it was the priest who drew the water as representative of the community, but in Isaiah’s song the “you” in this verse is addressed to each individual. “You shall draw water . . . .” — not the priest on your behalf — not the community of which you are a part — but you individually, you personally, you shall draw from the well of living water. Each of us goes to the well-spring individually . . . but what a mess it would be if we all showed up and tried to do that at the same time without any coordination!

As I thought about that, I remembered an old Chinese proverb I learned in Asian folklore course in college: Qi shang ba xia, literally, “seven up, eight down.” The full saying is, “My heart has fifteen buckets, seven up, eight down.” The image is from a folktale of fifteen people at a community well, all trying to draw water; seven with their buckets going up and eight going down, all clanging and banging against one another, spilling the water and achieving nothing. It refers to a person or a community faced with a time of uncertainty, fear, or turmoil. The English equivalent is “to be all sixes and sevens,” to be in a general state of confusion and disarray, possibly even a condition of irreconcilable conflict.

That certainly cannot be what Isaiah had in mind with his image of each of drawing out water individually! Surely there is here a lesson about working together in community! Remember that though each of us draws from the well we do so together, with yadah and sawsone, with that thankfulness and joy that expresses itself in dancing. Like Zorba and Basil dancing the sirtaki together, we work together so that our buckets are not “seven up, eight down,” not banging against one another and spilling their water uselessly, but all filled, drawn up, and poured out in proclamation of God’s good news. We never go to the well alone; we go together, and together we fill and draw out our buckets in a purposeful and concerted dance of joyful abundance.

“You” — each of you individually, but all of you together — “shall draw water with rejoicing” — with dancing and singing and laughter and giddiness — “from the springs of salvation.”

Which brings us to the last image of this verse: the springs of salvation.

While reviewing the commentaries and study guides about this text, I came across an alternative translation: “With great joy, you people will get water from the well of victory.” (CEV) At first blush, “well of victory” and “springs of salvation” seem like very different images! Salvation is something we receive, something that God gives us. Victory is something achieved, something that we do ourselves! But when I went to my Hebrew lexicon, I discovered that, indeed, the Hebrew word used here has been translated in other circumstances as “victory” (Psalm 20:5) and also as “prosperity” (e.g., Job 30:1) or as “deliverance” (e.g., Psalm 3:2). The well of God’s grace produces all of these things: deliverance, salvation, prosperity, victory.

In John’s Gospel we are told a story of Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman at the communal well in the city of Sychar. He asked her to draw him a drink from the well, and when she expressed surprise that a Jewish man would ask that of a Samaritan woman . . .

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” (John 4:10-15)

The word used by the Prophet Isaiah, the word translated as “salvation,” as “victory,” as “prosperity,” as “deliverance,” is also a Name. The word is yeshu’ah; the name we translate as “Jesus.”

Even when the enemy (whoever or whatever that may be) has invaded and all seems to be desolation and loss . . . even when nations rise against nations and kingdoms against kingdoms . . . even when the world seems to be going to hell in a hand-basket . . . even in a time of unfathomable tragedy and grief, Isaiah’s words comfort and reassure us. They are a promise of “buoyant and determined hope that refuses to give in to debilitating present circumstances.” (Walter Brueggemann)

“You” — each of you, each of us individually, but all of us together —

“shall draw water” — living water —

“with rejoicing” — with dancing and singing and laughter and giddiness —

“from the springs of salvation” — from the wellspring who is Jesus.

Let us pray:

Lord Jesus, you promised that you would give to any who asked living water gushing up to eternal life: Make us thirsty for that living water that we may love God with our whole heart and soul and mind, that we may rejoice in your victory and salvation with dancing and singing and laughter, that we may fill our buckets with your abundant prosperity and may pour out your good news for all the world, that we may love our neighbor as ourselves; in your Holy Name we pray. Amen.


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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.