River of Life

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 | Psalm 119:1-8 | 1 Corinthians 3:1-9| Matthew 5:21-37

Jeremy Richards

As a child, I used to sing the song “Spring Up O Well.” Do any of you know it? It’s pretty simple. It goes like this:

I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me

Makes the lame to walk and the blind to see

Open prisons doors, sets the captive free

I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me.

Spring up, o well (splish splash), within my soul!

Spring up, oh well (splish splash), and make me whole!

Spring up, oh well (splish splash), and give to me

That life, abundantly.

As tends to be the case, what we teach our children is often spot on. This song, in only a few short lines, says it all. It acknowledges that the life we have received from Jesus is one that is not limited to our own personal experience but flows out of us, with tangible, even miraculous, effects. It makes the lame to walk and the blind to see. It opens prison’s doors and sets captives free.

It reminds us that this calling – Christianity or faith or discipleship or whatever we want to call it – is a way of life, not a simple belief system or a set of rules.

We talked about this very thing a few weeks ago when our Scriptures came from Micah 6:8 and the beatitudes in Matthew 5.

But this song, and our Scripture readings from Deuteronomy and Matthew, provide a helpful insight into this way of life: it starts internally. Or maybe it doesn’t always start internally, but there’s an internal element to it, and that’s what we’re primarily going to focus on today. Yes, it grows up and out and beyond us like a mustard tree, but it starts in our hearts and in our minds. It starts in our souls.

In these famous, but difficult verses from Matthew 5:21-37 Jesus tells his listeners that it’s not enough to simply not murder and not commit adultery. One shouldn’t even hate, or speak evil of someone else. One shouldn’t even lust after another.

On a practical level, these commands seem preventative. You are much less likely to murder if you don’t ever hate. You’re unlikely to commit adultery if you never lust.

But there’s more to it than that.

Jesus’ teachings are a continuation of Moses’ teachings to Israel in our passage from Deuteronomy 30:15-20. Moses says to the people of Israel, “I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity…Choose life.” If we remember the words of our song, the river of life flows out of us. The well that springs up is in our hearts. Choosing life begins here (point at heart).

Being consumed by hate or lust, whether or not they ever result in outward actions will still result in death within us. They’ll kill us from the inside out.

Jesus knows this, so he implores us to choose life, not just for others, but for ourselves.

Killing someone results in the death of another, but hating someone results in the death of ourselves. Hate can consume us, cutting us off from a life that is filled with the love and joy of God. Hate that goes unchecked wells up inside of us. Often our hate is well founded, stemming from genuine hurt or abuse, but when we let hate run amuck within us, it continues to grow, suffocating us until we are consumed by it, or breaking forth in the form of verbal or physical violence toward the person we hate, or, very often, toward those who had nothing to do with the original offense. That is no way to live. Don’t choose hate. Choose life.

Similarly, committing adultery could very well cause the visible death of a marriage, resulting in divorce and broken families, but a life of lust will lead to a breakdown in intimacy and connection within a marriage, even if outwardly the marriage remains intact. To be consumed by lust – whether you’re single or married – is to fail to be content in the life God has given you. Lust is never satiated. Be it pornography or an affair, the emptiness will remain after the deed. God wants us to find rest and contentment where we are in life, be it in our singleness or our marriage. When we set a sexual relationship up as a sort of idol we will always be chasing a lust that will never be satisfied, and in so doing we will fail to live fully with God and one another, but will begin to see God as inadequate and people as objects to be used for our sexual pleasure. That is no way to live. That’s death. Do not be consumed by lust. Choose life.

In Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people that choosing life means “loving the LORD your God, walking in God’s ways, and observing God’s commandments, decrees, and ordinances.” This reveals not only how to choose life, but also the purpose of the law God gave the Israelites: to lead them into the good life. They aren’t arbitrary laws, they are laws that are meant to help us live well, which is good. It’s not about legalism, or piety. It’s not about seeing if you can jump through all the hoops. It’s about the good life. The good life with God and others.

But making it about legalism, or jumping through hoops – making it more about the laws than the spirit behind the laws – can lead us to act contrary to Christ’s teaching. It can lead us away from the good life. As an example, let’s talk about Christ’s teachings on divorce in Matthew 5:31-32. Remember, Jesus’ commands, as well as God’s law in the Old Testament was meant to promote life, what Jesus calls in John 10:10 the “abundant” life.

Matthew 5:31-32 has often been taken out of the context of Jesus’ other teachings and has been used to trap women and men in relationships that are not life-giving, but are actually death dealing. Abusive partners have used this passage to keep their spouses and partners in abusive relationships. This is not what God wants. Remember Deuteronomy. God wants us to choose life! Scripture should NEVER be used to legitimate abuse or oppression. To go back to our song, the river of life flowing out of me opens prison’s doors and sets captives free. It doesn’t enslave, it sets free.

The Gospel is good news to the poor.

It’s freedom to the imprisoned.

It’s an open, welcoming door to the foreigner.

It’s justice to the victim of injustice.

It’s forgiveness for the sinner.

It’s an open invitation to those who have so often been excluded from the table.

It’s safety for the abused.

It doesn’t trap, it sets free. The Gospel sets free. The Gospel liberates.

Jesus’ teachings from our reading today are about getting away from following the letter of the law (“you’ve heard it said this, you’ve heard the letter of the law, but I tell you this, the spirit of the law”) and entering a way of life that is characterized by flourishing, not by death: one that is characterized by right relationships. That’s the common thread in these teachings by Jesus: right interpersonal relationships. That can be a kind of litmus test for us when we face tough decisions. Which choice fosters healthy relationships? Which choice corresponds with choosing life? Which choice draws us deeper into life with God?

So, bringing it back to our internal spiritual life, how do we choose life on an internal level? How do we make sure the well that is springing up within our soul is one that “makes us whole”?

I shared last week that my heart has been heavy in light of all that is going on in our country and our world. I’d begun to feel pretty disheartened, like the well within my soul was running dry. I’d been letting all the external stuff weigh me down, and I’d been failing to nurture my internal spirituality.

But this past week I had two life-giving experiences.

The first took place during my clergy retreat. The first part of the retreat was a Sabbath retreat. We practiced visio divina and lectio divina and a practice I’d never done before called “dwelling in the word.” We sang meditative songs and prayed prayers together. And one of the last things we did was spend 30 minutes – just 30 minutes – in silence. We could get up and walk outside, or we could stay in the warm lodge. I love, love, silent retreats, but I never make myself be silent on my own. I always have to have someone tell me. I have to be on a retreat, and the leader has to say, “no talking,” and then I finally feel like I can get away with being silent. This time, particularly, we weren’t allowed to read or really dwell on anything either. We were just supposed to quiet our minds. If someone doesn’t make me do that, I often feel like I’m being lazy. I should be working! Or reading! Or thinking through a problem! But I had to quiet my mind and my heart.

So I went for a walk.

I walked outside and big, fat snowflakes were coming down hard. And it was quiet, except for those snowflakes hitting my jacket. I walked out to the road that went by Camp Arrah Wanna and I walked in the snow and the silence. And I felt this kind of breaking in my chest, like so much anxiety and stress that I’d been holding in were loosening. It was almost an emotional experience.

Part of me wanted to resist it. Like, if I let myself relax, if I quieted my heart, if I surrendered myself to the God who was calling me in the silence, I might be guilty of complacency. How can I rest when the world is such a mess. I need to be figuring out a solution to the world’s problems! I need to be a prophetic voice! All the things we young preachers fresh out of seminary tend to fall victim to – thinking so much depends on us. Believing it’s our job to rescue modern Christianity. Believing we’re the first ones to have these thoughts and convictions, which is, of course, utter nonsense.

And I remembered Jesus retreating to have times of quiet by himself. If Jesus needed that time, I think it’s safe to say I do too. Those thirty minutes of silence were golden. It was amazing the amount of peace I received from that short time of silence. It’s a peace that lasted through the rest of the retreat and through this whole week.

The second life-giving practice I took part in is about as far from silence as you can be. I listened to this old metal album that used to be one of my favorites in high school. It came out in 2002 and it’s called “Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child” by the band Norma Jean, and it is just SO BRUTAL. It’s chaotic and heavy and everything you could want in a metal album. I can’t really tell you why it was life-giving to me, but I used to listen to that album a lot during some formative years in my life. It was a kind of anchor in a time when I seemed so lost in my adolescence. Like all good music, it made me feel that I wasn’t alone, that there were people who understood how I felt (and wanted to scream into a microphone about it).

So those are two very different life-giving practices for me, ones I plan to engage in more frequently and more intentionally in the future: contemplation and metal music.

What about you? What gives you life?

This is important stuff. It’s important for us to take the time to intentionally choose life.

So I want to encourage you today to continue to choose life, to find windows of peace and quiet, of creativity, of fellowship with others, and to understand that those windows are good and necessary as we learn to love God and walk in God’s ways.

“I’ve set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity.”

Let’s choose life every time.