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‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink’ – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

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Title: Jesus cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.’

Date: 18 May 2024, The Installation of Revd Canon James Milne, Canon Precentor at York Minster

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York


Jesus cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believe in me drink.’

Almost forty years ago, the south transept of this great cathedral church was struck by lightning, causing the third major fire to impact the Minster since its completion in the 14th Century. Three days previously, the then Archbishop of York had presided over the consecration of the Revd Professor David Jenkins as Bishop of Durham.

Professor Jenkins was not, as you may know, an appointment of which everyone approved. Some claimed that he was not a real Christian… that he had heterodox views… even, so some said, that he was a heretic. And amongst his rather strait-laced opponents, perhaps inevitably, there were those who claimed that the lightning strike and subsequent terrible fire were proof of God’s anger at Jenkins’ consecration.

I’ve never really understood this… but, then again, I don’t really believe in a god who behaves more like a character from a Marvel movie, throwing around lightning bolts and starting firestorms just because he was in a bad mood about something. But – if I did believe in such a deity – I’d be troubled by the idea their sense of timing was so poor that the lightning bolt of wrath arrived three days late, rather than striking the cathedral roof at the very moment the archbishop’s hands were descending on Dr Jenkins’ head!

But for all that, the link between God and fire can be a hard one to break, even if, over the years, it has sometimes been expressed very inappropriately and simplistically.

And Jesus cried out, ‘let the one who believes in me drink’…

The Israelite people put fire at the heart of their worship, and they did so chiefly to appease God. Every single day of the year, at the Temple in Jerusalem, an animal would be offered to God in carefully controlled flames on the altar of the Temple by the priest. A holy person carefully lit a holy fire to assuage and pacify a God perceived as fearsome, and locked away in complex rituals. And, moreover, after the flames had consumed this poor animal, the ritual would conclude with a jar of wine being poured over the altar by the same – very holy – temple priest.

Day by day by day… except during the festival. For during the festival of booths, of which we have heard tell in both our readings this afternoon – a festival that falls near the end of the long, hot and very dry middle eastern summer – during this festival, which was in part a celebration of harvest, the priest would carefully fill a jar with water from the nearby pools of Siloam, bring it to the Temple, and alongside the jar of wine, it would be carefully poured over the altar in this precise and controlled liturgy.

And thus we see how fire and water were the stuff of the proper and appropriate worship of the one God. Offered with necessary care and control in the most holy of places, and performed by the most holy of people.

All of which, I dare say, makes this afternoon’s liturgy seem rather uneventful – no fire and water are required to admit a new member to the College of Canons of the Cathedral and Metropolitical of St Peter in York. But nevertheless, you will, I hope, recognise that this service is being offered with what you might call ‘care and control’, be it the world-class singing from our Choir, whose members rehearse day by day by day; or whether it is the well-crafted liturgy that remains one of the glories of Thomas Cranmer’s liturgical genius; or whether it is the perfectly wrought processions, with everyone in their appointed place and order.

And all of this done, on this particular afternoon, to allow us to welcome our new Canon Precentor, James Milne. And James, of course, is no stranger to well-crafted liturgy and to musical excellence. As you will know or will have noted from the order of service, in his role at St Paul’s, James was responsible for two major royal services, marking both the late Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, and then her death in September of 2022. James, I know, needs no persuading about the importance of ‘care and control’ in the liturgies of the Church of England as established by law!

But, as our new Precentor – our new ‘first singer’ – James has an even more important duty than crafting intricate and wonderful liturgies. Beyond this vital task for which York Minster, and our many sister cathedrals around this country are well known… beyond this vital task lies another task yet more vital, in which, as our new Precentor, James comes to share…. To share with me, with the other members of the clergy team, with Archbishop Stephen, and with the entire Body of Christ in this city, diocese and province.

And that task is not to be careful with either fire or water – which is what Jesus is talking about in that snippet of John 7 that we hear read on this, the eve of Pentecost. For Jesus is in Jerusalem at the climax of the great festival of booths. He has witnessed the care and control of the burnt offerings immolated in the Temple, and has witnessed the preparations for the high priest to douse the smouldering remains with a single, special jar of water, on each of the seven days of this festival. Precious, living water from the pools of Siloam, carried with great care to the holiest of holies, used in this sacred ritual by the temple priest alone, behind closed doors, so that the sacred nature of this ritual is not polluted by the pesterings of the general public.

And Jesus can bear it no more. As the ‘great day’ of the festival dawns, and the rituals of organised religion are executed with care and control, Jesus recognises that something was missing. Something infectious, joyous, carefree and loving was lacking – and he could bear it no longer. And thus he cries out ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink…’

But this drink  – the drink of the living Word of God – this drink is not portion-controlled under the careful authority of the Temple priests. This is abundant water offered abundantly.

But it comes with a catch…And the catch is that if you drink of that water, you don’t get to keep it – you end up having to share it even more abundantly. For, as Jesus goes on to say, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” Not just one jar to pacify or please God – rivers of water. And more than that – be very clear that ‘heart’ is a tame and dubious translation of the Greek. Jesus is talking about the believer’s belly. This is both visceral, and it is personal. Jesus is talking about living water rising up from the foundation – physical, emotional and spiritual – of who we are, or – at least – who God has created and called us to be. And that changes things.

Just as fire – the real fire of God – also changes things. And if you don’t know what I mean, I beg you to come back tomorrow morning as we hear again the story of Pentecost, and how tongues of fire transform the erstwhile hapless disciples into confident evangelists who transform the world with Good News, so that it spreads – like wildfire – across the face of the world… even to York on the 18th of May, Two Thousand and Twenty-Four.

David Jenkins was most certainly not the cause of a divine firebolt of anger that saw our south transept burn some forty years ago. He was – in my opinion and that of many others – he was an inspirational bishop, deeply orthodox, and who knew, and often said, “You can’t keep a good God down.” Indeed, at times he would amplify this and say, “Even the church…. Can’t keep a good God down”.

James – God has called you to come among us as our ‘first singer’, and in that role, to be responsible for our careful and controlled liturgies. But – as our ‘first singer’ – I pray strongly that not only will you help us maintain the excellence of our liturgical and musical tradition, but that you will also play your part in ensuring that the dazzling flame of Pentecost, and the unquenchable living water which should flow from our hearts, our bellies, our mouths and our very lives, that these precious gifts and manifestations of the living God will never be absent from the ministry of this cathedral church as it serves its city, its diocese, its province, and its world. For it is true, as Bishop Jenkins said, that you really cannot keep a good God down – so let’s celebrate that in spiritual fire and water now and always.


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