Fresh water… it is something that is sorely lacking in many parts of the world. Something that we sometimes, maybe often, take for granted. Water that we use for drinking, bathing, and cleaning dishes or clothes. Water that we do not have to travel very far to get; water that is available upon demand—our demand. Fresh, clean, clear water. In our town, the town where I grew up, there is a beautiful waterfall. Sometimes, in search of solitude, I used to hike there on a fall day when the leaves were just starting to change colors. I would carefully climb the cascading rocks and see the blue sky reflected in the shallow pools of fresh water that gathered in the rock crevices and depressions. When I think of fresh water, I think of Cunningham Falls. I think of seeing the reflection of the clouds, the trees, and birds in those clear pools and of hearing the sound of the water pouring down the mountain. I think of the winter snow and spring rains that feed those pools, and how the streams continually spill out over the sharpest rocks, wearing them smooth in time. Cool, clear, clean water. Blessed water.
Our words can be like water. Blessed, life-giving water. Or stagnant, undrinkable water. This is what the writer of James believes. Some say that our writer was James, the brother of Jesus; others believe that it was someone writing in his name. Nevertheless, the writer of James directs his letter to a group of Christians to help guide them—in what they do and what they say. James is the same person who wrote faith without works is dead. James knows that we make many mistakes in our speaking and our listening. Many mistakes. James knows that our tongues often get us into trouble—that a tongue that says any ol’ thing that it wants is a tongue out-of-control. It is a tongue of fire, capable of burning down entire communities. James didn’t have Facebook, Twitter, or email, but James knows our words to each other, and about each other, have certain power to divide, distort, and destroy –in our world, our nation, and particularly, in our church. Indeed, James says near the beginning of his letter, “If any think that they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues, but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” (James 1:26, my stress)
The Rabbi Gamaliel once ordered his servant, Tobi, to bring him something good from the village market. Tobi brought him a tongue. A few days later, the good Rabbi asked Tobi to bring him something bad from the market, and he also returned with a tongue. So the Rabbi asked Tobi, “Why did you bring me the same thing—a tongue—on both occasions that I asked you? Tobi replied, “The tongue is the source of both good and evil. If it is good, there is nothing better…and if it is bad, there is nothing worse.”
Isn’t that the truth? Our words can be like fresh water, but they can also be like brackish water—carrying no life, no blessing, and no love. Jesus has said that it is “out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45). Our heart is like a purse filled with coins…you can only spend the coins that are actually there. There is no line of credit on good words. You can’t spend what you don’t really have. James puts this a bit differently and a bit more directly; he says, “from the same mouth comes blessing and cursing.” He is writing to the church when he says this. Our words are not simply an individual matter, with individual consequences; they have a communal effect. Over time, they can—like my beloved waterfall—soften the edges of the hardest rocks and reflect the beauty within and around us. Or they can bring forth nothing but a muddy, heavy spirit.
This ought not be so—says the writer of James—but it is. Our tongues can poison entire communities if we do not restrain them with reflection. Name-calling, gossip, biting words, slander, vitriolic speech, and words that tear down, rather than build up, can rip holes over time in the community fabric. These words are like undrinkable, salty, sediment–filled water. Our speech reflects what is inside of us.
Now, those of you familiar with dredging know that sometimes local counties must remove sediment that naturally builds up in stormwater ponds over time. Removing sediment is costly but necessary so that the ponds function as they should and so that water quality doesn’t deteriorate causing larger problems down the road.
Imagine for a moment if all the sediment and non-life-giving material were removed from our souls. Imagine if it were removed from our politics. Imagine if it were removed from the church. Imagine if we were to do a bit of our own soul dredging here—in our minds and hearts. How deep would we have to go to find the fresh, clear stream of good words that are spoken out of a true desire to bless, rather than curse. What would it look like if we bridled our tongues, as James insists that we must do, and try to speak a good word whenever and however we can?
I know, I know. At times, it’s really hard to refrain from saying what we really think. Loudly or sometimes quietly and covertly. When we are among enemies, our bitterness and anger can get the best of us. When we are among friends, it can be tempting to share stories and gossip to pass the time, to bond, and to share a laugh. Except that we can to this at another’s expense and at small cost to the community. Such small costs accumulate. In James’ words, the tongue “stains the whole body” and he is not just speaking about our individual bodies, but also about the way the tongue can stain the entire body of Christ.
So how do you “bridle” the tongue? Perhaps it will be enough if we can simply learn to stop for a moment and reflect on our motivation before we say the thing that we are dying to say. What is our motivation for making that little dig, or finding fault, or highlighting someone’s weakness? Perhaps it would be enough to ask if our words are more like fresh water or muddy water.
Some say that our words must pass through three golden gates before we ever utter them. There is a key question that unlocks each of the gates. At the first gate, we ask: “Is this word true?” At the second gate, “Is this word necessary?” And at the third gate, we ask: “Is this word kind?” It is possible for our speech to pass through two of gates, only to be stopped at the very last. A kind word is like fresh water pouring down a mountain. A kind word, a forgiving word, is a word of mercy that our world thirsts after. We will travel great distances at inconvenient times to receive such a word. We will carry great burdens on behalf of those who give such a word. We will go the extra mile and break down formidable walls to converse with those who practice such words.
Words, well spoken, may even re-create us, removing the sediment of cruelty and pain, and filling the fissures of our hearts. Mary Ann Bird knew this. She wrote a story called The Whisper Test, which was based on a true story from her childhood. She writes:
“I grew up knowing I was different, and I hated it. I was born with a cleft palate, and when I started school, my classmates made it clear to me how I must look to others: a little girl with a misshapen lip, crooked nose, lopsided teeth and garbled speech.
“When schoolmates would ask, ‘What happened to your lip?’ I’d tell them I’d fallen and cut it on a piece of glass. Somehow it seemed more acceptable to have suffered an accident than to have been born different. I was convinced that no one outside my family could love me.
“There was, however, a teacher in the second grade that we all adored — Mrs. Leonard by name. She was short, round, happy — a sparkling lady. Annually, we would have a hearing test. I was virtually deaf in one of my ears; but when I had taken the test in past years, I discovered that if I did not press my hand as tightly upon my ears as I was instructed to do, I could pass the test. Mrs. Leonard gave the test to everyone in the class, and finally it was my turn. I knew from past years that as we stood against the door and covered one ear, the teacher sitting at her desk would whisper something and we would have to repeat it back … things like, ‘The sky is blue’ or ‘Do you have new shoes?’ I waited there for those words which God must have put into her mouth, those seven words which changed my life.
“Mrs. Leonard said, in her whisper, ‘I wish you were my little girl.’ “
Friends, may you never thirst for a good word. May your purse never lack the coin of mercy. And may your words be a waterfall of kindness, even when it is very difficult for you. For “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. .All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:1-4)
 As told by Spencer Morgan Rice, The Drama of God, Trinity Church, Boston. Also related by Thomas Long in The Witness of Preaching, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005) 212.