I’ve Known Rivers

Sermon: I’ve Known Rivers

Texts: Ezekiel 47:6-12; Isaiah 41:17-18; Psalm 36:7-8; John 7:37-38

Date: September 24, 2017

©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church


         Lanston Hughes wrote these haunting lines of poetry:


I’ve known rivers:

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.[1]

          I’ve known rivers.  No doubt you’ve known rivers as well.  Put yourself next to a river you have known in your mind’s eye.  It might be a river you have just seen, if it left an impression on you; but better to recall a river you have not only seen but known.  Let’s spend a moment or two with those rivers in our imaginations. 

          I had a passing acquaintance with a river as ancient as the world, the mighty Yukon River in Alaska.  When I was a kid we lived in Kaltag, an Athabaskan village on the Yukon where the river was about a mile wide.  The river shaped culture and consciousness in that place, as you would imagine it would.  The indigenous people’s history was river based to a large degree; the ancestors of our neighbors moved from summer fish camps to winter camps along the river.  While we were there in the early 1970’s people traveled on the river and its many tributaries by boat in the summer and by dogsled and snowmobile in the winter, fishing and hunting by turn.  We spent two summers traveling down and upriver from Kaltag in a leaky plywood houseboat.  I can hardly imagine any force more powerful and fascinating than this great ancient river, particularly as I remember the ice breaking up in the spring.

          I’ve known the Clark Fork River that borders my family’s Montana farm as well.  It doesn’t have the grandeur of the Yukon, but it is blue green beautiful and spellbinding in the way of rivers.  One’s soul can grow deep like the rivers just contemplating water perpetually flowing by. 

          I’d like to bring other rivers into our gathering this morning. Let’s speak the names of the rivers we’ve known (on the count of three).  How blessed we are to have known rivers, which are carrying the life blood of our planet, ceaselessly in motion. 

          I really like those lines from Mary Oliver’s poem “The Leaf and the Cloud” that we read in our Call to Worship: “It is the nature of water to want to be somewhere else. Everywhere we look; the sweet gutteral swill of the water tumbling.”  It’s true that many people’s favorite Psalm (the 23rd) celebrates the Good Shepherd leading us beside still waters.  But water in motion is even more enticing, isn’t it?  Arriving from a source we usually can’t see, hurrying off to a destination over the horizon, full of life and music.  I got to looking through a book I have of descriptions of landscape features that’s arranged like an encyclopedia but written like literature.  Among the entries on the flow of water is a paragraph about “riffles,” described as the “little brother of a rapid.”  The writer gives a technical description and then writes, “Riffles produce some of the happiest voices of a river, murmuring and chattering, never roaring or growling with argument.”[2] We’ve known rivers; we’ve known the chorus of voices in a river that sing to us as water tumbles by in its hurry to be somewhere else.

          The music of running water is appealing, but there is more to the allure of the river than the pleasant sight and sound that draws us.  There is a hint of infinity in a river.  There is a promise of cleansing as we watch water carry things away.   There is mystery about what is living and moving in a river beneath the bright surface. There is a sense, always, of leaning forward into the future.   

          There weren’t a great wealth of rivers in the dry landscape out of which our Scriptures were written.  The more pedestrian passages naming rivers are those in which rivers function as borders between nations or tribal territories.  There are some stories centered on the most prominent and permanent of rivers in the Holy Land, the Jordan   River.  And then there are visions of rivers, such as the one we have in our text from Ezekiel.  The prophet Ezekiel has several visions that are written down in his book.  The final vision is about the temple that will be restored when God brings history as we know it to a close and opens a new era of peace, faithfulness, and well-being.  The verses we heard describe the river that will flow from the restored and renewed temple; Yahweh’s throne is this river’s spring.  It is shallow (ankle deep) near the source but quickly grows deep and wide as it flows out into the land.  It is full of life—lots of fish!  Those of us who live in salmon country rejoice when we hear such a promise!  It supports plenty of life along its banks.  Its water is miraculously going to heal the Dead Sea when it reaches that body of water that can support no life because of its high salt content.  The prophet’s vision is one of renewal and abundance flowing on the water of a river God aims to create in the new era.

          The prophet Isaiah also spoke of God opening rivers to satisfy the thirst of the poor and needy who so often seek water without finding enough.  This was also a “someday” promise of restoration for a suffering people.  My Bible’s footnotes call this section of Isaiah 41 a “rhapsody” on God as the Lord of nature.  The text goes on to name the many trees that will flourish in a formerly barren wilderness.  I like that word “rhapsody.”  It’s very musical.  We can imagine the symphony of sound in the abundant water the prophet mentions.  Besides rivers, there will be fountains, pools, springs of water to slake the thirst of the parched people.  The murmuring, chattering, gushing, roaring, splatting, plopping, dripping of abundant water would be music to the ears of the thirsty people and benevolent God alike. 

          Jesus steps into that tradition of promise when he, as John’s gospel tells it, boldly declares that those who are thirsty should come to him and drink.  He “quotes” scripture: “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”  One of my more thorough commentaries points out that there is no direct line from what Jesus says to an identifiable source in the Hebrew Scriptures.  It’s a bit like Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” who is apt to say “As the Good Book says” when he wants to share a tidbit of wisdom.  Often the Good Book does indeed say what he quotes; on occasion it’s a bit of wisdom that should have been in the Good Book (if you ask Tevye) but isn’t actually.  My commentary traces Jesus’s “as the Good Book says” back to a number of scriptural possibilities, ideas of what Jesus might have had in mind.  They range from the remarkable story of water gushing from a rock in the Exodus epic to Zechariah’s prophecy about living water flowing from Jerusalem to our Ezekiel text, a vision which is reworked beautifully in Revelation.  And there are the many Divine promises of water which will bless dry places and thirsty people.

          The original text is ambiguous both in its potential source and in the way it is stated so that one is left wondering whether Jesus is talking about himself alone being the source of the rivers of living water; or whether he is saying that once the believer drinks in the truth he offers, they also become a source of rivers of living water flowing out of their hearts.  Translations vary.  The “living water,” the gospel explains, is the Holy Spirit.  The NRSV, which goes with “believers” in their translation notes that the promise was fulfilled at Pentecost when the believers became channels of life to others, full up and running over with the Holy Spirit. 

          It’s an intriguing image, rivers of living water flowing out of the believers’ hearts.  Jesus spoke about a spring of living water inside the believer in John 4, which is a beautiful image.  But this is even better, because of the volume of it, and because, as Mary Oliver pointed out, “It is the nature of water to want to be somewhere else.”  The Holy Spirit blesses the believer, but urgently wants to be flowing out into the world to bring abundant life to the whole land.  The Holy Spirit is not content to be quietly pooled in the souls of true believers; it wants to surge outward.  Like a river, Spirit roars and crashes in some times and places; swells, rises, chatters, burbles, murmurs, splats, gushes, laps, gurgles, swills, babbles, drips as the occasion demands. 

          We who are thirsty and have drunk of the Christ life are now channels for that same Spirit that animated Christ’s life and work.  What kind of channel are we?  My poetic landscape book includes descriptions of an “entrenched stream,” a “perennial stream,” and an “ephemeral stream.”  An entrenched stream or river is one that started out on a flat plain but has cut a deep trench over time; you can see the channel of the stream clearly (think Grand Canyon).  A perennial stream flows year-round in a well-defined channel.  An ephemeral stream flows only during or for short periods following precipitation.  As believers, we hope to be more like the perennial stream than the ephemeral as the living water flows through our hearts.  We cultivate spiritual practices that encourage the flow of the Spirit rather than waiting dryly and passively to be filled up by some extraordinary storm of inspiration which quickly evaporates.  Further, we hope that the living water flowing through us will leave a mark on the landscape of our lives so that the pattern of the Spirit’s flow will become apparent over time.

            While this is metaphorical, there is, of course, a very literal need for clean, fresh water for everything living.  We can link the metaphorical with the practical very easily as our discipleship relates to caring for and sharing water on planet Earth.  The scriptures that speak so beautifully of God’s provision of abundant water that supports all kind of life flourishing are not merely poetry about days gone by or visions of heaven but are blueprints for Creation. 

          We don’t have any rivers on our island, but plenty of streams that feed into our wells and into Puget Sound.  I read an article recently with this rousing title: “A Watershed Runs Through You.”  The author reminds us that our watershed runs through our individual bodies every time we take a drink, and it runs through the well-being of the community, both human and more-than-human.  As God-lovers, Christ-followers and Spirit-channels, our mission as water protectors is abundantly clear. 

          The Isaiah verses speak of the thirst of the poor and needy to which God responds with rivers, fountains, and pools.  The parched tongue is answered with water.  That’s a clear directive if ever there was one.  Global society is making some progress on this.  Nicholas Kristof’s column on Thursday pointed out that on average, 285,000 people per day are getting new sources of clean water, thanks to efforts by the global community to answer this need.  Diarrhea killed 5 million children a year in 1990, but less than a million in 2014, according to the Christian Science Monitor.  This is certainly connected to provision of clean water for drinking and sanitation.  Our Bainbridge Rotary Club has partnered with others to assist 131 villages in Uganda with new wells—our dollars spent at the Rotary Auction being transformed into water for the thirsty.[3] Surely the Holy Spirit is being channeled through all kinds of folk who are working for justice around water.   

          The aspect of Ezekiel’s vision of the Dead Sea being brought to life with the water flowing from the temple is captivating.  To me it speaks of the potential to restore what can no longer support life.  One of my favorite encouraging stories regarding this is about the Hudson River, which Pete Seeger and others got involved in cleaning up.  Their partnership built a wooden sloop called the Clearwater and they started sailing it up and down the Hudson, inviting people to come visit where it was moored for concerts and picnics and outings on the boat.  The mission was to get people to come to the river and learn to love it again. Pete wrote, “The townspeople felt the damp breeze on their faces, heard the lapping of the waves, got a close look at the murky waters and a thoughtful look at the magnificent vistas of one of the world’s greatest rivers, now in the process of dying a shameful death.”[4] Their efforts got a great many people on board to stop the sources of pollution in the Hudson.  Seeger said that he realized this mission had far reaching consequences.  “Everything in the world is tied together.  You try to clean up a river, and soon you have to work on cleaning up the society…[Yet] perhaps the sewer running past your door is as good a place to start on the clean-up job as any.”

          We can gather up some hope and encouragement from such projects as we work to clean up, maintain and preserve the water in our own place.  God’s watershed runs through us in both the literal and poetic sense.  As people of faith, our sense of gratitude and accountability for the watershed running through us is linked to the river of living water the Spirit pours through our hearts.  Our habits, as they pertain to personal spirituality and community life, make channels for the Spirit to river through us, spilling a fierce love into our place and time.

          Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our compassion for others and our grateful stewardship of this corner of creation was so apparent that we would be known as perennial streams, entrenched streams of the living water of Spirit?  Wouldn’t it be sweet to have our souls grow deep like the rivers?  Wouldn’t it be grand if when people heard the Christ-poetry of a river of living water flowing through the believers’ hearts, they thought of us and mused, “I’ve known rivers?”   

[1] Hughes, Langston “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/negro-speaks-rivers

[2] Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape Barry Lopez, ed.  San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2006, p. 298

[4] Pete Seeger in His Own Words Rob Rosenthal and Sam Rosenthal, ed.  Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2012, p. 153-54

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