Rev. Mona Denton, Westworth United Church, September 28, 2014
Genesis 8:20-22,9:12-17, Revelation 22:1-5
During the month of September we have explored the liturgical Season of Creation – the wonder of the forest; the woundedness of the land and the wandering in the wilderness have opened us to the many ways in which we experience the life of the spirit in and through creation. Today we turn to the wellness of Creation and to rivers.
It’s appropriate to pause and reflect on what rivers might have to teach us about the life of the spirit. In addition to being nicknamed The Peg and The Windy City, Winnipeg is also known as The City of Rivers. Our church is in River Heights, we must navigate bridges over the Assiniboine and Red rivers, and many of our significant cultural celebrations happen at The Forks – the place where the Red and Assiniboine rivers meet.
I live just a kilometer from the Red River. By that river I have observed pelicans, seen the majesty of flocks of Canada geese taking off for their journey south, I have watched anxiously with my neighbours as the waters rose and flooded the River Road and homes, and I have found inner peace, by simply watching the river flow by.
Our city’s rivers are places where people may find pleasure and peace, but they also bring hazard and sorrow. Recently, the river has been a reminder of the inequity found in our city and the expendability of human life that comes when we do not hold common principles of justice and place a common, sacred value on the value of all of creation as a precious trust.
This morning, our lectionary readings take us on a journey from a covenant to a vision of paradise. But there are important stops on the journey between the rainbow and the river of the water of life; between Noah and John’s vision. There are many Biblical passages about rivers, but this morning I want us to reflect on the transformation that rivers can bring to the life of God’s people.
As young children, many of us will have learned to sing the African American spiritual, Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore. In that spiritual we sing about a river of deliverance, a river that will lead us to the Promised Land. In this spiritual, the image of deliverance into the Promised Land that the people of Israel experienced with Joshua, after crossing the River Jordan is blended with the deliverance gained by a faith in Jesus, who was baptized in the River Jordan. The river is deep and the river is wide, hallelujah; Milk and honey on the other side, hallelujah.
Deliverance through faithful action – can your spirit connect with this “river image” in scripture? Have there been times when you have experienced the power of a river of deliverance and could you sense that God was present in that deliverance? Did your faith in God sustain you and your trust in God assure that you would make it to the other side? Through all their journeys in the wilderness, the people of Israel were headed towards that river of deliverance into a new life or new beginnings.
In so many ways, our lives are journeys through desert places followed by arrivals filled with blessing. God calls us to trust in the holy “rivers of deliverance” that faith will provide. Crossing over the river is a rite of passage for those of us who place our trust in God and our life in God’s hands.
But rivers can be filled with rapids and places that call us to risk for God.
Embracing the Biblical image of the river sometimes calls us to do more than row a boat ashore. Sometimes we need to go white-water rafting to embrace the river that God asks us to navigate. The book of Amos is a reminder that proving ourselves faithful will require risk-taking behaviour. Now this is not something all of us find comfortable; not all of us choose to go white-water rafting on a vacation; we aren’t all thrill-seekers.
It seems that God has become tired of the rituals and the trappings of the people’s worship; God wants action. These words come to Amos from God: Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. The life of faith isn’t only about safe passage; it is a call to take an adventurous ride on the river of justice-seeking love and action.
It’s easy for us to get caught up in the rituals of our faith and be comforted by the deliverance God has to offer. But God asks for more from us – we are to be active in the world. We are to be the rolling river of the justice of God made visible; we are to be like a never-ending stream in our determination to pursue righteous living. It is no coincidence that our Mission Statement is an active one. Being the hands and feet of Christ will take us into places of risk if we embrace it and let it lead us, not only into ministries of deliverance, but into ministries of justice-seeking faith.
In the New Testament, the river also becomes a symbol of blessing and acceptance. Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan speaks of a new kind of deliverance based on believing and belonging. This river is a symbol of the covenant community. It is a reminder of the continuity of the faithfulness of God. It is a reminder of the deep and wide love of God. This river asks us to jump in, to invite others into this river of belonging, to embrace this river of community and covenant renewed. This river is about the leap of faith that unites us.
Jesus also offers his followers a new kind of river, a river that wells up from within: ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” This river comes from within us through the power of the Holy Spirit. If we drink in the water of life that Jesus has to offer, rivers of living water will flow out from us. This river is dependent on our willingness to drink from the living water that God has offered to us in Jesus Christ. If we drink it, the river of life will not be held back; it can’t help but burst forth.
This river is about the inner life of faith, a life that gives us a passion for the things that speak of God to the world. We will know when that river is welling up in us because there is no stopping it. Our faith expressed through this river of life will cause us to leap into action when we witness injustice; it will embolden us to speak out on behalf of the vulnerable; it will bring us to tears when we sing a hymn that speaks to the deepest need of our soul. This river asks us to make space within for God and not to be afraid of its passion.
The state of our rivers directly reflects the health of a community. What happens in the river happens to us. To truly be people of the covenant, we must embrace all of the rivers God lays before us: rivers of deliverance, rivers of risk-taking, rivers of community and rivers of inner spiritual health. The image of an ultimate river of perfection and of the covenant fulfilled that we see in John’s vision is our beacon and our goal.
As individuals and as a church community, we are asked to be attuned to the rivers running in us and near us. We are to listen for the sound of the water of life that is beckoning us to action. What amazing things might each one of us be able to do to bring about the river of the water of life, God’s New Jerusalem? Amen.