What is the name of your river? This is among the first questions Maori in Aotearoa New Zealand will ask anyone they meet. For mihi – greeting and introduction – is very important in Maori culture and establishing relationship requires that people know where each otber comes from and what has shaped them. So what is the name of your river? Maybe, like me, several rivers have shaped you. However most, if not all of us, I suspect, have been shaped by one or more particular river. For, even in our modern world, rivers are fundamental to human existence and community...
Can we know another’s river, and become a part of it? Of course. One way is to walk a river, intentionally and reflectively. It was my joy, for example, when I worked as the Diocese of Durham’s Rural & Environment Officer, to organise two wonderful pilgrimages along the river Wear. If I had stayed longer, I would have repeated them too, along the Tees and the Tyne. For our pilgrimages were not just opportunities to celebrate our religious communities, they were what we called pilgrimages ‘plus’. Through visits to everyday contexts and special events, they enabled us to link up, in new ways, with the wider communities through which we passed: connecting, celebrating and renewing the challenges of faith and life, with farms, businesses, and a whole host of voluntary and community groups. Led jointly by the Bishop of Durham and his Methodist counterpart, we traveled from the source, up in the wild and wonderful heights of Weardale: high above the tree line, where the air is clear and sharp even in winter, and where clarity and solace can be found. We passed through the high ground, hewn by generations of farmers and miners, growing in awareness of the land’s gifts and challenges, and of the rich layers of lead, silver, fluorospar, and ‘black gold’ – coal – beneath our feet. We passed through the historic little town of Stanhope, ‘the Queen of the Dale’ where Penny and I lived; down through the mining villages of the valley; we came to Durham, the majestic pilgrimage site of centuries; then up to Chester-le-Street, the home (in my view) of the best cricket club in the world and the site of the first Gospel translation into English; and we were led out to the Wear’s mouth, to the modern day city of Sunderland, to its newly constituted Minster, and to the first monastery of my hero, the Venerable Bede (monk, biblical scholar and first historian of the English speaking people). For to walk such a journey is to reconnect with all that has been, to connect with all that is now, and to find new pathways for the future.
Can we walk our rivers together, metaphorically if not literally? What have our Australian, our Queensland, our Toowoomba, waterways to say to us? How have we lived and how will we live on them together? This is a vital part of the ecological aspect of our Christian mission today I think. It makes a difference. Indeed, you know, it was only when Penny and I took time to walk the two creeks of Toowoomba, that we really began to have a proper sense of where we live and what we shape and are shaped by. For to walk our creeks together is better to understand the connections of our city: to understand not just its water flows, but many of its other life flows; to understand that we live in a holy place, shaped by our creeks, which form a kind of chalice pathway within our city, within which St Luke’s sits, near to the chalice’s heart, as a potential reservoir of love.
How do we let rivers speak to us? Our Bible is full of such resonances, not least in the readings we hear today and in Ezekiel’s marvelous image of the river of life which streams from the heart of God, through the temple and the people of God. Such water is not just for those already within, but for all people, as we see in today’s Gospel reading. God’s love is the ultimate ‘water of life’, which renews and refreshes us whoever and wherever we are.
Let me show two brief video clips to help us in this awareness. The first is from the film ’12 Years a Slave’, which tells the true story of a 19th century African-American (Solomon Northup) who was kidnapped from his free life in New York and sold into southern slavery. What is of particular interest for us is the way in which the power of the biblical river strengthens and transforms him and his fellow suffering people. For, of course, the heart of biblical faith is the story of freedom: the story of how God leads those who are in slavery into a new place; and of how God does this by taking us through a river. Now that river may be the Red Sea waters, or the Jordan, or even be the Tees, or the Wear, or the Brisbane, or the Maranoa, the Warrego, the Condamine, West or East Creek, or others. What matters is that, whatever our river, we know that God is present with us, even in the worst of our human suffering or shame, despair or death. Watch this clip and see. Watch particularly the main character, as he stands by the graveside, and how, gradually, the power of God’s river, the water of life, touches and empowers him in song…
My second illustrative video clip takes us further into the river of God’s life and love through the imagery of baptism. For sometimes we are loth to let the full implications of baptism flow through us. Baptism is a symbol of that same freedom the ancient Hebrews knew in being liberated from Egypt; the same freedom African-Americans and others have known in sharing the river songs; the same freedom offered to us now and always. But will we go down to God’s river and let its full force transform us? In a wonderful scene from the film ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’, we see this beautifully, and humourously, expressed. Three escaped convicts are on the run: on the run, not just literally from the law but also from the truth and purpose of their lives. In a sense, they thus represent each of us, in the way we lose track of our lives: in the way our lives can become a path to nowhere rather than a pilgrimage towards love, until, that is, we find ourselves at God’s river again…
John Coleman, a singer-songwriter and an Australian leader in the worldwide L'Arche Community, puts it beautifully in his song 'Let Us Drink From The River':
Let us drink from the river, thirsty daughters, tired sons.
Let us drink from the river, we are many we are one.
Loving God You recreate us
Loving God A living sign
Loving God Through life together
Loving God The bread and wine
Loving God Pilgrims together
Loving God The winding roar
Loving God Our constant comfort
Loving God The river flow
So will we go down to the river, and will we drink from the river, the river of the water of life?
…in Jesus’ name, Amen.