gentle mists across the skin;
Earth is breathing God’s own spirit,
life renewed from deep within.
Sing a song of living waters,
pulsing through the veins of earth.
These words, from a hymn by the eco-theologian Norm Habel remind us what we all know; that water, especially river water, is sacred; essential to life; the very stuff of which we are made. Our own bodies are largely made up of water as indeed are so many of the creatures on our planet earth. From this vital element and many others, God is continually creating, every day new species, new variants. As Norm Habel has written elsewhere,
“One of the ways that we know God keeps creating you and me and all forms of life is by using the water in rivers. The flowing water in the river we see is indeed the water of life we need to survive. But it is also the very stuff God uses to create in the cycle of creation. The same waters of the Flood and the Ice Age are the very waters God uses to give us life, to create. There is a finite amount of H2O on Earth, whether it is in the form of water, ice or moisture. And the fragments of H20, the little bits of water, are re-cycled endlessly. God keeps creating and sustaining life with the same water age after age and generation after generation. Water is the very essence of the cycle of creation."...
And that creation, dependent on water, is at once infinitely varied and infinitely connected. It is said that we never stand beside the same river twice, for at every instant the water is changing. Nevertheless the river remains in a real way the same. Constantly changing, constantly the same.
Imagine yourself for a moment as a mere drop of water, a speck in the vast ocean. One warm day you evaporate, rise up, condense as one of millions in a little cloud and fall back to earth, joining a mountain stream, that swells to a river and is carried once more to sea. Death, to resurrection, to life once more - a picture for the journey of the soul through the many transitions of a lifetime. The poet Denise Levertov puts it well in her poem River
Dreaming the sea that
lies beyond me
I have enough depth
to know I am shallow.
I have my bowls, my pools
of rock I flow
into and fill, but I must
brim my own banks, persist,
vanish at last in greater flood
yet still within it
follow my task,
the calling sea.
(Denise Levertov, From Evening Train, New Directions, New York: 1992)
Everywhere we look in our sacred traditions we find rivers. The great rivers of the Bible, the Nile, the Euphrates, the Jordan; the rivers of baptism, the rivers of death and rising again; the rivers of living water that flow from the throne of God in Ezekiel; the rivers that quench our thirst and the rivers that wash away all that separates us from the divine, rivers of blessing and rivers of tears. All of these find their place in our spiritual tradition.The rivers without, and the rivers within; everything that flows and cleanses and gives life and at the same and other times everything that in its flood or its dessication can carry destruction, disease and death. For the river, like its companion element fire, is an ambiguous symbol of both life and death.
More than a billion people across the globe don’t have access to safe water. Every day 3900 children die as a result of insufficient or unclean water supplies. Across our world tonight more hospital beds are occupied by those suffering from water born disease, carried in polluted and diseased rivers, than from any other single cause. The water that brings life, can also brings death. Beyond clean air, clean water is the second essential element for life. For the aboriginal people of Australia, rivers like the Brisbane river were natural meeting places, places to gather and be nourished. White settlers made the river unsafe through dredging, open sewers, introduction of non native animals and simply by hunting down those who came to the water to drink. Rivers connect and rivers can also divide.
As we spend time in silence tonight, you might like to ponder the place of rivers in your life. Think of the physical rivers you have known and treasured that have been a gift. Reflect on the spiritual rivers you have navigated on your inner journey. And consider the prophetic imperative to guard and preserve the rivers, both physical and spiritual, as vehicles of God’s grace in our world and lives.
I conclude with a prayer by Christine Vailters Paintner from her book, Water, Wind, Earth and Fire
Spirit of Living Water
You hold all of creation in your womb
And spring us forward onto the earth at birth.
Spirit of Tides,
Remind me of the rise and fall of your rhythms
So that I may discover them deep within my own being.
Spirit of Greenness,
Bring moistness and vigour to my life
So that I might savour the experience of your energy
Moving through me out into the world.
Blessings of water be upon me.
May I be carried by the flow of the great river of life.
May I discover a hidden spring within, gushing forth.
May I be carried to the shores of the sacred and renewed.
by Penny Jones, for Sanctus, Chapel of the Holy Spirit, Saturday 30 September 2017.