Rivers of Life Considered


Headwaters of the Sacramento River, Mount Shasta City Park


10 A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. 11 The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; 12 and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13 The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. 14 The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. (Genesis 2:10-14).

In a few weeks, I'll begin my sabbatical. The theme is "River Crossings." I've been introducing the idea to the congregation through sermons and other means. The theme emerges out of a realization that I'm drawing closer to retirement and that the next few years will be focused in preparing for what comes next, those moments of river crossings. Last Sunday I preached from Deuteronomy 34, a passage in which we find Moses looking out across the Promised Land from atop a mountain, knowing he won't cross over to the other side. My next sermon, and the final one before I head out on sabbatical, is taken from Joshua 4, one of the passages in which Israel crosses over to the Promised Land, having completed their journey from the bondage in Egypt and into the freedom of this new land.

I've been reflecting on passages that deal with rivers and lakes and other bodies of water the crossing of which signal change, transition, and transformation. A well-worn quote from the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus suggests that no one ever steps into the same river twice. What we often cite is likely a combination of passages from the philosopher, it does speak to the constancy of change.

I chose as an epigraph for this reflection a set of verses from Genesis 2. These verses are set in the midst of the creation story. God has planted the Garden but has not yet created humanity to live in the Garden. It's interesting that the wording here in the NRSV suggests that a river flows out of Eden to water the garden, suggesting either that the garden is separate from Eden or more likely the rest of the world outside the Garden (the one we meet in chapters 3-4 of Genesis), is watered from the river flowing through and out of Eden. There are rivers mentioned that remain unknown and those that are known (Tigris and Euphrates). The known rivers are those which water Mesopotamia, out of which the people of God emerge.

As part of my preparation for the sabbatical, I've been looking for things to read. I started looking for books on rivers in the Bible and theological reflections on rivers. I didn't find too many, but I did run into other books that reflect on rivers. One that I downloaded on my Kindle is titled Gather at the River: Twenty-Five Authors on Fishing. I confess that I'm not one who has had success with fishing, but I was intrigued by the description of the book. It's less about fishing and more about encountering rivers. With that on my Kindle I then discovered a book titled The Meaning of Rivers: Flow and Reflection in American LiteratureI've started reading the book, which looks at rivers through six lenses -- Overlooking the river, by the river, up the river, down the river, crossing the river, and up and down the river. The author, T. S. McMillan reminds us that water is central to our existence (as the writer of Genesis seems to suggest as well). The book is designed to help us reflect on the question: "What do rivers mean?" The author seeks to answer the question in conversation with literature that emerges from the United States, which has, he reports "about three and a half million miles of rivers and streams, tens of thousands of waterways varying wildly in size and marked by vastly different regions. By its nature, each one of these streams consists of a complex interaction of matter and energy, creating a unique form running through a distinct setting bearing a diverse content and put to myriad uses. (pp. xi-xii). 

When we think of the meaning of rivers, we can approach that question in a variety of ways. For me, as I near the beginning of a sabbatical, this question resonates personally and spiritually. At the head of this post is a picture of a stream that emerges out of the rocks in a city park in Mount Shasta. It's the headwaters of the Sacramento River, a mighty river that waters an important valley and finally flows into San Francisco Bay and from there out in the wide Pacific. It's a stream I know well from childhood, and a stream to which I have been drawn time after time when passing through a community I lived in as a child. At the bottom of the post is a picture of the Klamath River, another river from my childhood, as it flows through a mountain pass toward the sea. So, what might a river say to you about life, about spirituality, the journey of faith, the future?  That is a question to be pondered prayerfully!

Klamath River flowing through Siskiyou Mountains from Klamath Lake to the Sea


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