The River


This sermon was given at Foothills Congregational Church (UCC) on September 28, 2014.

It’s the final week of the creation series at our church. We started the month with a sermon from Rev. Matt about the forest. The next Sunday Rev. Evelyn talked with us about the land, and last week John and Wil Aney talked about the wilderness. This week our topic is rivers.

Rivers are wondrous. They’re powerful and deep. They may appear still and silent on the surface, but underneath they have enormous strength. Rivers are also a source of life – they feed and nourish the land. Here in California during our drought, we know how important it is for us to have water in our rivers.

Rivers appear throughout the holy stories that make up our tradition. We start out with Abraham, who comes from Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia means “between two rivers,” referring to its location between the Tigris and Euphrates. Later, we have the story of Moses and the Nile in Egypt, then the story of Jesus and John the Baptist in the Jordan. Finally, at the very end of the Christian scriptures, John the Evangelist tells us about a new river, a river that doesn’t exist yet.

With all these rivers to choose from, when Rev. Matt first asked me to talk about rivers this Sunday, the image that came to me was not a river of water, but a river made up of the stories that we tell.

As Christians, we are people whose lives are shaped by stories. Stories about Abraham, stories about Moses, stories about Jesus and Jesus’ followers. Last week, John and Will Aney gave a great dialog sermon reflecting on the stories of Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness. I don’t think I’ll be able to hear those stories again without thinking of John and Will. They told us stories of the people of God, and in doing so, those stories also became a part of their stories.

When we think of these ancient stories, we think of the modern people whom we know and love and care about, and the way that ancient stories are interwoven into our own lives. They are living stories, and that is how it should be.

If we think of our tradition as a river of stories, scripture tells us what kind of stories they should be. There is a term that sometimes occurs in the scripture, “living water.” Living water, in the ancient languages, had a very specific meaning. In modern English, we might call it “running water.” It means water that isn’t still – water that’s moving, that’s sparkling, water that’s going someplace.

This is water that isn’t at rest, that hasn’t become stagnant. And that’s the kind of water you want, because what do you get when water stops moving? Mosquitos! And even if it wasn’t for the mosquitos, you still wouldn’t want to drink it. Stagnant water is not what you want.

Just like the living water, the stories that sustain our tradition need to be living stories. Every generation recreates these stories as we tell them to each other in moments when we want inspiration, or spiritual nourishment, or courage to face our fears, or comfort in hard times. When these stories are interwoven with our own lives, they become living stories.

But one of the problems with living stories, like living rivers, is that they’re not always predictable. They move around. They go places that we weren’t expecting them to go.

As I was thinking about rivers in preparation for my sermon this week, I thought about El Chamizal, an area near El Paso that is on the border between the United States and Mexico. Almost 200 years ago, a treaty was signed between the United States and Mexico. It said that the land on the northeast side of the Rio Grande belonged to the United States, and the land on the southwest side of the Rio Grande belonged to Mexico.

But the Rio Grande is a river, and rivers move. So the Rio Grande moved, and land which used to be on the Mexico side was suddenly on the United States side. Then the river moved again, and land which used to be on the United States side was suddenly on the Mexico side. This began a series of disputes that went on for almost a hundred years until the United States and Mexico finally came to a new agreement and the disputed land became a park.

Rivers aren’t content to stay put. They move, and if we think of our tradition as a life-giving river of stories, we need to be ready to move with it.

Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher, said, “Ever-newer waters flow on those who step into the same rivers.” In modern times, this has been translated as, “You can never step in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and you are not the same person.”

When we look at rivers, they’re moving. The water that was there a moment ago isn’t there now. If the water were still, it wouldn’t be a river, it would be a pond or a lake. The nature of our spiritual life is like that. It is filled with change, and that can be disconcerting.

We had a wonderful all-church summit on September 6, and people came and told their stories about what they value about this community. I love some of the things that people said, such as, “We’re spiritual, but not sanctimonious.” Towards the end of the meeting, one of our members said, “I like things the way they are. I think this is great church, and I’d like us to keep doing what we’re doing now.” When I heard this, I thought he had summed up exactly how I feel.

But later, as I thought about it more, I started to wonder if that was really what I wanted. I can remember the best sermon that I’ve ever heard. If I heard that the same preacher was going to give that same sermon next week in church, I would be elated. The best sermon I’ve ever heard, and I get to hear it again! Now let’s imagine that it wouldn’t just be next week, but the week after that as well. Now I’m not so sure – the best sermon I’ve ever heard, two weeks in a row, that might be a bit much… And if it were three weeks in a row?

We need some change in order to be healthy, but maybe not too much. So how do we determine what’s the right amount of change?

As I considered this question, I remembered a walk I took in Princeton, New Jersey on the tow path between the Millstone River and the Delaware-Raritan canal. It was a cool October day, and the leaves had started to change color and fall gently into the water. As I walked, I was struck by the difference between the river on my left and the canal on my right. The river sparkled and burbled and was continually moving. In contrast, the mirror-like surface of the canal was perfectly still. It was remarkable to have so much energy and motion on one side of me while the other side was so tranquil and calm.

Then I turned and started to walk back, and I saw the canal in a new way. I realized that it had never actually been still or motionless. It had been moving the whole time, but I couldn’t see its movement because I was keeping pace with it as I walked. The leaves that seemed stationary in the water had been moving right along with me, and it was only when I changed direction that I could see it.

We know we want some things about our church to change – we want new sermons, new ideas, new people. We love that our children are children, but we also want them to grow up and have their own independent lives. So how do we balance our desire for change with our fondness for all of the good things that we have found here?

Perhaps the answer is that we want change that we can keep up with, change that matches our pace. Like the canal, we want it to move with us at a comfortable speed.

Perhaps the way that we achieve this rate of change is to find people who need inspiration or nourishment or courage or comfort, and then tell them our stories of inspiration and nourishment and courage and comfort. When our stories merge with theirs, I think we will find change that energizes, motivates, and centers us.

Now it’s tempting to stop here. But putting our stories into action can be hard sometimes.

I was at an InterPlay retreat recently, and it was a wonderful and safe space where people felt able to tell their stories. There was a woman there who said, “I am a white woman. My husband is black. We were pulled over by the police when my husband was driving, and they asked him ‘Whose vehicle is this?’ I think if it had been me, they might have asked for my license and registration, but I don’t think they would have asked me whose vehicle it was. Have the police ever asked any of you a question like that?”

I thought this was a very powerful story. At the end of the day, I asked her if I could share her story with my friends on Facebook, because I thought the story needed to be retold. She said yes, and so I posted the story there just as I told it here, ending with her question, “Have the police ever asked any of you a question like that?”

I thought this was important to do, because I believe that telling our stories can change the world. What I wasn’t expecting was that I was going to learn something from this – actually a couple of things. First, I learned that I have a lot of friends who have been pulled over by the police. Some of them, like me, were completely surprised by the question that the police asked my friend. But others, people who are European Americans like me, reported that the police had asked them the exact same question.

Now, I wanted to change the world by telling this story. But this is part of the deal: when you try change the world by telling a story, it might actually be you who gets changed.

The next day, I went to talk to my friend. I was a little nervous about doing this. I wanted to respect and honor the fact that she had the courage tell her story, and I also wanted to give her the information that I had learned from my Facebook friends. She was grateful that I shared their stories with her. She said, “It can be very hard to talk about situations like this, and a lot of what I was hoping for when I told my story was to get more information. Now I have that information, and it helps me to understand what happened.”

What if things had been different? What if my friend’s story had been kept as a story that was not alive, that was locked up, that was not being told, that she was not willing to take a risk with or change the world with?

As it was, the story may not have transformed the world in the way that we were expecting, but it did change the way we understood things. Instead of being lifeless or stagnant, it gave us a deeper and wider understanding.

Telling stories is powerful, and I want to close with the stories from our scriptures. They’re two passages that deal with Johns and rivers, but they’re two very different Johns and two very different rivers.

The first story is about Jesus going to the River Jordan to be baptized by John the Baptist. John the Baptist’s reaction to this is probably about the same as mine would have been. Imagine that Jesus shows up in a ministry situation in our church, then says, “Okay, Mike, you’re in charge now.” That’s somewhat disconcerting to say the least. I’d much rather have Jesus take the lead.

But I think that there’s a bigger point here. It’s so tempting sometimes for us to say, “Rev. Matt is the one. Or Mike is preaching today, so he’s the one. It’s good that we have someone around who can do the spiritual work for the church.”

Jesus is showing us a different way of doing things. Instead of having a strict distinction between ministers and those who receive ministry, he shows us that those who are leaders in spiritual communities can also be ministered to, and that the people who are ministered to are also themselves ministers. It’s not just that a few of us are called to minister, or a few of us are called to tell our stories. All of us are called to minister, and all of us are called to tell our stories.

The story of Jesus and John the Baptist is particularly interesting when you consider it alongside of today’s story from the Book of Revelation.

John the Evangelist has a really tough job. He is being called to speak the truth about a government in an environment which is very dangerous to do so. If he speaks too much truth in too open a way, he could be killed and all of his work could be destroyed. So if he wants to get the word out, he has to do it in a sort of a sideways fashion. So maybe he’s not going to talk about the seven emperors of Rome, maybe he’s going to talk about a seven-headed dragon instead. By cloaking political realities in colorful imagery, he can speak the truth in a way that his audience would be able to understand. For the people of his time, John’s writings would not seem to describe events of a distant future. For John’s original readers, his stories were a description of their day-to-day lives as an oppressed people under an oppressive government.

At the end of his narrative, John ends with a beautiful vision. A vision of a new river, a vision of what could be in the future. A river of living water filled with nourishment and with healing for the people of all of the nations. After John has received this vision, he wants to kneel down before the angelic messenger who has shared this vision with him. This echoes John the Baptist’s reaction in the earlier story from the Gospel of Matthew. We might imagine him saying, “You’re the one, I’m nothing.” But as with the earlier story, the angelic messenger makes clear that he wants no part in this. We might imagine him saying, “No, don’t kneel before me. Get up! You’re just as much a part of this endeavor as I am. I have told you a story, but when you retell that story, you’re going to change the world.”

Let us end with a moment of prayer: Loving God, gracious Creator, help us to lift our voices. Help us to tell our stories – our stories of inspiration, of nourishment, of courage and of comfort. Help us to reach out, help us to listen, help us to change the world and be changed ourselves. As we do so, let us spread your love throughout the world. Amen.

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