In worship, today, we started with a song about rivers. Jumping in rivers, etc. There were even a few motions to the song, which isn’t precisely my cup of tea for worship, but what the heck, right? I could use a lot less of my own ego during worship, and if doing little steps to the left and right in front of my peers will help break that down, I’m game.
But it got me to thinking about how the river became a staple in Christian imagery.
There are certainly some key “river episodes” in the Bible. The Jordan had to be crossed by Joshua. John the Baptist also baptized in the Jordan. Images of fountains and streams are found in both Old and New Testaments, some from the lips of Jesus himself. One of the more delightful images for me in the Scriptures is found in John 7:37-39:
On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “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.’” Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
John 7:37-39 (NRSV)
The very concept of “living water” is a Jewish one that describes, you guessed it, rivers. Water that moves naturally as opposed to being in a vessel.
And as Christian art and expression has gone on, the river has had its twists and turns. One of the more interesting stretches of this image was the use of the Jordan river in spirituals to describe death.
“I looked over Jordan, and what did I see, coming for to carry me home?” – Swing Low
“Jordan’s river is chilly and cold, hallelujah. Chills the body, but not the soul, hallelujah.” – Michael Row the Boat Ashore
“Get away, Jordan, I’m going to cross over and see my Lord.” – Get Away, Jordan
Lots more like that.
And of course, Alison Krauss’ great “O Brother Where Art Thou” rendition of “Down to the River to Pray.”
First Call’s “Parable of the River” was a favorite of mine, with its powerful chorus:
Flow to the river
Hear the waters cry
We must flow to the river
To keep this kingdom alive
And to this day, I’ll still surreptitiously raise my hands at my desk when White Heart’s “The River Will Flow” sneaks into the playlist.
So put your hand in mine
Oh, put your hand in mine
And let us all go down
And kneel by the river’s side
Well cry our tears of joy
Cry our tears of pain
We’ll let them fall down from our eyes
to be washed in the sacred stream
Even the secret tears
buried in our memories
Let them all be swept away to the depths of the endless sea
And the river will flow
I don’t know exactly what it is about the idea of a river that captures our Christian thoughts and aspirations so well.
Is it the inexorable movement? It is it the varying seasons – calm in placid in one area and rapids and white water in another? Is it the carrying away of dirt and eroding away of rough surfaces to leave things smooth and clean? Is it because, prior to indoor plumbing, rivers were where you washed, bathed, and drank? Is it because they are places I act like a jackass with my friends? Who knows?
But I love this image, and it moves me (no pun intended) whenever it comes up in a song about spiritual things.