Mountains have a reputation of being holy places, singularly unique locations where people have encounters with the divine. It happened with Moses, Elijah, Jesus… There are numerous stories throughout the Bible that talk about these encounters with the Holy in high places… powerful, transformative encounters… and yet there is another natural location that is also known to be a place where one can find a connection to the Holy. There may be as many stories of people encountering or experiencing God’s presence by the river’s edge.
Think about it. John baptised Jesus in the Jordan, Jacob wrestled with God at the river’s edge before being reunited with his brother, Elijah crossed the river with Elisha on a journey that saw the passing of the mantle from mentor to student. In this morning’s story from Acts, Paul travels to Macedonia where he meets Lydia at the riverbank, John’s powerful vision of the river of life-giving water runs through the New Jerusalem, and the miracle at the edge of the moving waters of Siloam.
What is it about being at the riverside, next to moving waters, that makes it so powerful?
Some of my fondest memories from my childhood have come at the river’s edge. I have fleeting memories from when I was Ian’s age, of the River Weir in Durham England, that winds its way past the small castle and magnificent cathedral in the centre of the university town where my Dad did his Master’s degree. Much of my summers were spent on the banks of the Mira River where my grandmother had her cottage, although admittedly the Mira feels more like a lake than a river. The house that I grew up in Silver Springs was just a short walk away from the banks of the Bow. It was a short walk from home, but it feels like a different world.
What about your own experience at being at the river’s edge? How many of your own stories involve a river? Is it fishing? Is it seeing the spectacular flow and thunder of a waterfall? Is it the pine-scent near a mountain river, or the buzzing of insects around a prairie creek. What stands out for you? Why does it stand out?
Unlike a mountaintop, being by the river’s edge is something that almost everyone has experienced. Climbing mountains is often for the select few, while going down by the river is something that most of us have done. Unlike a mountaintop, the river’s edge is anything but quiet. From the white noise of the babbling water, to birds chirping, or the sounds of insects, the riverside is teaming with life. Even the calm pools of water in a river are constantly in motion.
In the same way that mountaintops are thin places, where we feel a connection to God because of its otherworldliness, rivers are places where we feel a connection to God precisely because they are teeming with life and movement. It is a different kind of Spiritual experience, but it is still a powerful one nonetheless.
Remember that Jesus begins his ministry, not on the top of a mountain, but at the river’s edge. African American spirituals saw the river as the crossing point to freedom. Biblical stories that involve encounters at the River’s Edge are universally transformative. We need to pay attention to this, the metaphor of the river, and that transformative and even healing encounter.
Maybe it is because water is always in motion, always flowing from one point to another. In that sense, while it may be familiar, there is always something new. Also, unlike the sheer silence of the mountaintop, the white noise that one finds at the riverbank is one that masks out all other noises, allows one to focus on the moment. One can be in the midst of a city, and still have a quiet moment by the riverbank. This is precisely why Paul chose this spot, and it is where he has this transformative encounter with Lydia in Macedonia.
As that story goes, Paul feels called to go to Macedonia, but not knowing quite why, or what he is going there for. The story in Acts tells us Paul went down to the river’s edge because it seemed to be a good place to pray. After all, they had come here with just an inkling of a reason, and perhaps needed to focus. The swirling and bubbling waters of the creek could be a good place for them to reflect on that. At the edge of these waters, they encounter Lydia —a Macedonian woman who had also come down to the river’s edge to pray. As the rest of the story goes, she was very receptive to what Paul had to say, the Spirit had led her to this point where they gathered at the river… and from this Lydia would become a key part of the early Christian movement in northern Greece.
Rivers are always in motion, water snaking through the land, giving life to everything it touches. It’s a powerful metaphor to think about how God is also always in motion, giving new life to everything God touches… but not only that, rivers are not static. The moving waters are always flowing and changing, slowly shaping the very land around them into new vistas of life. Nothing ever stays exactly the same at the river’s edge. Banks and islands are slowly but inevitably eroded away, but what we may not see where the new banks, new islands, new growth is all happening. Rivers are powerful symbols not only of life, but of transformation and journeys.
Maybe we need to reclaim this image. Last week I affirmed my sincere belief that God has not abandoned us, that God is also calling us to something new. Like the transformative life-giving stream, ours isn’t just a journey to the river’s edge, but maybe God is calling us to wade into the water, and to see where the river will take us, —to experience that new life that is so much a part of our faith story. As a congregation, one of the most powerful symbols that we have embraced is the story of Noah’s Ark, which is not about seeking refuge from the water, but to set out upon it, to see where God will lead us.