The River of Life

The Rev. Dr. Rachel Mash
The Anglican Church of Southern Africa

“A river watering the garden flowed from Eden” (Genesis 2:10)

Opening Prayer

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.

From Christine Valters Paintner, Water, Wind, Earth, and Fire, the Christian Practice of Praying with the Elements, Sorin Books, 2010

In the beginning, God placed human beings in the Garden of Eden to be earth keepers of this beautiful blue planet. The biblical story of Eden first appears with a rural image of water – “a river watering the garden flowed from Eden” (Genesis 2:10).

Rivers are signs of hope, symbols of life. The Land of Israel was a dry land, with no great rivers like Egypt or Mesopotamia. Because their only major river was the Jordan, the people of Israel were dependent on rain for their water. As people who had lived through drought and famine, they knew the pain and anguish of those days of calamity when the streams would run dry.

How much, then, does this biblical yearning for water and springs in the desert resonate in the heart of Africa? Africa’s agriculture is characterized by a high percentage of smallholder farmers (80 percent) who cultivate lowyield staple food crops on small plots. These farms depend on rain. Lack of rain brings drought and poverty.

Parishioners in the northern part of the Diocese of Namibia expressed their anguish last year after a devastating drought. The government had told them that their only option was to bring their cattle in for slaughter before they died of starvation. The cattle are their future – their family’s education, the money for the daughter’s wedding. All this was lost as the slaughtered cattle flooded the market and the price of meat crashed.  When the rains fail, the rivers dry up and families are thrown into short-term disaster, and long-term poverty.

In this biblical picture of water, we see a river flowing from Eden. The river brings life: it does not flow as a raging torrent, destroying topsoil and carrying away homes in floods. Rather, it provides water, food, trade, and a place for recreation and joy.

Today, rivers have become polluted, if not dried up, because of climate change, the construction of mega-dams, alien plant growth and deforestation. The fish are dying and the birds have fled. Every day 1,400 children die from diarrhea caused by dirty water. This is just a portion of the 4 million deaths from water-related diseases and poor sanitation each year. Worldwide, more than 700 million people lack access to safe water and more than two billion do not have adequate sanitation.

In the face of this bleak picture, the Bible ends with an urban vision of a new river of life, of Eden restored:

“Then the angel showed me the river of life-giving water, shining like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb through the middle of the city’s main street. On each side of the river is the tree of life, which produces twelve crops of fruit, bearing its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” Revelation 22:1-2

On my way to work on a busy freeway in urban Cape Town, I cross a polluted river filled with junk and toxic waste. A few months ago, the traffic slowed to a crawl on the same road. At first, I thought it was an accident, but I then realized that the cars had stopped because a flock of over fifty flamingos was taking off from the river. Flashing pink and black, their wings beat as they took off into the sun. Efforts to clean the river though local clean-ups and banning factories from dumping chemicals had restored the water quality – and the flamingoes had returned.

May the flamingo be a symbol of creation restored – a sign of the river of the Water of Life flowing out to bring life and hope. And may the cattle grow fat on a thousand hills.

Questions for Reflection

Baptism brings the element of water into our sacramental life in a tangible and visible way. The water of

baptism represents the seas, rivers, lakes, marshes, snow, clouds, mist, and streams of the whole earth. We know the river where Jesus was baptized – the Jordan river. But often we don’t know from which river our baptismal water flowed on its way to the font!

How would our attitude and relationship to that river, and its preservation, be changed, if we could discover our baptismal river and remind ourselves of its sacredness?

Closing Prayer

Teach us to live in you as fish live in water.
Teach us to be borne of the Spirit as the birds are borne of the wind.
From Ray Simpson, “Baptismal Liturgy,” The Celtic Prayer Book (Vol. 3),
Healing the Land: natural seasons, sacraments, and special services.” Kevin Mayhew Publishers, 2016
Recommended References


1 thought on “The River of Life”

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