“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God … I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” — Selections from Isaiah 43
“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.'” — John 7.37
Peace be with you!
In the Bible, water is often used as an analogy for life. When God is rebuking the Israelites, God tells them, “I will make the rivers like a desert.” In the gospel of John, new life is described as flowing rivers of living water.
The allusion to life is often accompanied by running or flowing waters; rarely are the waters that bring life in the Bible stagnant. It would change our understanding quite a bit if scripture read, “Out of the believer’s heart shall float stagnant like the waters of a great lake.”
Living water, the waters of life flow like a river. It flows in a direction. The living waters have a current, something we can either swim against or let take us.
Sometimes we use the power that is generated by flowing water to power cities and bring equipment to those downstream. The river can be used, but it cannot be controlled. The waters will go where they will go. There is a wildness about flowing waters that excites us and also frightens us.
On the Sinnissippi
I grew up in a river town. It was known as the Sinnissippi River to the Sauk and Fox Native Americans. Sinnissippi means rocky waters and it is now called the Rock River. The River starts in North-East Wisconsin and empties into the Mississippi which eventually empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
In the wintertime, just north of where I am from, the dams and small tributaries get ice-jammed. When the ice melts the river often would flood and bring Silverado-sized ice chunks floating by. My high school sat right on the banks of the Rock River. When the river would flood and then recede the track team used to have to shovel the dead fish off of the track and athletic fields.
It’s a large river. When it rains the river flows rapidly. If I am being honest, I have always been kind of terrified by it. I remember my parents and grandparents warning me constantly not to get too close to the river. My Grandpa Tim, from Paducah, Ky., had his own way of terrifying us of the rivers might. He used to say, “If you fall in, I will jump in to try and save you, and that will be it for both of us.”
Meeting Nate and Jayber Crow
When Nate came to First Pres in the fall of 2018 we got along right away. You know you are going to get along with somebody when you can argue and debate with them constantly and still like one another.
Although, I had never met somebody who likes Wendell Berry as much as he does. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Berry as much as the next guy unless the next guy is Nate. I trusted him and started to read more. He lent me some of Berry’s poetry and non-fiction. I engaged with it right away. We would often talk about how the most influential theologian in my life and Berry had some similarities.
Then, this winter, we read what is considered one of Berry’s best works of fiction, a novel, Jayber Crow.
Jayber, the main character, grew up in a river town. Port William is fictional, but it’s one of the most honest places I have ever read about.
The town sits on the western bank of Kentucky River. A lot of men in our congregation read the book and gathered to discuss the book at Double Oaks. One of my disappointments about that evening is that we didn’t talk about the role the river played, the rushing waters.
Even though Jayber is the main character, the river is the most important one. The river narrates the book in a kind of way.
The flow of life
As a young adult Jayber decides to move back to Port William after a long time away. In a tumultuous and uncertain time in his life, the river floods extensively. Jayber wanders to try to find his way back to Port William. The river is his guide, but the flooding makes it difficult. The flood closes roads and bridges and becomes an obstacle in Jayber’s return.
As his path, his plans, and his future start to come into focus the waters start to recede. Most of the major scenes in the novel take place adjacent to the river.
In the last several decades of his life, Jayber lives down by the river. The waters come up and come down, but things stay pretty steady. He uses the river as a path to discover a great tragedy and a tender love.
Things float down the river and away from Port William as events flow in and out of Jayber’s life. If you haven’t read it, just trust me. The flowing waters are representative of time and life. The river is something that is always there, it is always flowing. It brings debris and fish, trash and treasure.
The river is always there, but it cannot be controlled. Jayber lives on the bank of a river, as he lives on the banks of life.
On the Rock River
When I was 19, I moved in with my best friend Kasey. Kasey lived right on the Rock River. He had a little dock and a shack that we referred to as the boathouse. The boathouse was definitely its name and not a description. Nobody who lives in Dixon has a boathouse.
Still, to this day, when I get back into town, I send a text to all of our close friends like a kind of smoke signal, it just reads, “Boathouse?”
I have spent countless hours in that tiny little shed. The boathouse was the staging area for the dumbest thing I have ever done, it’s not even close.
The dumbest thing
One of the reasons I moved in with Kasey is so we could train together during the summer. We wanted to keep each other accountable.
I don’t remember who had the idea, but we both agreed that every day after we finished our morning run, we would swim across the Rock River. So, we would come back to the boathouse throw our shirts on the dock and head for the other side.
It was incredibly dumb. Annie tried to talk me out of it many times, but I didn’t listen.
It rained for four straight days in June, the year we made our commitment. The state shut down the river, it was incredibly high, and the current was insanely fast.
Yet, being 19 and having made a commitment we set off for the bank on the other side of the river. We both made it, but we were completely roasted. We already ran that morning and the current was insane. We had to work so hard just to keep swimming in the right direction.
There was also another issue.
The thing about swimming across a river is that then you have to swim back. We rested on the bank on the opposite side for over an hour. We hotly debated whether we should just make the 10-mile hike across the Peoria Avenue Bridge. Our muscles were totally shot, and we were both really scared. Yet, we were 19 and had made a commitment. It was windy, really hot and muggy, and overcast.
I almost died.
Barely above water
Kasey started before me because I was completely lacking in confidence that I would be able to make it. The plan was to walk North along the bank before swimming and let the current guide us to the row of docks on the other side.
Keep in mind, I had made this swim over fifty times in my life. Most days, it wasn’t too difficult.
I made it about one-third of the way and was in big trouble. I flipped over onto my back to see if I could backstroke for a little while to recover. I heard Kasey scream my name and when I looked up, I was pointed in the other direction. The current was so strong that when I backstroked it just spun me in a circle.
I flipped back over, and the wind pushed a huge tide of water over my head. I made the decision right then, that I was going to swim as hard as I could and see what happened. I was afraid that if I turned back, I wouldn’t make it.
Save at the dock
I should have mentioned this before, but the boathouse dock was one of the first of about a dozen docks. If you missed the last dock, Willey’s dock, then the river opened up even wider and you were toast. As my Grandpa Tim would say, “that was it.”
I am not trying to be dramatic. I am 100% honest when I write that there were 4 or 5 times during my exhaustion swim that I thought about just making my peace. My arms were barely getting above the water.
I looked up with about 40 yards left to swim and I saw Kasey had made it across. As soon as he made it across, he started sprinting along the bank, he was headed for Abby Willey’s dock. It extended about 10 yards off the bank. It was my last shot.
I am so fortunate Kasey is an all-American 800-meter runner. He grabbed the metal pole on the dock with his hands and extended his entire body out for me to grab. On literally the last possible extension I could have made before the current swept me and “that was it,” I reached out and grabbed Kasey’s ankle.
I didn’t have the strength to even climb up his leg and grab the dock. He had to use the current to swing his body and mine to the south side of the dock so I could put the crook of my elbow around a metal pole. I shimmied my way along the dock until I could hoist myself onto the bank and roll off the sand and rocks onto the wood of the dock.
We both laid there until a member of the Willey family got home. It was probably close to an hour, but it felt like 10 minutes. They thought we were using their dock to try to optimize our sun-tanning. Yeah, something like that.
I never made that swim again.
The lesson of rushing waters
Okay, I am back. I just had to take a walk around the block after telling that story. It still stresses me out.
Not everything is a lesson, but that day was. The rushing waters of life cannot be controlled by anyone. The rushing waters of the Rock River can kill you, the rushing waters of Christ that we drink from will always bring new life.
Yet, beyond that humongous difference, these waters have similar characteristics. It isn’t up to us how fast they will flow. What Berry knows better than most is that rushing waters are always inherited, just like life. Whatever gets put in the water upstream from Port William will end up downstream.
All of us just get a snapshot. We all stand on the bank somewhere. We don’t get to control what comes downstream, yet we can choose what waters we jump into. Every single day the rushing waters bring something new, something mysterious, and totally out of our control. The same water we see rushing downstream today will be different tomorrow, always making something new.
The waters of baptism
The water that flows through us in our baptisms gives us the courage to sit on the bank when the currents of life seem like they are rushing past us. Sometimes these waters flow at the same pace. We shouldn’t always expect the living waters that sustain us to match the flow of the Euphrates, the Kentucky River, or the Rock.
Yet, we hear in Isaiah a word that encourages us when the waters don’t seem to match, “when you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.”
Right now, look in anticipation upstream:
“For I am the Lord your God … I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”