In the 1995 wildly popular Disney animated movie, loosely based on the life of Pocahontas, there is a song about rivers. This was a favorite movie of my two older kids, Ethan and Grace and it was a favorite Disney movie of my father as well, who one afternoon took us all to see it. My father knew as much about the story of Pocahontas as anyone could have, I suspect. Always a student of history, he was intrigued by the story of Pocahontas and often wondered what we did not really know about her. He knew that Disney took great liberties with her history, but he, like my kids was captivated by how nature was a character in the story. They especially loved how the River was a character in the film, and how it came alive and shimmered when Pocahontas began to sing:
What I love most about rivers is
You can’t step in the same river twice
The water’s always changing, always flowing
But people, I guess, can’t live like that
We all must pay a price
To be safe, we lose our chance of ever knowing
What’s around the river bend
Waiting just around the river bend
I look once more just around the river bend
Beyond the shore where the gulls fly free
Don’t know what for what I dream the day might send
Just around the river bend for me, coming for me (Walt Disney Films, 1995)
River water, blue and clear, revealed all kinds of life—fish and plants, otters and birds, beaver and deer along the banks, wild, exciting rapids that gave way to deep, still pools that reflected life and nature and the world that a young girl dreamed about. And through the whole river adventure, Pocahontas’ constant companions Miko the Racoon and Flick the hummingbird never leave her side.
The River is home.
The River holds promise.
The River is life.
Rivers are the focus of the last week of the 2020 Season of Creation series where we have joined Christians all over the world in giving thanks for Creation and reflecting on what it means for us to receive the mandate from God to care for God’s Creation—to respect it, to learn from it, to appreciate it, and to preserve it. This year, I have suggested, to my congregation, that one of the most important things that we can do as a witness to the life of Jesus, who came to bring life in abundance and to restore life in the face of death, is to pay attention to these gifts of Creation all around us and to discover what they can tell us about who God is. So, we have paid attention to the forests, to the land—the soil, to the wilderness, and now to the river.
I haven’t always lived near a river, but since moving to WV, nearly 34 years ago, I have. The places where I have served have been near the West Fork River in three different locations, the Tygart River, and the Buckhannon River and last year, in July, I hit the jackpot of all Rivers, it seems—the Ohio River.
In this last year, I have learned that the Ohio River watershed includes about 205,000 miles across 15 states and runs about 981 miles from its beginning to it empties into the Mississippi River. The states within the watershed include Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee, New York, Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina. I have also learned that the river supplies drinking water to about 5 million people.
The name, which comes from the Seneca language means “Good River.” According to the “all-knowing” Wikipedia, as well as some other sources, Thomas Jefferson stated: “The Ohio is the most beautiful river on earth. Its current gentle, waters clear, and bosom smooth and unbroken by rocks and rapid…”
Wildlife can be found in the waters, on the banks, and in the air. For this theologian who loves exploring and learning about ecosystems, the Ohio River has offered me so much in this past year. I have loved learning new plants, new blooms, new creatures in the dirt and in the water, in the shallow pools of the wetlands. I have seen scads of pileated woodpeckers, a red shouldered hawk or two. I have heard Northern bobwhites and I am on constant lookout for the Cerulean warbler, because Cerulean is my favorite shade of blue and I want to see and photograph one!
Throughout this past year, when I have been able to, I have stood on the banks of the Ohio River at various places in Ohio and WV and have dreamed about those who have come before me, before us. I have thought about the Shawnee and the Osage tribes who called the land along the river home long before any of our ancestors came here. I have thought about the way the forests along the river might have looked or how the wetlands might have sounded, teeming with life.
I have wondered about the waters that rose out of the banks with the spring rains or how the ice formed across the river making a natural bridge between the land on either side. I have imagined the first settlers along the banks and what they had to do to survive and who might have helped them. I have thought about how the river has always been a highway, transporting people and goods to other places.
I have tried to imagine the excitement and the anxiety that would have been in the air on the nights when the underground railroad was active and enslaved people made their way across the river to freedom. Perhaps there was a make-shift raft that carried them across. Perhaps they made their way across on chunks of ice that floated in the water as spring was beginning. Perhaps they swam across on warm summer nights. No matter how they managed across, for many enslaved people, the waters of the Ohio River was an avenue to freedom.
I have watched with fascination as sternwheelers and barges still make use of this waterway.
The Ohio River, the Good River is full of life and supports many people every day of life, but it is also a river that has received trauma over the years and is still known as one of the most polluted rivers. As caretakers of Creation, I think God is calling us to pay attention and to notice this gift and what has happened to it over the years of not paying attention. I think God is calling us to do what we can to clean it, preserve it, and treasure it.
The scriptures are full of rivers and full of stories of how God provides through the rivers or meets us at the rivers. In the second chapter of Genesis, the beginning, the first book of the Bible, we find a river that God has placed to water the Garden of Eden. It divides into four parts and then named—the Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, Euphrates.
God encounters Jacob at the Jabbok River where Jacob wrestled with God.
God met the Israelites at the Jordan.
A River protected the infant Moses.
Namaan the Syrian was cured from his leprosy in the river.
The psalmist sang that “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.” (Psalm 46:4)
The prophet Ezekiel envisions a wondrous river flowing out of the new temple. It is ankle deep, knee deep, thigh deep and it brings life to all that it touches. It also waters the fruit trees on each side of the river.
In the New Testament the river of life flows from the heart of Jesus “in the Gospel of John, becoming for anyone who thirsts a spring of water gushing up into eternal life.
Baptisms centered around rivers. Not only do we read of Jesus’ baptism by John, but we also read of a river where Lydia and her community prayed and were baptized in Philippi.
And then, the whole of our Bible closes with another river. I love this vision of the city of God that John brought to us in the Revelation. It is the river flowing with the water of life. It flows from the throne of God—God who is the source of all life. This river is the watershed of God’s grace, the watershed of all our lives and all people are invited to God’s riverside to drink the deep spiritual water of life for which we thirst, as the psalmist said: “As the deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.”
The vision of this watershed of God’s grace, this River of life, reminds us that God desires healing and hope for all people, for the places where people live, for the rivers that provide life to this planet, the places that are in chaos or are experiencing division and pain. It reminds us that this River of life, flowing through the city of God, from the very throne of God, from the Lamb of God, brings beauty and hope.
We have this vision of a river that flows with the water of life. It is green space on either side of God’s river of life that fills out the final description of God’s city, green space watered and nourished by God’s river of life, where the tree of life produces fruit and the fruit of this ever-bearing tree of life satisfies those who are hungry, overcoming the prohibition found in Genesis not to eat of the tree of life. The river that waters the tree of life, nourishes the tree in such a way that even its leaves, offer blessing and healing. The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
At the time that John had his vision that we have come to call, the Roman Empire claimed to reign forever. This vision boldly proclaimed that it is God who reigns forever and that it will be God’s people who will also reign together, but the language in Revelation does not suggest that God’s people will reign over anyone else, but as sharing in God’s healing of the world.
I don’t know about you, but this vision of God’s river of life and God’s tree of life growing along the river’s banks, where the fruit satisfies those who are hungry and the leaves are for the healing of the nations, inspires me and motivates me to do what I can do to care for this Creation that God has given us—this Creation that includes forests and soil and wilderness and rivers, you and me and all God’s children throughout the world. It is for me a vision that includes all of the rivers offering life to all the places of the world because the rivers of the world, created by God, come from the very heart of God—a heart deeply in love with the people of this world, indeed all of Creation. This vision calls me to learn about, to investigate, to think about how we are damaging the rivers that are to be for all the world, healing waters and sustaining waters.
Perhaps my now beloved Ohio River can remind us that throughout the world, through cities and countryside, by whatever name, there are rivers flowing from the heart of God and the Lamb, part of the life-giving river in which the whole of humanity can be renewed. John’s vision of the holy city, with the river flowing through its main street can be for us a vision of renewal for the waters of this world to be clear and plentiful and abundant for all God’s people, but it will take our endeavors, our labor, our voices, our hope, our determination, our stamina, our unity, and our ideas in order for the rivers of the world to heal so that they will be the healing river waters that Creation needs to sustain life.
Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever flowing by the throne of God?
Yes, we’ll gather at the river. (Robert Lowry, 1864)
May it be so.