The early church saw itself as paradise on this earth. Bishop Iranaeus said in the second century “the church has been planted as a paradisus in the world.”
The church was the way to get back.
It was the church that held the mysteries of God.
The church held the poor and the dying and the suffering in its bosom.
The church saw through the imperial powers and saw God’s way of liberation and hope.
The church saw the potential in people when they took the story, the Gospel of Jesus seriously enough to really being to implement his plan for life and justice and peace.
So the early church depicted the four rivers running into and through the Jordan River. The Jordan.
The river of entering the Promised Land.
The river of entering a new life in baptism.
The river of life that watered the desert.
The river that feeds the fertile crescent and hold within it the key to life—literally and figuratively.
The river is a vital turning point for our lives. Our going down to the river to encounter God is key to our whole story.
I imagine what the people thought when they looked at the river, back those several thousand years ago. On one side they had the desert and the disaster of 40 years in the wilderness, eating manna and quails. It would be nice to add some variety to the diet, some chives, some olives, some fresh water.
On the other side of the river, they saw an end to their wanderings. A land where they could finally put down some roots. A place where they could raise their children and grandchildren. On the other side of the river, was it paradise—or was paradise the companionship they had with their people for the past 40 years? Once they crossed the river, could they go back if it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be? Could they ever be the same again?
I wonder, did they linger on the banks just a bit? Did they wonder if they should dip their toes in? Would the water be too hot, too cold or just right? Would the current sweep them away? What about the comfort of the familiar? 40 years is a long time in the desert. What’s the rush? At least the desert is familiar.
To cross the river meant a commitment.
It meant risking that your life would change.
It meant risking getting all wet.
It meant risking being laughed at.
It meant really relying on God in a potentially inhospitable world.
And what if, when they got to the other side, nothing really changed?
What if it was still hard to make ends meet?
What if they encountered people who didn’t want them on the other side of the river?
What if they didn’t have the faith to carry on?
Ah, the “what if” game. It’s a familiar one. We read it in the paper. What if the team had only made this or that play?
What if that one person was elected over another?
What if we passed this law of defeated that amendment?
On a personal level we wonder: What if someone doesn’t like me?
What if I’m not good enough?
What if I get rejected?
What if people see who I really am?
We play this game and we are stuck on one side of the river not being able to decide what to do. Meanwhile, life and opportunity comes and goes while we wonder. And before long, we wonder what if I had crossed earlier?
We’ve played this game. It’s a familiar game, where there are seldom winners.
Sometimes, we just need to make the plunge. We need to get all wet.
Twenty years ago, I was preparing for my first baptism. I had practiced baptizing people in seminary. We even went across the street to Riverside church donning bathing suits in order to get it just right. What they didn’t teach me was how to work the baptistery. I found the pipes that filled the Baptistery and turned them on. The hot water began filling the baptistery. Several hours later, it would be filled up. I came in on Saturday afternoon to get everything just right. But a half hour after I turned on the faucet, I found the water running cold. I called Mr. Waite, the patriarch of the church who used to be the custodian. He said, “Oh, well, maybe you can have the baptism next week instead of tomorrow. The baptistery takes about 3 days to fill with hot water.” It turns out that the hot water tank is only 60 gallons and the pool holds several hundred gallons. We needed to feel the fill pipe. When it ceased being hot, Mr. Waite told me, you need to turn it off and wait for the water to heat up again. So, you could fill it for a half hour, turn it off for a couple of hours and run it for another half hour until it filled up with tepid water. When I got there on Sunday morning, the baptistery was full, but the water wasn’t even close to being warm. That’s when I got a bright idea. I’ll just let a little water out and then fill it with warm water. So, I took a long stick and I pried the rubber ball off of the drain to release the water. The problem was that the ball popped to the top of the water and the water began draining—fast. So I did what needed to be done. Luckily I was the only one there. Unfortunately I didn’t have a change of clothes.
At my installation service, a friend of mine told the congregation this story, saying that it was a good thing that they had a pastor who was willing to plunge himself into ministry. He was glad that they had a pastor who was willing to shed the priestly garments. He was glad they had a pastor who was willing to get his “feet” wet.
The story goes that when the Hebrew people finally crossed the water, they did so on dry land, just like when they crossed the Red Sea. Forty years ago they were fleeing persecution and slavery. Now they were crossing another dry riverbed, only this time without an army at their heels. They were crossing into a new settled life, one of no more wandering. One where they could set roots down in the soil and find new life.
And if they did it right, they would be blessed by God. So God instructed them to remember their crossing, their fording of the river.
Now the truth be told, not everyone who crosses such a river does so unblemished. We cross the rivers and we take things with us. I think of the people who crossed the Atlantic, the Mississippi, even the Rio Grande in hopes of a better place. And yet, when they crossed over, too many also made another crossing. They were oppressed or at least economically disadvantaged on one side of the water. On the other side, their relief from oppression too quickly shifted to oppressing others. Think of those fleeing religious persecution coming to the New World. Amidst the earnest desire for discovery and new opportunities, they also brought slavery and the colonization of the Native Peoples. The same can be said when settlers crossed the Mississippi, pushing the Ojibway and Lakota farther and farther west as they colonized their land. The Hebrew people crossed the Jordan, but displaced the Canaanites or ancient Palestinians—a practice still going on today. Crossing to conquer goes against the arc of the Biblical preference for peace.
The wisdom of the story is what happened halfway across the river. The people were invited to go down into the dry riverbed and pick up a stone. Pick up a stone from this place of miracle, from this riverbed and remember who you are and whose you are. I like to think that those rocks are a reminder that they were once captive and that God’s power sets them free.
Think about a stone. A stone, especially a river stone is created by heat, pressure, and friction. Heat pressure and friction. Plenty of us have endured heat, pressure and friction. We have encountered the heat of accusation. The heat of anger pointed at us for our stances for our stupidity, for our bravery. We have had the pressure of expectation, of responsibility weighing on our heads and pointing at our hearts. We have had the friction of fights and disagreements and struggles for justice and peace and for a place at our own tables. And each of these things makes us who we are. We are like these stones. We are like these rocks in a streambed, burned, pressed down, and strong—enduring and beautiful.
You know, it’s not the crossing of the water that is important or the fording of the stream. We all cross waters and barriers in our lives. The important thing to remember is that we were once all wet. Once or maybe more than once, we lurched into that water trusting that God would wash us of our old ways and point us in a new direction.
Going down to the river, being baptized and emerging dripping wet is how we symbolize our connection with the hopeful story of God. This life giving and life emptying action is how we cross over from an observer to a participant in the life and ministry of Christ.
For when we go down into the river, what do we find?
We find ourselves laid bare.
We find our truest selves.
We find our deepest fears.
We find our most intense hopes and dreams.
We find the meaning for our lives.
And we pick up a stone to remember who we are and whose we are. We don’t pick up a stone from our old life and carry it like a burden. We don’t pick up a stone from the future. We pick up a stone from the riverbed, from that very place where the transformation happened.
T.S. Eliot addressed this longing for transformation in his epic poem “Choruses From the Rock”. Here’s a portion of it:
The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven,
The Hunter with his dogs pursues his circuit.
O perpetual revolution of configured stars,
O perpetual recurrence of determined seasons,
O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of The Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust…
In the vacant places
We will build with new bricks
What life have you, if you have not life together?
Where the bricks are fallen
We will build with new stone
Where the beams are rotten
We will build with new timbers
Where the word is unspoken
We will build with new speech
There is work together
A Church for all
And a job for each
I invite you to come forward as you feel moved. On the communion table are river stones. Each have been formed with heat, with pressure, with friction. Each one is different, like we are each different. I invite you to take a stone from the river. Take it and remember your transformation. And if anyone asks you “what does this stone mean”, you can tell them about your transformation that happened and maybe about the transformation that is continuing to happen in your life. Take a stone. Remember who you are and whose you are. Remember that you have forded the river and because you have done so, you are a new creation. And God smiles as we remember our commitment to God’s ideal plan.