O Sisters, Let's Go Down
Dry Country Sensibility
Our little hospital saved my life. It also left me with trauma which means, 50 years later, that it is still difficult to visit people in hospital. By the time I reached high school it was inevitable that the hospital would close, much to the consternation of the town. I heard my Dad say, "Well, we had the choice of a hospital but we chose a swimming pool." I asked what he meant.
Before my birth, the district had poured its energy and funds into a War Memorial Swimming Pool instead of a War Memorial Hospital. In a rare moment of grumpiness Dad suggested that if we had resisted the frivolity a mere swimming pool we would not now be losing our hospital.
On reflection I don't think the swimming pool was frivolous. The swimming pool reflected a dry country sensibility. Water in which to splash and swim was a healing balm to the souls of dry country farmers. It was a place of joy for the whole district. And on the day of the official opening a boy drowned.
Life revolves around rivers; civilizations came to birth alongside rivers; humanity chose to settle by rivers that nourish and sustain them. But rivers are also watery graves and are ferocious in their ability to destroy and take life, through overflowing and through their drying up and thereby snuffing out life.
Monica Jyotsna Melanchthon writes of an Indian river festival which
is celebrated every three years when millions of devotees part the waters of the sacred river by submerging themselves, to be absolved of sin and to be freed from the vicious earthly cycle of life and death and move towards a heavenly realm, which knows no suffering or pain.
The arduous pilgrimage to these rivers is born out of faith and a hope for a better life. The individual is thus regenerated, renewed, and he or she is given the opportunity to begin life anew having been healed by the waters of the river, which is believed to be mixed with drops of the elixir of eternal life.
We westerners tend to sneer at such devotion, but it is a wise sensibility which even we dry country dwellers have often lost. Water and its rivers are lifeblood. We depend upon the rivers. If we do not immerse ourselves in the rivers; if we do not subject ourselves to them by respecting and revering them, we will suffer. "We all live in a watershed, a river basin."
In the old stories— our old stories— water, with all its ambiguity, is at the centre of creation. The waters are a symbol of chaos, and the dwelling place of evil which is opposed to God. Jesus' calming of the storm, and Jesus walking on the water, are two stories which the original listeners immediately recognised as a sign of God's Lordship even over evil.
In the first creation story, God creates good out of the chaos separating the waters from the waters and forming the dry land. Then, from the garden in the second creation story in Genesis 2, flow four rivers which water the whole creation.
In the story of Noah's flood God uses the water as a weapon. People have been so thoroughly evil that God destroys almost all things with the flood.
But at the end, the waters give life. In the Epistle reading for river Sunday, Revelation Chapter 22, we see
the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
As Rick Fry says, "it ends where it all began."
We will make our way through the shadows towards the shimmering river of life,
leading to the primordial garden,
where we will be healed by the leaves
and the sweet grainy fruit of the tree of life.
We will no longer turn our faces towards the wall in order to hide our shame.
Rather the Lamb will lead us to the New Jerusalem.
The gates will be open wide.
In thanksgiving we will enter.
No more hatred, envy, or fear.
God will be present among all the wandering people of the nations.
He echoes Eliot.
We shall not cease from our exploring
and the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time...
at the source of the longest river.... (Little Gidding)
Ambiguity and angst
Our age has an ethical issue with the flood of Noah. Is it right to drown the whole world for the sins of some people? Even if some point out that "God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth," (Genesis 6:12) we remember the innocence of babes in arms; the barbarity of the story of the flood troubles us or even repels us from God.
Some of us will have noted that before the beautiful picture of Revelation 22, there is a dark notice of exclusion of those whose names are not written in the book of life. There is a "lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death." (Revelation 21:8,27)
In some ways, this anxiety about the nature of God, and our revulsion at the visions of endless torture which even make their way into the mouth of Matthew's Jesus— remember those who will depart "accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels"— even in one of the most inclusive and anti-doctrinal stories of Jesus.(Matthew 25:41)
Our revulsion shows the gospel has done its work on us! We have learned lessons about violence and judgementalism. We are cautious to condemn. Even for mass murderers like Martin Bryant we recognise the extenuating circumstances of mental disability and illness. We have become civilised, to a degree; or human.
It is good that we find God's behaviour in the flood of Noah troubling. There was a time when we did not, and we were the poorer for that.
But our discomfort is also a sign of our lack of conversion as a species, and a sign of our incompleteness as human beings. For contributing to our unease is our lack of horror at our own evil. In some cases the authors of Noah and more insightful than we.
Consider the blow by blow reports which come from the sites of wartime atrocity. Some of our fascination has to do with the way the media gives us a sense of being in control. The reporters standing apart and giving commentary as the bombs fall and the snipers fire, give us the feeling that despite everything we are in control. The networks are less likely to broadcast those moments when the camera records the death of the reporter. It is not squeamishness. It would be the final admission that our violence is out of control.
But we also cluster around the TV and keep refreshing the news sites for... entertainment.
We are rightly horrified by the photos of the cheering spectators upon the Israeli hillsides.
On Saturday, a group of men huddle around a shisha pipe. Nearly all hold up smartphones to record the explosions or to pose grinning, perhaps with thumbs up, for selfies against a backdrop of black smoke.
Despite reports that millions of Israelis are living in terror of Hamas rockets, they don't deter these hilltop war watchers whose proximity to Gaza puts them within range of the most rudimentary missiles. Some bring their children.
Our self-righteous disgust is full of amnesia. We have forgotten our lounge room fascination with American smart bombs.
Those Israeli citizens ought to have forced themselves to stand watching on the hillsides in tears, so that they would never forget the atrocity their country was committing. They should have been crying, "God forgive us that despite all the terror and atrocity done to our people, despite even the Holocaust, we are now doing this! God forgive us!"
I can only write this condemnation because I have been too little disgusted by the smart bombs, and have protested too little at our willingness to follow the Americans into war, and have been too little disgusted and protesting at our home grown savagery against aboriginal people and now against Muslim immigrants.
The texts of Noah despite, all their problems and the anxiety they cause us, are ultimately correct. Evil is wrong— it is evil. It is anti God. It does not deserve to exist. For the sake of the creation which is accursed because of it, (Genesis 3:17 Romans 8:20) and for the sake of humanity, evil must be destroyed.
There is a deep mystery here which is is beyond us. When Bob Deffinbaugh writes
When those who are successful and comfortable in this life see life as a bowl of cherries, they are not looking at life as it really is. They are looking through eyes which are blinded to the imperfection of this world due to man’s sin....
we have little problem concurring. But we who are successful and comfortable in this life are also blinded to another reality of the world. We can see that violence and even violent cleansing of evil are wrong; we understand the lying myth of redemptive violence. But we do not know what to do with evil... an evil in which we are all complicit.
We let God's loathing discomfort us, and even embarrass us, when the atheists criticise the barbarity of the text. Our inability to talk back and show how the text reveals our essential complacency about evil betrays that we have not yet learned the lessons of Noah.
The stunning thing about the texts of Noah is that despite the recognition that all of humanity is corrupt, they see that God unilaterally chooses to hang up the war bow.
We have so domesticated the Covenant with Noah that we talk of rainbows— pretty colours and diffraction. It is a rain bow, a weapon of war. When God is "tempted" to use the weapon of water, when the "clouds gather," God "will remember the covenant." (Genesis 9:8-17)
The rain bow is God's laying down the weapons of war unconditionally. God is for us! Water is no longer a weapon. In the end water will be as it should be, a life giving stream.
This is the message of Revelation 22 which ends where it all began. The river flows through the centre of the city without fear of flood, in the very street of the city.
The city with the river which waters the tree of life is an image drawn from Ezekiel 40 to 47, which was also a picture of a newly fulfilled creation. But in Ezekiel's vision the city gates are sometimes closed. In Revelation the gates are not closed. "Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there." (Rev 21:25) There is no evil in the city.
Significantly for we who find the city insufferable and flee to nature, Paradise is not a garden. The Tree of Life grows in the city. The city, our being together, is redeemed! Noah's story is a reversal of curses— there is no more curse of the ground— and now even the city is redeemed.
In the reading from the Matthew story of the resurrection, the earth quakes. Earthquakes were a sign the presence of God. We see this story of the giving of the law on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:18) where the whole mountain shook. We see it in the story of Elijah on Mount Sinai (1 Kings 19) where the presence of God causes an earthquake. So in Matthew, the earthquake at the resurrection of Jesus is a clear sign of God's driving the process.
But there is an additional way of understanding this earthquake. When the Christ is resurrected the earth shakes with joy. It shakes off the curse under which it has laboured for so long. So in the readings of River Sunday, we see the final fulfilment of a good creation— "God saw all that he had made and it was good"— and we see that Christ and the resurrection of the Christ is at the centre.
A Vision of Hope
River Sunday, and the whole season of creation, is a vision of hope.
It is possible, noble, and good, to live the way of Jesus of Nazareth. We can choose to live a life based on the ethics of his life because we see its good effects. It is a good way to live. It fulfils people. It civilises society. It relieves injustice. It grows peace.
Even on the days that I am most doubt full, I hold to the hope of the way of Jesus of Nazareth. There is nothing else but brute survival of the fittest and looking after number one, if we do not follow the Way of Jesus of Nazareth, or a path like it. It is a rational hope to live the way of Jesus of Nazareth. God help us if we do not.
But Scripture has a visionary hope which goes far beyond the limitations of the rational. It goes beyond the Way of Jesus of Nazareth. Scripture talks, more accurately, of Living the Way of Christ, which is a different thing. Living the Way of Christ is to adopt a teleological view of the world. That is to say: Christianity claimes there is purpose in the very fundamentals of the Cosmos and the Creation. There is purpose and there is a planned ending.
This is scandalous in an age when teleology often assumed to be totally discredited. Resurrection is merely ridiculed by the new atheists and others who consider they have progressed beyond the Christian faith. But teleology is hated, for it says there is a purpose, which leads to the conclusion there is something we might name as "God." It implies we are not our own beings. We are contingent. We owe a loyalty to something beyond ourselves. We are not in control.
Teleology is a doctrine and philosophy of hope when it is expounded in the Christian context. It says that somewhere there is a river, a place of healing, living water that flows even from the solid rock. There is a paradise that waters our whole being, so that like Eve and Adam and Noah, we can walk with God. Humanity, perhaps even we who are reading this, can one day be at peace with God because the creation will be what it was always meant to be.
O Sisters, let's go down
In Australia the Brunswick Women's Choir sing in a beautiful music video of the traditional song O sisters let's go down, down in the river to pray. The video is haunting, evoking on our longings for innocence, and remembering our lost closeness to the land with idyllic and paradisical images. It is sensual, mysterious, and erotic.
As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good ol' way
And who shall wear the starry crown?
Good Lord show me the way!
O sisters let's go down
Let's go down, come on down
O sisters let's go down
Down in the river to pray ...
And it turns out to be a tourist commercial for a spa town.
Scripture is asking us whether we will go down to the waters just to dally in the shallows of a day spa, and then return to the grind of the city. Will we be satisfied with the partial healing of a health spa, or do we wish for more?
During its evolution, the song became a baptismal anthem. It is a succinct rendition of the Gospel: Do we wish to be drowned and subsumed in the waters of life? Will we immerse ourselves in the visionary hope of Scripture and follow the way of the Christ? The Christ says
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 7:37-38)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt-offerings on the altar. 21And when the Lord smelt the pleasing odour, the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.
22 As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night,
shall not cease.’...
(9: 12) God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ 17God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’ Return to Top
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’ Return to Top
21:22 I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.26People will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations. 27But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practises abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life....
22:1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; 4they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever.
6 And he said to me, ‘These words are trustworthy and true, for the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.’ Return to Top