Whenever I pass over a river, I cannot help but stare. Whether it is a river in my own locale --- the Neuse, Haw, Cape Fear, Eno, Great Pee Dee, or Deep, or even the creek that dribbles under the street I walk each morning --- or ones distant --- the Nile, Mississippi, Columbia, Hudson, Potomac, or Missouri --- or ones I only read about, like the Congo, I'm mesmerized by them.
In Jinja, in Eastern Uganda, there is a place on the Nile River where you can take a boat to the source of the Nile, a source I always presumed to be Lake Victoria, almost a sea in itself, the second-largest freshwater lake in the world, and yet it's not. Bubbling up from deep and powerful groundwater springs, water pours out, enough to feed a river that winds its way north all the way to the Mediterranean. Before a dam was built downriver and the water table was raised, I'm told the water from the springs would shoot five feet above the surface of the river, a testimony to the power of the deep, reminding me of the biblical account of creation, the great and powerful movements that must have occurred in those days.
Maybe it's the power of the river currents, the sense of movement, the fact that life abounds around them, or their sheer beauty, but something draws us to them and always has. Our great and small cities are mostly on rivers. In fact they provide water and transportation for many people. Even civilizations rise and fall with the rivers. But it's more than that.
There's something elemental about water, as there is about earth and about light, something that resonates deep within us, that we not only need for physical sustenance but for spiritual life. We sense that not only in the still and tranquil waters but in the frightening power of the currents or even the devastation of floods. The tranquil creek that ran through the woods at the back of my childhood home is the same one that overflowed its banks and flooded our home. Rivers can never be taken for granted, as I recall watching them in amazement even in their devastating power. I can't erase the image of flooding last year in a midwestern town, the picture of a town at war with the river that threatened to destroy their way of life, or even the devastation that Hurricane Floyd brought to many towns in our region several years ago.
But just as rivers can symbolize judgment, an outpouring of God's general judgment against sin, so they can be a source of hope, of comfort amidst the difficulties of life. It was, after all, the rivers of Babylon by which the exiled Israelites sat and wept as they remembered and longed for their home (Ps. 137:1). Was it that the waters of the Euphrates and other streams and canals that ran in and then out of the city gave them hope that they too would be delivered out of the city one day? Or did they just provide a tranquil place to rest?
Rivers also symbolize life. It's a river, again, that flows out of Eden to water the Garden (Gen. 2:10), and in the New Eden of Revelation a river once again that flows through the New Jerusalem (Rev. 22:1-2). It is God who turns "rivers into a desert, flowing springs into thirsty ground" (Ps. 107:33). Life abounds in and near rivers.
In John 7:38 Jesus promises that out of those who believe in him will flow "rivers of living water." Meditating on this verse, Oswald Chambers notes the richness of the metaphor God provides by His creation, how, for example, "[a] river touches places of which its source knows nothing," bringing to mind how our lives lived in Christ touch places we may never know of, how we are not, after all, "little people" of no effect but "little people" of mighty effect if we stay connected to our Source, Christ. He reminds us that "[a] river is victoriously persistent," overcoming barriers and obstacles, sometimes by going around, sometimes by dropping out of sight for many miles, moving underground, only to surface again in some distant location, even, as with the source of the Nile River, with great power, reminding us that our lives flow on in Christ, around obstacles, even invisible, but not without great effect.
Al this is to say that a created thing like a river holds great lessons for us, great encouragement, and is a signpost of the Kingdom, a window on a deeper spiritual reality. Whether they give us hope, comfort, life, or encouragement to press on in faith, rivers mean something.
So tomorrow morning when I walk the bridge and pass over an unnamed creek that winds through my subdivision, I'll have a lot to think about and much for which to be grateful. If I listen well to its rippling, I may just hear a clap of joy (Ps. 98:8). I may just think of my Home, where a river runs through it.