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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Rivers and Divisions - 08/18/2019

For me, this text from John brings three things to mind pretty consistently.

One is that old African-American spiritual: Wade in the water …

The second thing is rivers. I've actually had quite a few very memorable river experiences, but often, when I hear something like the verse we have today from John – “‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water,”  – I think of one experience in particular.

My folks used to have a store called the Snow Queen's Cottage in the Keweenaw Peninsula. Its first location was in Eagle River. The Snow Queen was in an old general store that had probably been there in the bustling days of the copper mining era. These days, Eagle River is still the county seat, although there are only about four residents per square mile.

It's quiet. Right across the street from the store runs the town's namesake – Eagle River. Usually the river is pretty narrow and shallow. You can even leap over it in places sometimes.

One spring morning when we were tending the shop for my parents, Larry and I woke up to a loud, sustained roar outside. We couldn't imagine what it was and rushed outside to see what sounded like it was going to overtake the whole building we were in. What we discovered was the river, reimagined. In one night it been transformed into a raging torrent. The snow pack had finally let loose the spring melt, and the dams were opened wide as the river wound its way down through its ancient and ever-changing course to the place where it emptied itself into Lake Superior, less than a quarter mile downstream from the store. It was an awesome and frightening scene which I doubt I will ever forget.

This has become one of my go-to images of what the Holy Spirit's activity in the world might be like. Eagle River that day was abundant and powerful. It shifted and transformed the path of the river and its mouth into Lake Superior.

The third thing that draws my attention in this text is divisiveness – especially in the context of what these days seems like relentless and immovable division of God’s people. It's a very honest and realistic example of division within John’s community.

The people here are divided over who Jesus is. Is he a prophet, the Messiah, a fraud? They are divided over matters of geography – Galilee or Bethlehem? From our earliest times we have stories of people, communities, nations that were once united and then somehow, become divided. From the global stage to the local stage. From the nation to the marriage.

Based on what we learn through scripture and from our Great Teacher, I think it’s safe to say human divisiveness is a byproduct of sin, part of the brokenness of our world. There are certainly ample stories like that coming out of places like Washington, D.C., every day. It’s very apparent right now in places like our borders where our divided nation plays out on the backs of brown skinned children. We see it in households and families divided by abuse or addiction, or churches divided by arguments over who's in and who's out.

Or … maybe these divisions are just part of creation. A river, by its very nature is divisive. It separates one bank from another.

The northern course of the Mississippi River marks a divide between the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and also, in many ways, two distinct northern cultures. I know the path that same river draws to create the western border of my home state Illinois. Farther south, this river drew a line between Langston Hughes' beginnings in a deeply segregated south and his life in New York as an important 20th century American writer.

Maybe divisiveness stems from all of these things or none of these things. It's hard to know for sure – or at least it's hard to believe one could really grasp all the truth about why divisiveness is such a prevalent part of the human condition – anywhere you have more than one person that is.

But what we can know is that God works through that divisiveness. I think it's no accident in this text that we get this image of living water flowing out of Christ and into, around and through all of us and then the examples of how this community is divided at so many different levels. It’s like God has always intended this living water as the healing balm for our divisiveness. We may often experience division of one kind or another, but that activity of living water and the Holy Spirit can work in, around and through it.

That's exactly what the African American spiritual Wade in the Water is talking about. The water, as we learn from our creation stories, represents the chaos of creation.  God works through and with that chaos to create order. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” (Gen. 1:1-2)

Wade in the water …

… The song urged escaping slaves, and now us, to wade into that water because “God's a gonna trouble” the waters and it's an act of ongoing creation. It’s bigger and better and more transformative than what we are capable of bringing to situations of divisiveness ourselves.

 Like the Eagle River that day, God's activity in the world is abundant and powerful. It shifts and transforms the order of things, like a great verb moving through creation. X2

Sometimes we might actually be able to recognize this activity of God in the world, like the people from our story today who came to believe that Jesus is the Messiah when they saw for themselves the signs he performed. Or the people like us who heard through others and come to believe.

Other times, and maybe more often an not, it is more subtle and working in ways we cannot comprehend. Like Nicodemus who represents the Pharisees, a group dead set in their collective rejection that this Galilean, this son of Joseph – He is not the Messiah. No way will they accept that.

And yet, behind the scenes a mighty river is already running. It is overtaking that division in Nicodemus, bringing him out of the cover of night where he first sought out Jesus in John's gospel. … When we see Nicodemus again in John's gospel, it's in the full light of day. He is helping to take the crucified Christ off the cross. He laid him in a tomb with ridiculous amounts of burial ointments and spices. His actions loudly proclaimed the belief that he had come to –this man Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of Humanity, sent by God into the world for the sake of all people.

Nicodemus could do nothing else but wade into those waters.

In the same ways, the Holy Spirit comes to us as living waters – rivers, lakes, our baptisms, raindrops, tears even – living waters seeking ways to work through our identities as Christians. We often recognize or name this God's Grace. And our Lutheran heritage and confessions call us to hold this Grace very dearly and to tell others too …

 … that God's Grace comes to us and everything around us as freely and sometimes as wildly as a river.

… that in the midst of our chaos and divisiveness, we strive to trust that God’s activity is and will continue to be the most powerful and freeing force we experience in our lives.

… and that true to its nature, we’re not meant to keep this river of God’s Grace to ourselves. Rather we are to wade in the water because it wants to run through us, as a powerful river would – transforming us as it moves out into creation where God continues transforming the world around us through our words and actions, our relationships, our jobs, and even our blind spots and divisiveness.  Amen

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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