Presiding Bishop Preaches at Evensong

St. Philip in the Desert, Tucson, AZ
February 6, 2011

In this thirsty desert, people know the treasure that is water. I have a friend who lives in the desert of southern Utah, at the edge of a sleepy little river that flows out of the Virgin Mountains. That river is the same one that carved the canyons of Zion National Park, but most of the time there’s hardly any water in it. Late last year the rains came, and they kept coming, until the soil had absorbed all it could and the water began to run off and fill the river until it overflowed and flooded the whole basin. A few houses were damaged, the crops seeded along the river bottom washed away, and some roads washed out. I had a note from him a few days ago, that said, “survived the floods, did a bit of sandbagging with the community, but all in Virgin came out OK. As one farmer friend said, ‘the flood did about 30-40K damage to my fields but the rain did a million dollars worth of good to the land in general.’”

When Jesus says that believers’ hearts will produce rivers of living water, I think that’s the kind of river he was talking about. The river is beyond our control, yet it’s filled with blessing, even when it’s more than we can readily deal with. It looks like a similar river is overflowing its banks in Egypt right now. We don’t yet know what will come of it, but the river is clearly in flood.

The primates of the Anglican Communion met in Dublin last week, and much of our work focused on what it means for us to be in relationship. One of our number offered the image of a river as we explored those relationships. By the time we’d been together a day or so, it was abundantly clear that we aren’t interested in being a legislative or regulatory body, and that we had a long way to go in understanding each others’ contexts. The river had shifted course, and even though it was still filled with a lot of dead trees and silt, something new was happening. That river is clearly filled with life, even though we can’t see a lot of it just yet.

Out of the believers heart shall flow rivers of living water. What is that living water for? What does it do? It certainly is meant to be a contrast to the “tossing sea that cannot keep still” that Isaiah equates with the wicked. The river of living water has something to do with what Amos claims as the goal of godly living: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” That river is meant to produce right relationship, and heal the injustices of this world. Right relationships between human beings are what we call justice, and they flow out of right relationship with God.

The desire for that healed world and restored relationships produces a reaction from people who have a stake in the status quo. That’s why people want to arrest Jesus – that river is going to change things. It’s like deciding we have to channelize every river on the planet, line the banks with concrete and build dams every five miles. It doesn’t work. Even the authorities sent to arrest Jesus recognize something surprising and uncontrollable about the news of this river.

The rains come anyway – expected or unexpected – and after one of those flooded winters, they heal the land and produce those heart-stopping flower-covered vistas that transform the desert one a decade or so.

That river flows on. It took many years of floods, but eventually that river brought peace in Ireland. A flood ended apartheid in South Africa. The rains will come to Tucson, and the river of healing will flow out of the hearts of those who know resurrection, and peace will come to this land, and it will bloom like the desert.