In my darkness I remember.
Momma’s words reoccur to me:
“Surrender to the good Lord,
and he’ll wipe your slate clean”
Take me to your river. I wanna go.
— Leon Bridges, “River”
A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush. —Genesis 2:10–13
The Scriptures tell us that the water that nourished the garden made its way out from there and divided into four rivers that journeyed around much of the known earth. The second river flowed to the land of Cush, the future home of the Ethiopians. Thus, in my reading of the text, the waters that sustained life for our first parents were intended to quench the thirst arising from the brown soil and black bodies of the Cushites. This observation is not rooted in a benign black nationalism or a longing for a home (Africa) that I have never known. The vision of Genesis is grander and transcends such particularism. No, the water continued its course, also taking up residence in Assyria and Arabia. Nonetheless, I wonder: if things had gone differently with Adam and Eve, would all of God’s children have tasted the waters of Eden? Is Genesis 2:10–14 the true protoevangelium?
But Adam and Eve made their choice and shared waters of Eden were lost to us. Instead of sharing God’s bounty, we began a centuries-long battle to quench our thirst:
Abraham complained to Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized. (Gen. 21:25)
When Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of spring water, the herders of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herders, saying, “The water is ours.” (Gen. 26:19–20)
Instead of being a source of life meant for us all, water became the center of conflict and death. Put differently, the battle for drinkable water, and the wickedness that surrounds it, did not begin in Flint, Michigan. Our inability to drink together is a manifestation of the Fall.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. (Ps. 46:4)
Alongside the conflict narrative of water, the Scriptures tell us that water is an image of salvation. God’s goodness is made visible in his ability to provide water for his people. And nothing manifests the glorious abundance of water like the ability to use it for recreation, to laugh and to splash and to soak in the glory of what God has given to his people. The safety of children, then, in the surplus of water is a picture of salvation. Little black boys and little Asian girls splashing in the water together is a picture of the kingdom. It is hope in dark times.
None of these thoughts about water, conflict, and salvation were near the forefront of my thoughts when I first encountered “the asperges” during the Easter Vigil. I describe the asperges as an encounter because, as one not brought up in the Anglican tradition, I experienced the rituals that surround Holy Week as a series of revelations. Each in its own way invited me to ponder the work of God in Christ. For now I pass over the wider liturgy of the Vigil itself to consider the water. Near the end of the service after the renewal of the promises made at baptism, I heard the priest shout joyfully Christ is risen! to which we responded The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia! Then, in the midst of our celebration of the Resurrection, I heard our priest, Father Morse, shouting above the hymn, loud and true:
I saw water proceeding out of the temple, from the right side thereof, alleluia;
And all people, wherever the waters shall come, shall be healed.
Even in the confusion of the moment, I recognized the connection between Ezekiel 47 and Revelation 22:1–2:
He brought me back to the door of the temple, and behold, water was issuing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east. […] Going on eastward with a measuring line in his hand, the man measured a thousand cubits, and then led me through the water, and it was ankle-deep. […] And he led me through the water, and it was knee-deep. Again … he led me through the water, and it was waist-deep. Again he measured … and it was a river that I could not pass through, for the water had risen. […] “Son of man, have you seen this? The water flows and enters the sea … and wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live. … And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. … Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.” (Ezek. 47:1–12)
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 through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. (Rev. 22:1–2)
This connection might seem small to those accustomed to the liturgy, but I came that time as a pilgrim. For me this was a wonder. The asperges, in a moment, exegeted human history. Through the death and resurrection of the Messiah Jesus, the new temple, the healing waters flow to the nations. At the heart of the celebration of Easter, then, is God’s vision for the healing of all his people. The Cross ends the enmity over the water: the Cushites, the Assyrians, and the Israelites are reconciled. We become a family, the Church.
The ritual told me that through the preaching of the gospel, the celebration of the sacraments, and the anointing of the congregation with water from the river, God’s intention for creation is realized. It may be that there is no greater apology for liturgical worship or for canonical exegesis than what the tradition has to say at the climax of the Vigil: The water flows from the temple at Eastertide. Alleluia.
Despite this high praise, I am not saying that sprinkling water on our congregations will wash away all the sociocultural issues that divide us. I am asserting that the Scriptures as interpreted in the liturgy mediate and sustain a God-given hope for a better future in the face of our divisions. I am claiming that Christian worship, when it is being true to itself, awakes us to the grand narrative of Scripture and glory contained therein. Put differently, worship returns us repeatedly to the waters of Eden lost during the Fall but regained at Eastertide. It helps us remember, in the face of much external evidence to the contrary, what is possible. It reminds us that there is a river.
Other posts by Esau McCaulley are here. The featured image of a baptism on the Cane River (1927) is in the Melrose Collection of Northwestern State University of Louisiana. The second image is “Enjoying the Peruvian Amazon” (2012) by Flickr user alobos Life, and is licensed under Creative Commons. The third comes via the blog of Regina magazine.