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The River Within – Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor

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Title: The River Within

Preacher: Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor

Readings: Genesis 9:8–17, 1 Peter 3:18–22, Mark 1:9–15

Date: 18 February 2024, The First Sunday of Lent


The river is within us, the sea is all about us; In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In our readings today on this first Sunday of Lent, there is water, water, everywhere; within and without. I hope you’ve brought your raincoats and umbrellas for a very watery sermon!

We all know that water is a daily need for us, without water, we have no daily bread. Human beings are made up of around 60% water, and water is vital for life. Without water, our crops fail. Wounds do not heal. We wither away. Without water, we die.

W H Auden said that ‘Water is the soul of the earth’ and water is also one of the deeper spiritual symbols that has traditionally been a focus during the season of Lent. We thirst, like a deer that longs for the waterbrooks, we yearn for God to quench our desires through our prayers, fasting and acts of service.

The earliest theologians of the church reflected deeply on the symbolism of water in the life of faith, and this was drawn from the imagery of water which runs throughout the scriptures, from the Holy Spirit hovering over the face of the deep in the book of Genesis, to the Crystal River in the book of Revelation. But there is water and there is water.

In his four quartets, (The Dry Salvages) T S Elliot, makes the distinction between water and water. The river and the sea are different beasts: The river is within us, he says, the sea is all about us. We can drink from the river, but drinking salty sea water just makes us more and more thirsty and ultimately brings death.

And so too in Christian symbolism, these two different kinds of water have different meanings. The sea has often been portrayed symbolically as chaos, ‘I am all at sea’ we might say, the sea is known as the abyss, the deep, like sheol or hades, as an all consuming evil, or an agent of God to overwhelm all that needs renewing.

In the book of Genesis we see God using the seas of the earth to wipe out the sins of humanity, to start all over again, but it’s Noah’s righteousness alone which brings a few of the faithful through the waters, to dry land. The sea is something to be rescued from. In the middle of a storm, Jesus commands the sea to be still, who is this, that even the winds and the waves obey him? The disciples ask.

God says ‘never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth’ and instead, little drops of water in the sky refract the light to give a sign of a rainbow in the clouds – a sign of God’s promise and God’s love.

When Moses parts the red sea, the people of Israel are brought into the plains of the promised land, a journey from water into wilderness where thirsty people are given manna to eat and water from a rock. Water becomes a sign and symbol of the movement from captivity to freedom, from death to life, a sign of God’s presence with us in the difficult places of this life. There will always be water.

Jesus reveals his identity as ‘the living water’ to the woman at the well and says that those who believe in him will have rivers of living water flowing within them. On the cross, Jesus side is punctured and water spills out.  At the end of all time when the whole creation is born again, we are reminded in the book of Revelation that there will be no more sea. Just a river of the water of life, running to the throne of God where the saints will gather and sing.

The first letter of Peter, tells us that the flood prefigures baptism, the dying to sin and rising to new life which every Christian claims when they are immersed in the water of a font, and takes their first breath as a new person beginning a new life.

We are drowned in the sea and rise in the river, so to speak and when we witness Jesus baptism in the River Jordan, his journey echoes that ancient journey, from water to wilderness, and ultimately from death to life.

We might well recognise the danger and delight of water which lies as such a powerful symbol at the heart of our faith- we might well recall our baptism and its symbolism of death and new life, loss and love, endings and beginnings, and our journey from water to wilderness, and from ashes to the living font.

Christ says to us I am the living water, drink of me, I am the river within. Christ imbues water with a deeper spiritual meaning, it becomes for us an outward and visible symbol of an inward and spiritual grace and during this season it is the inward and the spiritual to which we are called to attend.  In this season of Lent, how will we navigate the waters that surround us and how will we attend to the river within?

Do we find ourselves all at sea? Confused, chaotic, restless, buffeted by the waves and storms and floods, drowned by doubt, or expectation, or lack of self-worth? Are we yearning for clean water to drink but tasting only salt on our lips? Are we praying that the choppy waters will be stilled and the floods will pass?

Are we thirsty for the sweet water of new life and new beginnings and new love and new hope?  How will we calm the oceans of hatred and greed, injustice, and malice, the pride, hypocrisy and impatience of our lives?

St Ambrose, who wrote much about the waters of baptism, said, it is our own inclinations that are often more dangerous than external enemies- How do we overcome this sea of sin that is all about us and threatens to overwhelm us?

Shall we instead gather at the river? The fountain of living water, the flowing water, clear and graceful, returning to that moment when we were drawn from the water, to breathe again, and to be born again.

The church does not see baptism as an end in itself, neither a tick box nor a ticket to an easier life, nor the promise of a life free from loss, pain or challenge, nor free from testing and temptation in the wilderness. Baptism is not the end of a Christian journey but the beginning, it is the place from which we start as we gather at the river to drink, and this water should be denied to no-one.

How we need this living water. Our world is thirsty for it. Give us this water always and may our thirst not be fully satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, until the earth will be full of the glory of the Lord, till the waters cover the sea, until we become living water too, until we become an oasis for others who are thirsty.

We find ourselves again, between ashes and the living font, and in this place of ambiguity we are called to return to the river within, and drink deeply from the living water, until our thirst is quenched and until we are made anew.

To the glory of the living God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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