4There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
There is no river in Jerusalem. There’s a spring that provides water for the city, but no river. Egypt has the great river of the Nile that made it the breadbasket of the ancient Mediterranean. The empires of Babylon and Assyria had the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that made their land the “fertile crescent,” the origins of agriculture and what we know as civilization. Jerusalem, “the holy habitation of the most high,” has no river.
The lack of a water source was a problem when the city was under siege. Hezekiah builds an impressive tunnel to divert water into the city from a spring outside the walls when the Assyrians advanced on Jerusalem. Lamentations describes the parched plight of children, “The tongue of the infant sticks to the roof of its mouth for thirst; the children beg for food, but no one gives them anything.” (4.4) A great city, a city of refuge and peace, a city that hosts the world with the wisdom of God, should have a river.
The prophet Ezekiel, in his vision of the temple rebuilt, once again made holy and inhabited by the presence of God, imagines a great river flowing from the altar, growing ever deeper as it travels through the land, giving life everywhere it goes. The image is taken up by John of Patmos to describe the heavenly Jerusalem, where the tree of life grows on the river’s bank with fruit ripening every month of the year, “and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (22.2)
There is something inherently peaceful about a river. We picnic along its banks, we play at water’s edge, we pray and meditate by its gentle rhythms. I am not even sure that fisherman like to fish as much as they simply like to be a part of the river. It’s impossible to imagine God’s holy city without a river.
Eden was the headwaters of four great rivers: the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Gihon (presumably the Nile) and the Pishon, a river unknown to us (though there is an ancient riverbed beneath the sands of Arabia). That they don’t connect is not the issue; this is not about geography: the waters that spring forth from Eden bring life to the world. The fact that the spring that watered Jerusalem shares its name, Gihon, with one of these rivers is intriguing.
“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.” It is a river of life and joy, hidden from us except for those places where it bubbles up in springs and fountains. And it bubbles up for us in the waters of baptism. It bubbles up in the joy of worship. It bubbles up in the delight of things like the rite of confirmation. It bubbles up in the power of great music and mighty hymns. It bubbles up in the word of life spoken and shared. It bubbles up in the bread and wine that quench our eternal thirst for fellowship with the divine, for harmony with the font of all good.
Though the land of Jerusalem be dry, “there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.” Already we enjoy its riverbanks.
7How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
8They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
9For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light we see light. Psalm 36:7-9
37On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” John 7:37-38