“I’ve Known Rivers”

During our month of shared worship between First Church and University Baptist, we are focusing on environmental stewardship. Our sermon series specifically explores the elements. Today is water.

As I considered today’s theme, a poem caught my attention:The Negro Speaks of Rivers, by Langston Hughes.

“I’ve known rivers: I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. My soul has grown deep like the rivers. I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset. I’ve known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

In the account of creation we hear today, rivers are at the center of the world. They sustain a lush garden named Eden. The ancient author writes: A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The Pishon, the Gihon, the Tigris and the Euphrates are the rivers that water the garden of creation. The human, adam, is fashioned out of humble adamah (dust of the ground, clay moistened by the waters of ancient dusky rivers). There are actually two creation myths in the book Genesis. These accounts differ from one another in details and facts, so we can be fairly certain they were never meant to be science or history. Instead, their purpose is to help us make meaning: to reflect on our identity and role as members of the community of creation and children of God.

The online commentary called The African American Lectionary remarks about the significance of the four rivers of Eden.

“The description of Eden, the birthplace of humanity, is identified as the expanse of land from the location of modern-day Iraq outlined by the Tigris and Euphrates and extending in through the region presently regarded as the Middle East and into the Nile Valley region of Northeast Africa from Egypt and Sudan downward to Ethiopia and Uganda in sub-Saharan Africa. Ultimately this passage—so often overlooked in discussions and debates about the origins of the human race—clearly articulates Africa as the center of the biblical world. This fact has been verified by the revelation of scientific research by contemporary scholars that the oldest human remains were found in the Olduvai Gorge [in modern day Tanzania].”

The authors continue:

“So many decades after the civil rights movement and the Black Power era, there is still a profound aversion to talking positively about anything African… Drowning in countless stories of the African continent as a land dominated by death, debt, dictators, disease, and devastation, it has become too easy to forget that God chose African soil as the seedbed for the human race.”


“Intersectionality … (according to Wickipedia) is the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination or discrimination.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intersectionality) Our creation myth helps us to see the intersections between racial justice, economic equality and the protection of our earth. By the same token, our mis-reading of this story has produced cultural and religious beliefs that legitimized slavery, led to the expulsion of native peoples from their lands and allowed for the domination and exploitation of creation as a whole.

In a 2001 report titled Blue Gold: The Global Water Crisis and the Commodification of the World’s Water Supply, Maude Barlow writes this:

“Global consumption of water is doubling every 20 years, more than twice the rate of human population growth. According to the United Nations, more than one billion people on earth already lack access to fresh drinking water. If current trends persist, by 2025 the demand for fresh water is expected to rise to 56 percent more than the amount that is currently available.” “Meanwhile, the future of one of the earth’s most vital resources is being determined by those who profit from its overuse and abuse. A handful of transnational corporations, backed by the World Bank, are aggressively taking over the management of public water services in developing countries, dramatically raising the price of water to the local residents and profiting from the Third World’s desperate search for solutions to the water crisis. The agenda is clear: water should be treated like any other tradable good, with its use determined by market principles.”

“At the same time, governments are signing away their control over domestic water supplies by participating in trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); its successor, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA); and the World Trade Organization (WTO). These global trade institutions effectively give transnational corporations unprecedented access to the water of signatory countries.”


Genesis declares: “The Lord God took adam and put the human in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” The Hebrew verb translated “to till” also means “to worship” and “to serve”. For centuries, the church taught (or at least did not contradict the idea) that our role as humans is to dominate and exploit the rest of creation. But the myth of creation which is our guiding narrative couldn’t express a more different message. As adam, a being fashioned out of moistened dust, we are made for humble service. And as a creature who also bears the sacred breath of God, our most important work is worship, reverence. Our faith reveals that the purpose of humankind is reverent service to the natural world that is our home.

We are engaged in an urgent struggle to protect the waters that are the life-blood of humanity and creation. Faith, as our worldview, our vision, our system for making meaning, is the most powerful resource we have in this effort. New laws and new technologies are crucial. But faith is what motivates us toward transformation and sustains us through the pain of change. The creation myth that grounds our faith urges us, people of all colors and cultures, to reclaim the heritage of our African roots, and to return to the humble reverence of Eden.

Jesus said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and 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.’” Jesus, with his ways of reverent service, is living water, in both a symbolic and literal sense. That is the meaning of our Baptism into Christ’s bodya. We are initiated into a life that receives creation as a gift from God: free but not cheap; precious but never to be bought or sold; a sacred commons that is available to all as each have need. And when we drink of the waters of life, they do not run dry, but they, in turn, gush forth from us to quench the thirst of others. And we learn to sing, with the poet: “I’ve known rivers: I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” Amen.