When my family moved to the little agricultural village of Nes Ammim in the Galilee region of Israel during my sabbatical, we came under the influence of a different geography. We arrived in the middle of the dry season, which runs from approximately April to October. Unlike anything that we had experienced in Michigan—once known on license plates as the “Water Wonderland”—the dry heat scorched the land and everything on it. I came to a fuller understanding of something I had learned long ago in eighth grade science class, namely that my body consisted mostly of water and that water was the life of me. When I drank in this arid land, I could feel water flowing to the dry places in my body and reviving me. I knew in ways that I had not known before how vulnerable and dependent I was. Drinking was a moment of victory in the ongoing battle between the forces of life and death.
The people of both Testaments lived in this same geography and were deeply sensitive to the meaning of water. They did not see rain as a mere meteorological phenomena, or water as just a commodity to be bought and sold. Water had spiritual significance. It was a visible sign of God’s invisible presence in the world. No matter what form it took—the early and late rains, a spring in the desert, a well, or a river—water pointed to the deeper reality of God’s love and care for the world. Every source of water was a holy place, every act of drawing water was a ritual, and every drink was a sacrament. When drinking water, every person, animal, or plant was drinking in the love of God.
From Genesis to Revelation, the people of God talked about the spiritual significance of water and depicted the love of God as flowing to them like a river:
1) There was a river that flowed from Eden, the Garden of God. We today hardly know what to make of this river, whether it is real or symbolic, but it affirmed to the people of Israel that all the fresh water in the world flowed from one source and that every life-giving drink was a gift from the Garden of God.
2) There was a river that flowed from the heart of God. The people of Israel experienced the heart of God as full of love, a love so abundant that it overflowed and saturated the world. They called God the Fountain of Life:
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light we see light. (36: 7-9)
3) There was a river that flowed from the temple. The people of Israel believed that the river of life flowed from the temple in Jerusalem when God, whom they understood to be the Fountain of Life, assumed the throne there. Ezekiel saw this river in his vision of the reconstructed temple. The farther it went from the temple, the deeper and wider it became. His guide told him: “Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish” (47: 9). John saw this same river in his vision of the temple: “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” (Revelation 22:1).
It is against the backdrop of the river of life tradition that the well-known prophecy in Amos 5:18-24 has to be understood. The prophet from Tekoa was making absolutely clear that while the people were delighted with the solemnity of their assemblies, the sweet savor of the sacrificial meat, and the melody of their songs, God was not. To God their meetings were only maneuverings, their sacrifices only sanctimony, and their choruses only cacophony. What did God desire? Amos called out, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24).
Everyone within earshot knew what waters Amos was talking about. Amos was referring to the river that flowed from the house of God. Amos was not condemning ritual and public worship, as so many wrongly assume. He was reminding the people of the true meaning of ritual and worship. Solemn assemblies, sacrifices, and songs were supposed to transform hearts and move people to acts of justice and righteousness. Amos was reminding the people that the waters rolling down and the stream ever-flowing from the house of God were not made of water; in fact, they were never really about water. This river was made of people. Worship was to be a place in which the stony hearts of people became flesh again, a place from which a just and righteous people would flow and give life to the world.
Jesus, too, takes up Amos’ understanding that the river of God was made of people. In the Gospel John, he identifies himself as the living water and says to the Samaritan woman, “Everyone who drinks of [Jacob’s well] will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.” Then, he adds, “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (4:13-14).
Both Amos and Jesus give us a remarkable image of what it means to be the people of God. In our life together, in our resting and in our working, in our solitude and in our communion, in our being and in our doing, we are a river of life. Our acts of justice and righteousness are water in a dry and thirsty land.
I want to close with one more story from my time in Israel/Palestine. When my friends from the village of Nes Ammim asked me to hike the Negev desert with them, I was flattered that they thought I was up to the task. Three years before, one of them, Andries, had hiked to a remote spring and happened upon a pair of black panthers, extremely rare and seldom seen. He wanted to look for them again, and I wanted to get a taste of the wilderness where the murmuring Israelites wandered from spring to spring. The hike would take three days and would be very strenuous.
On the very first day of our hike, the desert was getting the best of me. I was fatigued and discouraged, and I was not alone in that. But, Andreis encouraged us and announced that there was an oasis ahead. We soon came to the rim of a box canyon. Looking down, we saw green at the enclosed end and a small ribbon of blue trailing away from it. We descended and followed the water to its source. We came to a pool, surrounded by lush vegetation and fed by a steady stream of water running down from a layer of rock about halfway up the canyon wall.
Andries explained that a few of the layers making up the crust of the Negev are not porous. What rain there is in the desert seeps through the crust until it comes to one of these layers. Then, the water moves laterally and downward until it finds a break, falls, and collects in a pool. Here was a deep pool, a concentration of water from miles and miles of desert.
Like pilgrims before the gate of heaven, we were giddy with anticipation. This lush oasis was so unexpected, so unprecedented, so undeserved. We stripped to our underwear and toed the water. I dove in and felt like I had broken a plane and passed into another world. The cool water enfolded me and held my tired body like the arms of God. I resurfaced, inhaled, and dived again and again and again. Eventually, I pulled myself out and sat on the edge of the pool with feet dangling in the water. I watched the steady stream falling from the canyon wall above the pool and observed the grasses growing and the flowers blooming both on the wall and around the pool—a hanging garden. I felt like a man reborn.
It strikes me that this experience captures something of what Amos had in mind when he called for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Our small acts of justice and righteousness fall like drops of rain on the desert. They may seem insignificant, but they seep through the layers and flow together into pools where all those tired from the journey can stop and refresh themselves.