Ezekiel 47:1-12

Water—it is essential to life.  Jacques Cousteau, the famous oceanographer, observed that, “the water cycle and the life cycle are one.”  Anthropologist Loren Eiseley wrote, “If there is any magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”  All of the explorations into outer space, in efforts to detect signs of life elsewhere in the universe, are looking for evidence of water.  If water can be found on another planet, or in another solar system, there is at least the possibility of life out there, somewhere.  But without water, there can be no life.

That is especially true of life here on earth.  Throughout history people have clustered around sources of water.  Most cities throughout history have been founded near rivers, because rivers provide a source of water—for drinking and agriculture and manufacturing and transportation and other uses.  Here in Maryland most of the population centers are located along four major rivers—the Potomac, the Patuxent, the Patapsco, and the Susquehanna.  Here in the metropolitan Washington area, our water comes from two major rivers—the Potomac and the Patuxent.  Some people here in Bowie, about 25,000 customers, get their water from the City of Bowie Water Treatment Plant, which uses groundwater as it primary source.  But the rest of us get our water from WSSC, which has filtration plants on the Potomac and Patuxent Rivers, and stores over 10 billion gallons of water in reservoirs.  The Potomac Water Filtration Plant can treat up to 285 million gallons per day, and the Patuxent Filtration Plant can treat up to 70 million gallons a day.  That’s a lot of water.

Just about every major city in the world is located on a river, or rivers.  Washington, D.C. is located on the Potomac River; New York City is located on the Hudson and East Rivers; London is on the Thames; Paris is on the Seine; Rome is on the Tiber; Cairo is on the Nile; Kinshasa is on the Congo; Baghdad is on the Tigris; Buenos Aires is on the Rio de la Plata; Delhi is on the Yamuna; Hong Kong is on the Pearl River; Seoul is on the Han River; Tokyo is on the Sumida; Melbourne is on the Yarra.  Rivers are essential to most cities here in the United States.  The major U.S. river system, of course, is the Missouri-Mississippi-Ohio.  Consider how many cities are located along those rivers:  New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Omaha, Louisville, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and more. 

Rivers were the lifeblood of most cities in America.  But about the middle of the nineteenth century, many cities began to turn away from their riverfronts as railroads became the more important means of transportation.  Plus, as many urban rivers became conduits for waste, little more than open sewers, living alongside a river became less desirable.  In the twentieth century development in many cities was directed away from the rivers, because manufacturing plants along the rivers were eyesores and emitted pollutants and foul odors.  Only in the last twenty or thirty years have many cities begun to reclaim their rivers, to clean up the trash, and reduce the pollution, and restore the wetlands, and redevelop the waterfront.   

If you’ve ever been to the Riverwalk in San Antonio, you know how vital the riverfront has become to the downtown area of that city.  And many other American cities have followed San Antonio’s lead in revitalizing their riverfronts.  Cities like Chicago, and Denver, and Portland, and even the Bronx in New York City, have discovered that downtown river renovations can be a boon to economic development and the quality of life.  There are plans in this county to revitalize the Potomac riverfront in Ft. Washington, just south of the Woodrow Wilson Bride.  The Potomac River has been dramatically improved over the past thirty or so years, although the Anacostia still needs a lot of work.  We who live in this part of Prince George’s County, and across the river in Anne Arundel and Calvert Counties are very concerned about the health of the Patuxent River.  There is still much work yet to be done.  The non-profit organization, American Rivers, has identified the Susquehanna River as one of the most endangered rivers in America.  Because the Susquehanna empties into the Chesapeake Bay, its health is of vital importance to our whole region.  Unfortunately, aging sewer systems upriver in Pennsylvania and New York discharge poorly treated sewage into the Susquehanna, to be carried downstream into the Bay.  All of us should be concerned about the welfare of our rivers, because ultimately our quality of life, indeed life itself, depends upon the water the rivers provide.

Oddly enough, the city of Jerusalem was not built on a river.  The main water supply for the ancient city of Jerusalem was the Gihon Spring, just outside the east wall of the city, that gushed fresh water for about 40 minutes three or four times a day.  There were other springs around Jerusalem, but the Gihon was the major water source.  It was so important that King Hezekiah built a 533 meter underground tunnel to bring water from the Gihon Spring into Jerusalem.  The underground water tunnel was completed in 701 B.C. and it continued to feed the pools of Siloam in Jerusalem for centuries after that.          

In the scripture passage that we read this morning, Ezekiel had a vision of a restored Jerusalem and a rebuilt Temple.  Ezekiel had this vision after the actual Jerusalem had been destroyed.  Ezekiel and 10,000 of his fellow Jews were in exile in Babylon, but the word had come that Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonians, and the Temple itself had been laid waste.  This was painful for all the Jews, but particularly painful for Ezekiel, who was himself a priest, as well as a prophet.  His whole life had been directed toward serving as a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, and now that the Temple was destroyed, the purpose of his life was no longer apparent.  Ezekiel must have wondered what God had in store for him and his people with no Temple and no Jerusalem to go home to.

But in this passage near the end of the book, Ezekiel had a vision of a new Temple, and this new Temple was to become a sign of hope for all the people.  For in the vision, Ezekiel saw water flowing from beneath the threshold of the Temple, water that began as a trickle, then became a stream, then finally became a mighty river.  In the vision Ezekiel was guided by an angelic figure to follow the water as it flowed out of the Temple toward the east.  As Ezekiel and his angel guide moved along the channel of the water, Ezekiel would stop every thousand cubits to step into the water to measure its depth.  At first the water was ankle deep, then it was knee deep, then it was waist deep, until finally the water was so deep that it could not be crossed; it was deep enough to swim in. 

Along the banks of the river Ezekiel saw trees, many trees, growing on either side.  This was an amazing sight because groves of thriving trees are rare in the desert topography of that part of the world.  Then the angel told Ezekiel that the water from the Temple that had become a mighty river would flow into the Dead Sea.  That in itself would not be all that shocking.  Water does flow downhill.  The city of Jerusalem was located about 24 miles west of the Dead Sea on a ridge, about 2500 feet above sea level.  The mount on which Jerusalem was built was surrounded by valleys, and to the east were valleys that led down to the Dead Sea, 1292 below sea level, the lowest depression on earth.  So, it would not be strange to envision the water from Jerusalem being pulled by gravity all the way down to the Dead Sea.  But when the water from Jerusalem reached the Dead Sea, something amazing took place.  The water from Jerusalem brought the Dead Sea back to life.

Just as the sacred river had caused trees to grow on either bank, now it brought life to the sea where before nothing could live.  The mineral content of the Dead Sea is 24-26%.  Compare that with normal sea water, which contains 4-6% salt and other minerals.  Because of this extreme mineral content, no fish or other aquatic life could survive in such an environment, hence the name Dead Sea.  But as the water from the sacred river flowed into the Dead Sea, the sea became alive, teeming with aquatic life and fish.  Everything lives where the river goes.  People stand on the banks of the Dead Sea and catch fish!  Not only that, the trees on both banks of the sacred river will not wither, nor will they ever fail to produce fruit.  Indeed, every month their branches will bear fruit for food, and their leaves will be good for healing.

Six hundred years later a man named John also had a vision of a sacred river flowing from the new Jerusalem.  In the book of Revelation John wrote, “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.  On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:1-2). 

Jerusalem was not built upon a river, but out of the new Jerusalem a healing stream will flow, a trickle that becomes a torrent, giving life to all that it touches.  The desert will bloom, and even the waters of the Dead Sea will be made fresh and pure. 

That was Ezekiel’s vision.  Now what does it mean?  The sacred river, the water of life, New Jerusalem itself, are all symbols of the healing, renewing, life-giving power of God.  Only God is the source of life, and only God is the source of new life.  Only God can provide living water to quench the deepest thirst of the human soul.  The flood of grace that flows from the throne of God brings healing to the sick, fruitfulness to the barren, forgiveness to the fallen, salvation to the lost, and life to those who were dead.  “Living water, healing stream, brings new life, new hope, new dreams” (Ken Medema). 

There is a strange detail in the Gospel of John about the death of Jesus.  John wrote that after Jesus had died on the cross, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water flowed from the wound (John 19:34).  I’ve understood that the blood represents Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins, but I never understood the water, until now.  The water from Jesus’ side was like the sacred river, that began as a trickle and flowed down through the centuries until it became a flood of redemption for all who believe.  From the threshold of God, even upon a cross, was poured forth a mighty river, giving healing and life to all that it touches.  

“Let the river run, let all the dreamers wake the nation, come, the new Jerusalem” (Carly Simon)

Bruce Salmon, Pastor, Village Baptist Church, Bowie, Maryland
January 29, 2006

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