A River Runs Through It

Final Words by George Heartwell
Grand Rapids Mayor – Retired
Director, Muskegon River Watershed Assembly

“A River Runs Through It”
Fountain Street Church Sermon (transcript)
May 17, 2020


“In our family,” wrote Norman Maclean, author of the novel A River Runs Through It, “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”

And I relate.

There’s something about standing in a Michigan trout stream on an early June evening, cool water rushing by just above the knees of your waders, sun below the treetops casting a golden glow over the river valley, the smell of cedar, the call of a Barred Owl breaking the hypnotizing sound of water cascading over rock, the dimple of a brook trout rising behind a boulder to pick a mayfly off the surface…and a magic wand in your hand.

Can I get an “Amen” from the fly fishers?!

For the rest of you, the next 20 minutes might be a time to plan out your week or jot down a shopping list.  Because I’ve always longed to deliver a sermon – or give a talk – on the spiritual nature of water, specifically of rivers, and you are the fortunate few who will benefit from that obsession.

I recall a solo hike on the Appalachian Trail in The Great Smokey Mountain National Park.  My hiking buddy, our son, had abandoned me to start a life in sunny southern California.  The first two days of the hike were, appropriately, rainy and cold and my spirit reflected the gloom around me.  By day three the sun came out, the path ahead brightened, and I began to think that maybe the world didn’t end when Damien moved away.  My route had taken me to a camping site by Big Creek in the eastern end of the park.  After I set up camp, I assembled my pack rod and headed down to the river.  Working my way upstream along the stony shoreline I came to a deep pool behind a boulder the size of a Volkswagen.  Carefully I picked my way up onto the boulder to look down into the water.  What I remember was the sun sparkling on the surface, a little rainbow where the cascading waterfall kicked up spray, the gin-clear depth where every stone on the bottom seemed magnified, a half-dozen trout suspended in the water column, the warmth of the sun, the rock.  I don’t recall if I caught a fish.  I don’t even remember casting.  What is clear in my memory is that water, sun, rock and trout worked a healing miracle in my lonely heart.

In Herman Hesse’s great novel Siddhartha, the protagonist returns to the river:

“He looked lovingly into the flowing water, into the transparent green, into the crystal lines of its wonderful design.  He saw bright pearls rise from its depts, bubbles swimming on the mirror, sky blue reflected in them.  The river looked at him with a thousand eyes – green, white, crystal, sky blue.  How he loved this river, how it enchanted him, how grateful he was to it!  In his heart he heard the newly awakened voice speak, and it said to him: “Love this river, stay by it, learn from it.” Pp. 82-83

I’ll return in a bit to Siddhartha, for this is only the beginning of the lessons he will learn from the river.

We think of water in its recreational uses.  Water is for swimming, for boating, for fishing, or just to lie beside on a white sand beach.  Indeed, the Great Lakes states enjoy a 9-Billion-dollar annual water-tourism industry.

We think of water in its more utilitarian sense.  We drink it.  In fact, we can last no more than 100 hours without water before we collapse and die.  We’ve seen how fragile water can be.  The children of Flint will grow up with significant cognitive deficit and physical complication as a result of drinking poisoned water.  The people of Toledo were without municipal water for four days when blue-green algae clogged the City’s intake from Lake Erie.

Water is a mode of transportation, as well.  Freighters in the Great Lakes alone move over 80 million tons of cargo every year.  And there’s commercial fishing: whitefish, lake perch, lake trout provide food and jobs.

But what of the spiritual nature of water?

Let’s start with its symbolism.  Water plays an important role in religious traditions.  God parted the water for the Hebrew people escaping Egypt and closed it over their assailants.  Moses touched the rock with his staff in the brutal, barren, arid wilderness and water gushed out.  Water, in both cases was seen as a sign of the power and providence of the Almighty.  A promise kept.  A hope restored.

The river Styx in Greek mythology, the river Jordan in the Abrahamic faith traditions, the Ganges River in Hindu tradition, the Gjoll River of Norse mythology, all separated the living from the dead, the life of toil, pain and suffering, from the Elysian Fields, the promised land.  Crossing was difficult, but the joy of eternal rest lay beyond the other shore.  Rivers as symbols.

In fact, the symbolism of the Christian baptism is profound: going down into the water where the baptized die with Christ to be raised with him, cleansed and forgiven.  I trust nobody literally dies when they’re baptized…it’s a symbolic act and the medium is water.  My blessed mother was a Southern Baptist from Alabama and the experience of being fully immersed in the waters of Sippsy Swamp stayed with her for her entire life.  I was baptized at East Congregational Church as a fourteen-year-old and I vividly remember Rev. Herbert Studebaker filling his giant palm with water that ran down my head and over my collar and changed my life.

Powerful as symbol is – and we all know the power of symbol – it doesn’t do justice to the full meaning of water as spiritual medium.

Think of this.  We came into the world from a watery nest in the womb of our mother.  Water washes us into the world.  Our body consists of water; in fact, 60% of our body, according to biologists, is water.  We come from water, we are water…and, we go to water.  When John of Revelation wanted to show a vision of a future life in the “new heaven and new earth” he 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 nation.”  Rev. 22: 1,2

And the Genesis creation myth reminds us that out of chaos came water and out of water came everything else that followed.  Evolutionary biology confirms that life emerged first from water

Simple, single-cell organisms formed out of water, then evolved into ever more complex life forms. When that biological evolution reached a certain stage some of those complex forms came out of water onto land and became even more complex.  At a much later stage one of those complex land-living organisms stood up, began to use tools, and developed self-awareness.  But it all started in water, and the stamp of water is still on us, and in us.

Another hike.  This one on the Pictured Rocks Trail from Munising to Grand Marais.  The day ended at Chapel Beach, a camp site on the shore of Lake Superior.  I made camp, ate my dinner and wandered over to the edge of the bluff looking out over the Lake.  The evening was coming on and dark, rain-filled clouds rolled across the sky from West to East.  The water was crashing on the rocks beneath me as wave upon wave washed the shoreline.  I was tired, I’m certain, from a day of hiking up and down ridges, tripping over rocks and roots.  It was easy, as I sat there, to enter a trance-like sleep; though I was still entirely alert to my environment.  And I came to see that there was water above me and water below me and water within me…and that it was the same water…and that I was one with the sky and the Lake.  A child of the Universe.  And I was at peace.

Let’s return to Siddhartha who, under the tutelage of the aged ferryman Vasudeva, learns another lesson from the river.

“He took Siddhartha’s hand, led him to the seat on the river bank, sat down beside him and smiled at the river.

‘You have heard it laugh,’ he said, ‘but you have not heard everything.  Let us listen; you will hear more.’

They listened.  The many-voiced song of the river echoed softly.  Siddhartha looked into the river and saw many pictures in the flowing water.  He saw his father, lonely, mourning for his son; he saw himself, lonely, also with the bonds of longing for a faraway son; he saw his son, also lonely, the boy eagerly advancing along the burning paths of life’s desire…The river’s voice was sorrowful.  It sang with yearning and sadness, flowing toward its goal.

‘Listen better!” whispered Vasudeva.

Siddhartha tried to listen better.  The picture of his father, his own picture, and the picture of his son all flowed into each other…They all became part of the river.  It was the goal of all of them, yearning, desiring, suffering; and the river’s voice was full of longing, full of smarting woe, full of insatiable desire.  The river flowed on towards its goal.  Siddhartha saw the river hasten…all the waves and water hastened, suffering, towards the goals, many goals, to the waterfall, to the sea, to the current, to the ocean and all goals were reached and each one was succeeded by another.  The water changed to vapor and rose, became rain and came down again, became spring, brook and river, changed anew, flowed anew.  But the yearning voice had altered.  It still echoed sorrowfully, searchingly, but other voices accompanied it, voices of pleasure and sorrow, good and evil voices, laughing and lamenting voices, hundreds of voices, thousands of voices.

…He was now listening intently, completely absorbed, quite empty, taking in everything… He could no longer distinguish the different voices – the merry voice from the weeping voice, the childish voice from the manly voice.  They all belonged to each other: the lament of those who yearn, the laughter of the wise, the cry of indignation and the groan of the dying.  They were all interwoven and interlocked, entwined in a thousand ways.  And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world.  All of them together was the stream of events.  The music of life… then the great song of a thousand voices consisted of one word:  Om – perfection.”  Pp. 109-111

Water is the spiritual element that binds us together with nature and with one another.  Water is life. If we come from water and consist of water, then water is our common bond.  Distinctions of race, gender, age, ability…they all vanish, submerged in the water of life.

Water also binds the present to the past and to the future.  All the water that will ever be came into being in a cosmic event at the beginning of time.  No more water has been made, neither has any water been lost.  It just changes shape.  Sit beside a river and watch it flow.  Our Muskegon River, where Susan and I live, today is flowing at 2200 cfs and that’s pretty average.  But it has been flowing since the glaciers melted…and it flowed somewhere before the glaciers…and it will flow long after I am gone, long after humans no longer inhabit the earth.

Indigenous peoples think of rivers as the circulatory system of Mother Earth.  Her life juices flow and flow and flow.  Sometimes they evaporate, rise and form clouds that then return refreshing water to the earth and to the rivers.  Sometimes they freeze and wait for the good warmth of spring to return and free them to flow and flow and flow.

The water ceremony in the Ojibwe tradition is a blessing on the waters, a purification by means of water, a recognition of our need for water and our responsibility to protect water.  There are water walkers, Ojibwe women elders who walk around the Great Lakes offering the water ceremony, blessing the waters.  Only women may offer the blessing of the water ceremony.  Perhaps that is because those who nurture life in the waters of their bodies, who usher life into the world, are the only ones pure enough, close enough to Mother Earth, to offer the blessing.  And so, as I conclude today I have asked Susan, _______________ and _____________ to offer the Ojibwe water blessing:


[Older woman, standing facing east, lifts the bowl then turns and pours water into the receiving bowl held by the young woman; Susan prays…]

As I receive this water and it flows through me,
May it become medicine dispelling all ills,
May it become medicine revealing the wisdom within and throughout.
I offer apology for any harm done through wrong speech & action

[Older and younger women repeat facing south and Susan prays…]

As this water flows through me and becomes vapor,
May it purify the atmosphere
May it nourish the wisdom potential in the people
I offer apology for any harm done through wrong speech & action

[ Repeat facing west, and Susan prays…]

As this water flows through me, and returns to the water table
May it remove the impurities of chemicals placed within the water
May the water be made new again
May this water become medicine for all beings in this and all worlds

[Repeat facing north and Susan prays…]

Thank you for this gift of life
Thank you for the gift of water
We appreciate this water that you have given
Now the earth is dry and the trees are crying,
Please accept our offering of this water
Please accept our apology for any harm done
through wrong speech & action