Our land, Aotearoa, is blessed with rivers. Rivers bless us with their life and energy and potency and spirit.
There were some who bridled last year at the thought of the Whanganui River being given the legal status of a person under a unique Treaty of Waitangi settlement. It means the Whanganui River, the third-longest in the country, has all the rights, duties and liabilities that come with personhood. As Chris Finlayson said at the time, “[Though] some will say it’s pretty strange it’s no stranger than family trusts, or companies or incorporated societies.”
Of course a river does not have the moral capacity of a human being. Rivers, like the oceans, can give life but they can also take life away. Rivers don’t choose to destroy or kill, and are not morally culpable. Rivers need to be respected – as any tramper who has had to ford a river will know. Rivers need to also be cared for in terms for how much water we take from them, and what we put in them. Most of our rivers in New Zealand contain pollutants detrimental to our health.
Giving a river the legal status of a person is a way to correct the unhelpful and harmful English concept of ‘ownership’ and instead replace it with the more biblical concept of ‘stewardship’ or in Te Reo ‘kaitiakitanga’. As the most powerful and dangerous animal on planet Earth we humans need to take responsibility to guard and care for the rivers – for in doing so we nourish not only the river, and all the ecosystems and life dependent on it, but we also nourish ourselves. For when we are carers/kaitiaki we align our actions with the direction of our deepest self, our soul.
This is why I say that rivers can bless us not only physically, but can heal and soothe our splintered souls.
This is also why I like the story of the soldier Naaman and the river. For war requires the soldier to dehumanize his adversary. War and killing splinters the soul. That is why if we, as a country, decide to send our young men and women to war we need to care deeply for them when they return.
Naaman had a splintered soul, and as psychotherapists know trouble in the soul is often followed by manifestations in the body. In Naaman’s case it was like eczema – he itched. And, I guess with armour in the heat, he itched more. It wasn’t what medically we call leprosy.
The story is cleverly nuanced. Naaman was the successful commander of the army of Aram [modern day central Syria]. In the hierarchy of power he was close to the top. But because of his suffering he was willing to listen to the bottom. Young, female, a slave, and nameless is about as close to the bottom of the power pile one could get. It is her voice, expressed to her mistress, and then expressed to Naaman, that starts him on the journey to spiritual and physical health. The voice of wisdom came from below, not above.
Unfortunately, from Naaman’s perspective, wisdom meant crossing into the land of your enemy and asking your enemy – and in effect your enemy’s God - for a favour. It wasn’t a case of just going to your prophet GP down the road. Rather it was a humbling venture into foreign territory.
So Naaman went to his King and explained. And the King, being a king-type, thought that dealing with prophets and spiritual healing was your usual power-type transaction. So he writes to his fellow king, the King of Israel, who he expects will order his prophet to order his God to heal Naaman. And he attaches a king-size payment that reflects his status and the regard he holds Naaman in. The King of Aram was being kind. But he was blind to the healing wisdom that comes from below.
Then comes the humorous part. The letter and gift is delivered to the King of Israel who, in polite language, freaks out. For this king knows that such healing is not a king-type, power-type transaction. He knows that prophets often have tempestuous relationships with their king. They are not puppets. Especially that Elisha and his former master Elijah. Similarly YHWH, the God of Israel, does not do the king’s bidding just because the king asks! Hello? YHWH, like prophets, is unpredictable. And gold and silver and fine garments won’t seal the deal.
The King of Israel thinks the King of Aram is trying to set him up – in other words: pick a fight – a fight the King of Israel does not want and thinks he will lose.
Enter Elisha. Palace gossip has gossiped its way to his ear. ‘Don’t freak,’ says Elisha. ‘Let him come.’
So the message gets back to Naaman who now, following the advice of an enemy slave girl, enters enemy territory to ask a favour of an enemy prophet who serves an enemy god. Being strong and brave Naaman made sure he didn’t go alone. He was scared. Scared, I guess, not from a possible physical attack – for that he had plenty of training, but scared because of what this might cost his pride – for which he had no training.
And his pride quickly took a knock. Elisha didn’t even come to the door, but merely conveyed through a servant the order to wash seven times in the Jordan River. So Elisha did not greet him and acknowledge Naaman’s status and power. Elisha did not say a lengthy prayer or anoint him with special healing ointments. Elisha did not even want Naaman to say a prayer to YHWH! No, Elisha simply wanted him to wash in plain ol’ H2O in the Jordan.
This was too much for Naaman. There was plenty of good water and good rivers in Syria. This prophet was treating him with disdain, which I suspect Naaman had secretly feared would happen. He should never have listened to that slave girl!
Then we learn something else about Naaman. As a leader he’d chosen not sycophants to surround him but those willing to offer a contrary view. And, even when in a rage, Naaman listened to them. Maybe that’s why he’d been such a successful commander?
So, once again, Naaman humbled himself and he went to the river, and he found himself soothed and healed in the waters of his enemy. Ko au te awa. Ko te awa ko au (‘I am in the river and the river is in me’).
There is an interesting postscript to the story about Naaman trying to pay Elisha for the healing. Naaman was operating, like his King, in the economic system of financial payment for services rendered. The river, Elisha, and YHWH [who was through all and in all] worked in the economy of grace. They knew that a man with a splintered soul had by listening to and going to the land of the kin of those he had killed, and trusting in the life-power of the river, humbled himself and miraculously found healing. This was a surprising gift, a grace.
I say ‘miraculously’ and ‘surprising’ because there are no guarantees when it comes to healing. If you made Naaman’s story and what he allegedly did into a medicinal tablet, there’s still no guarantee it would work. You can have all the faith in the universe, you can have the best doctors, you can be the loveliest, most caring and generous person in the world, but you still might not find healing. Indeed you might suffer horribly. There are no guarantees.
If you’ve grown up in churches you will be familiar with the Parable of the Sower. It’s in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Thomas – with some independence between three of them. That independence is one of the pointers that alert us to its reliability as an authentic Jesus parable. Another is that it has no God character.
The tricky thing is this parable comes with an allegorical interpretation reflecting the experience of the early church after Jesus’ death (Mark 4:13-20). In the allegory the seed is the good news. The seed that falls along the path are those who hear but Satan (a character in apocalyptic thought) takes the seed away. The seed that falls on the rocky ground are those who hear but fall away when they have difficulties. The seed among the thorns are those who allow the cares of daily life to choke their growth. And the seed on the good earth are those who hear and bear ‘fruit’. Being a Jesus follower in the second half of the 1st century was challenging.
But this was not what the authentic Jesus parable was trying to say. Rather this parable is about seeing God’s kin-dom in the present, in our everyday living.
The Jesus parable says in effect, we scatter seed. We love, we care, we promote justice, and we try to make life better for others. We don’t know how the seed will turn out. We kind of lose control of it when it leaves our hand. Chance takes over. Some lands on ground that doesn’t appreciate who we are and what we offer; or on ground that doesn’t understand us. But some lands on ground that does. It’s kind of like parenting.
So good things happen and bad things happen, and we have limited control over much of it. But we rejoice when the good happens and grieve when the bad happens. The important thing is to keep on scattering seed and hoping that the contributions we can make to a healthy planet, a healthy community, and healthy relationships will make some sort of difference. Don’t despair about the bad things. Failure is inevitable in sowing. Failure is part of life. There is a time for failure. In failure and everydayness lies the miracle of hope.
And leave God out of this mix as any sort of primary cause, or overseer, or determiner of good and bad events.
This parable is like the Book of Ecclesiastes (part of the Wisdom literature) which openly questions the doctrine that God rules the universe in a loving way that ensures justice for all. Instead the Ecclesiastes author heretically undermines much of the Bible by finding, as Lloyd Geering says (Such is Life! : A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes), “no discernible thread of purpose in the universe or in human existence, and by proposing that though Nature operates in ever-repeating cycles, much of human life is determined by sheer chance.”
A closing thought on rivers:
Often there is a river in our lives. A literal river. One you might have swum in, played in, or fished in. One that you associate with your concept of belonging to this place. This is why a basic pepeha (an introductory speech) often asks us to name our awa/river.
In Christian thought the Spirit of God has been described as a river of life, flowing in our lives and through our lives. As a metaphor it reminds us that God is moving, dynamic, and when we are in the river that dynamism can carry us along.
But Christian thought has rarely articulated a relationship of mutuality between ourselves and the river/the spirit of life, where we are mutually dependent on the health and wellbeing of one another; and those of us with the means and ability to guard or care for the rivers to do so.
It is time to do so. It is time for us to bless rivers, as they have blessed us.