The river stands to me for life and indeed the source of life in God. How lovely it is that the spot we have found for refreshment in the muggy, mosquito-ridden summer is on the Saint Croix River: Holy Cross in English. As I emerge from yet another dive into its depths and find myself further down the shore I could swear I’ve caught a glimpse of something more—saints gathered by a throne.
Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.
—Robert Lowry, 1864
Just a few miles south of Interstate 94 on the west side of the St. Croix River lies the little town of Lake St. Croix Beach in Washington County, Minnesota. At just over a thousand people, it is a picturesque little place with cottages built up close to the river. The town lives up to its name, for it does have a beautiful little beach along a place where the river has widened out into a lake-like body of water. Beside the beach is a nice little covered eating area, a couple of those big porta potties that are big enough for a wheelchair to get in, and some swings and playground equipment. About a half hour from our house, it is an ideal place for a summer afternoon and evening.
Though it was freezing cold, we have already been down to the river this spring. It made my heart glad.
We discovered the beach a few years ago through friends and fell in love with it. Of course, all water is magnificent. The two community pools we go to in town are convenient and provide delights with their diving boards and big slides. In the case of the Como Pool, my kids enjoy both a lazy river around which they like to float in big inflatable tubes and a zip line to ride before splashing into one of the pools. I like these places, particularly the Highland Pool, which, despite having a few more bells and whistles, is really simpler—a big rectangle—and reminds me more of the community pool across the park behind the house we moved to Bremen, Indiana, when I was eight.
I spent many afternoons in the Bremen Pool playing tag, diving, looking in adoring wonder at and later flirting with the female lifeguards, and swimming as far as I could underwater. Of the superheroes I knew, the ones who were easiest to pretend to be were Aqua Man and Namor the Submariner. As I got to where I could swim underwater across the short side of the pool and back again, I was sure I would soon be fit for some adventure or other.
When I was tired, it was simply relaxing to lay in the water floating face down or trying to lay at the bottom of the pool. There were no safe spaces in those days, but somehow the pool seemed a refuge. Though we humans cannot close our ears, going underwater is as close to doing so as anything. I think my dad thought so, too. I would often return in the evening after supper with him, covered in sweat and grime from his work running the bailing machine at his box factory all day—for ten hours if he was lucky to get the overtime. I still see him diving off the diving board and washing away the sweat, the grime, and the tiredness he carried from working to keep us afloat financially.
He first taught me some rudimentary swimming skills at the mucky Lake of the Woods in the time before we moved to Bremen. Though I liked going to that lake, I confess that it was (at least at that time) one of those lakes that is itself a bit grimy. Better was going in the water behind my Aunt Deane and Uncle John’s house on Koontz Lake slightly to the west of our house in Lakeville. Better still were the summer Saturdays that we went to swim at Uncle Everett and Aunt Roberta’s house on Irish Lake near Leesburg. They had a pontoon boat that was fun to ride in, but to my mind the little paddle boat was the most fun. The best days in that lake were when Ev and Roberta hosted the Sowers Family Picnic, and my brother and I spent the whole day in the water, only pausing to eat hot dogs and desserts.
Later in life I had the delight of snorkeling off the Florida Keys with a couple friends. We decided to dive-bomb a group of fish that turned out to be barracuda. We escaped unscathed but the snorkel-rental guy told us we were idiots. Too true. The best sea-ocean swimming experience I had, though, was in the Mediterranean while traipsing along the trail of the Northern Italian cities known as the Cinque Terre with some friends from our recently completed semester at the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies in Oxford. A number of us stripped down to underwear and swam out to a big rock at dusk where we sat and drank wine from the bottles we had bought along the way.
For me, however, pools and even lakes, seas, and oceans still do not compare with rivers. Lakes are picturesque, seas and oceans are majestic, but rivers are alive. Heraclitus said that one cannot step in the same river twice due to its movement. Ancient temples were built over rivers and various pagans thought of rivers as having their own gods. Indeed, lore has it that spirits cannot cross running water. (My children still sit on the edge of their seats as Ichabod Crane—in the Disney version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, narrated in song by Bing Crosby—rides desperately for the bridge over the river to escape the pursuing headless horseman.) Because I am an American male living near the Mississippi River, the stories of Mark Twain’s assorted characters and the rumbling strains of “Ol’ Man River” from Show Boat lend both adventure and pathos to the currents just west of our home. We have a tradition of hailing the river every time we drive over it—“Mighty Mississippi!”
My best friend from college and I had a plan to canoe down the length of the Mississippi from the headwaters in Itasca, Minnesota, down to the Gulf of Mexico. We never did it, but I met a man who did so with an adult son. He told of the dangers, including the hostility of pilots of larger crafts experienced in the journey—the larger boats often deliberately tried to swamp them. No matter. I’d still like to do it.
The river stands to me for life and indeed the source of life in God. Naaman the Syrian was healed by bathing seven times in the Jordan. Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, showed his divine power on lakes and seas a number of times, but first he had his true father revealed as he too bathed in the Jordan. The sea and even the lakes were frightening in those later stories, but it was the river that conveyed relationship, a pattern begun in the Old Testament when the Psalmist declared that because God is “a very present help in trouble,”
Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult. (Psalm 46: 2-3)
He had seen the power of the seas to convey God’s transcendent greatness and frightening vastness, but he turned to the living body of water to depict God’s closeness and help.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved;
God will help her right early. (46: 4-5)
God might be an ocean, but when he builds a city, his gladness is poured out through rivers.
The book of Revelation follows suit. John the Seer’s vision of the New Heaven and New Earth is one in which “the sea was no more” (Revelation 21:1). I suppose that just as there is no sun or moon because we will experience the one whom the Nicene Creed labels “light from light,” so too there will be no sea since we will take part in the endless life of the divine sea forever in the New Jerusalem. Yet this New Jerusalem will itself have a body of water: “Then he 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; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (22: 1-2).
While I’ve never said no to fruit, I read this vision and see myself diving into the river eternally. Perhaps it’s the result of having another bit of Scripture in my subconscious, albeit reinterpreted. The beginning of the book of Ecclesiastes begins with the emptiness of life as seen in the fact that our world operates on cycles—an inspiration of the eternal return.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again. (1: 7)
In the Heavenly Jerusalem the emptiness of life perceived by those who watched the water cycle here on earth will have that perception, as so many of our perceptions on this side of the River Jordan, turned upside down.
How lovely it is that the spot we have found for refreshment in the muggy, mosquito-ridden summer is on the Saint Croix River: Holy Cross in English. It flows by Wisconsin and Minnesota, surely, but as I emerge from yet another dive into its depths and find myself further down the shore I could swear I’ve caught a glimpse of something more—saints gathered by a throne.
Shall we gather at the river?
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