Preaching a river; more than just an illustration

Yesterday I preached a sermon on the hydrology of the Bow River. It was a great church service and the message felt quite powerful and effective. When I got home I tried to figure out why. I asked my family (poor ‘guinea pigs’ them) a question, “Why and how do you think this morning’s deeper scientific engagement with the nature of the Bow River made Jesus’ words – “Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” John 7:38, TNIV (one of our biblical texts for this sermon) – more powerful?”

My son Thomas thought that it had to do with the weight of the word/image/analogy/metaphor/text. The more you know about the depth of the nature of a river, the greater the meaning and the deeper the application of the point Jesus was trying to make. Like with all words, the more fully we understand their meaning, the greater the weight they carry in their usage. Jesus – the one through whom all rivers were made – surely knew what he was saying when he cited this particular image.

My (always down to earth) wife, Fran, thought that by physcially explaining the material nature of the Bow River, I avoided an “airy fairy” application of the river metaphor (I’m thinking she’s heard too many ‘over spiritualized’ river references in her life).  I think she has a point. A strong apprection of the material goodness of creation is a hedge against gnosticism (elevating ‘spiritual’ over ‘material’). Treating the river as a text, kept it’s goodness, beauty and truth down to earth.

My son’s girlfriend Melinda said, “There’s something about a scientific truth that is irrefutable. By emphasizing this and linking it to the scriptural text (to the extent that you can do that well) you substantiate the scripture in a way.” Smart young woman. Now it’s not that she needs the river’s empirical stamp to give authority to God’s revelation in the bible; she’s already there. But this connection seemed to strengthen her faith. God’s seeable, measurable, potable word in the river spoke more audibly, clearly, tangibly, in a way.

After each of them shared, I said, “You’re all talking about the same thing, but from a different angle.”

To me, the engagement and preaching of the Bow River as a text was kind of like the learning that occurs on a field trip. You can learn things in a classroom, lab or sanctuary, but it’s a different kind of learning from the immersive experience of being there. By preaching a river the way we did – spending over 50% of the sermon time on the hydrological science, including river sounds, imagery and video throughout the service, engaging the best expertise we could in interviewing a world leading scientist – we created a deeper experience of the text.  And life is a field trip isn’t it?  I suppose the ultimate manifestation of this approach would be to actually preach the message while the congregation floated down the Bow on rafts (challenging for the techies though!).

By treating the Bow River as more than just an illustration, the entire sermon took on new weight. And Jesus’ promise that, if we believed in him, rivers of living water will flow from us, took on new meaning.