Sermon: Going to the River

Sunday, October 13, 2019
(Sunday, October 9, 2022 in absentia)
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

When I was growing up, I used to spend a lot of time up in South Dakota. My hometown is just under 40 minutes away from Yankton, and we used to go up there to the river all the time, especially up by Gavin’s Point Dam. I have so many fond childhood memories of going up to the river. We’d load the fishing poles in the back of the van and throw some ice in the cooler and head up to go fishing and camping every summer. Every Fathers Day, the whole family would go up to the river to have a big picnic. And as I got older, my best friends from high school and I used to go swimming and canoeing up there in Lake Yankton all the time – I still remember getting stuck and having to drag that silly canoe through knee-deep mud! I loved going up to the river. To me, it has always been a beautiful and peaceful place.

A few years ago now, my brother Ben was home visiting from California, and he brought his girlfriend Monique with him for the first time, so that she could meet the family. And Ben wanted to show her around the places where he grew up – so naturally, we had to take her up to Yankton to go visit Gavin’s Point Dam!


I couldn’t have even told you when the last time would have been that I had gone up to the dam, but it had definitely been years. It was still beautiful up there, just like I remembered. But seeing the river as an adult, and looking at it through the eyes of someone who had never seen it before, I found myself seeing and appreciating the river in a whole new way. For starters, it dawned on me that the Missouri is a massive river – it’s the biggest river in North America – and it can be kind of daunting to stand up close to it. And at Gavin’s Point, you can get pretty darn close to it! 

We drove down along the base of the dam, out to this concrete observation deck they have there, right under the spillway gates. The gates were all open, and the water was so high we could actually feel it splashing up on our faces. I decided to walk down the deck toward the dam – I thought it would be fun to get a close up picture of the gates – I’d never gotten to see them from so close before when they were open! As I got closer, it got much louder. The sound of the water pouring through the gates was a deafening roar before I even got halfway there. 

And I started to get this weird feeling in my gut that grew stronger with every step I took. It was like the voice of some primal instinct deep inside me that said, “This is a bad idea. This is much too dangerous.” I suddenly became very aware that there was only about a 3’ tall railing separating me from the wild and thundering and very deep water below. I still saw the river’s beauty. But for the first time, I also saw its raw, sheer power. The waters of the Missouri give life all along the river, but they can also be deadly dangerous. I had always thought of the Missouri almost like a childhood friend – but I realized in that moment that it is so, so much more than that. For the first time, I saw the river with fear.

Our psalmist for this morning writes that fear is the beginning of wisdom.  Specifically, he writes that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” My dad has always been fond of quoting that verse, but I have never really liked it. God is supposed to be our loving creator, someone who is nearby and close, someone who cares for us and listens to our prayers. I don’t want to think of God as someone to be afraid of. I mean, I’m not afraid of the people who love me. And God loves us even more – more than humans are capable of loving each other – so why would we ever fear God?

I think, in this respect, God is a lot like the Missouri River. For me, the Missouri is the nostalgic backdrop to many of my childhood memories – it is a nice river, a tame river. But if I were to fall over that 3’ high railing, into the water, I would quickly find out just how incredibly powerful a river it really is. In the same way, for many of us, God and church are the nostalgic backdrop to many of our cherished childhood memories. God is a nice God, a tame God. But in reality, God is as powerful and as dangerous and as life-giving as the Missouri – and then some! As the psalmist writes, it is wise to have a healthy respect and awe for the power of God. 

This is something that Naaman discovers firsthand in our first reading.  Naaman was a proud and arrogant man.  He held a powerful position in the Aramean army, and he was profoundly embarrassed to be suffering from leprosy.  So when he hears that there’s a prophet in Israel who can cure him, he shows up on Elisha’s doorstep and is just like, “Hey you.  Fix me.  Now.”  But Elisha doesn’t even bother to meet him face to face.  He just sends a messenger to Naaman and tells him: “Go to the river.  Wash yourself seven times and you’ll be all set.”

This really ticks Naaman off.  He had come with specific expectations of how this prophet and his god should operate, and this definitely wasn’t it.  After all, he was Naaman! Commander of the army of the king of Aram!  A healing just wasn’t a healing without some yelling and some hand-waving – some kind of impressive display of divine power!  Instead, he gets told to go dunk himself in some lousy river??  Lame.

Fortunately, Naaman’s servants are wiser than he is, and they convince him to go wash himself in the river anyway, since it’s such an easy thing to do.  And when he does, he is instantly transformed by the power of God.  God heals him and makes him whole again.  And in that moment, Naaman gets it.  He has come face to face with the awesome power of God.  And you know he has, because he doesn’t instantly start trying to bottle and sell Jordan River water as some kind of miracle cure, and he doesn’t even attribute any part of this healing to the prophet Elisha.  When Naaman comes back to stand before Elisha, he says to him, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel.”

Most of the people in our gospel reading are a little slower to figure this out than Naaman.  Jesus heals these ten lepers who cry out to him and then tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. The priests had the authority to declare when a person was “clean” – meaning not only that they were physically healthy, but also that they were ritually pure and allowed to re-enter society. All ten lepers are healed by the power of God well before they ever get to the priests – but only one of them stops to recognize what has happened and how. He doesn’t need a priest to tell him what God has already done for him. The Samaritan man is overwhelmed by the power of God that has made him whole again – that has given him his life back again –  and he falls to the ground at Jesus’ feet, full of praise and thanks for God. 

What these stories show us is that God is always awesomely more than we expect God to be. As humans, we are continually letting our own expectations of God be defined by our human limitations: our lack of imagination, our cynicism and pessimism, our past disappointments, our discomfort with powers beyond our understanding, our desire for a God who is comfortable and safe. But God’s power is untamable and unending. Like a wild river, it breaks free from the limits we try to set for it, spilling over its banks with justice and mercy. We come before God week after week, struggling and broken and bent under the weight of our worries – and week after week, that fathomless flood of grace and love washes over us – again and again, God finds a way to make us whole and to raise us once more to life. God’s power is boundless to heal us, to renew us, to lift us up and to transform us. And God’s love for us is powerful beyond all human imagining.

Feel the power of that love working on your own heart, even now, in this moment. The power of God is at work in all of us, transforming us and bringing us alive in ways we will never fully understand. And if you ever find yourself needing a reminder of this – a reminder of just how awesome the power of God is – I find it helpful to take Elisha’s advice… and go to the river.


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