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A Watershed Year – River Sunday

September 28, 2014

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday in the Season of Creation, September 28, 2014

Psalm 46         Rev 22:1-5

rock cut creek

Rivers have fascinated me for a long time. When I was young my grandparents (my mother’s parents) would take me camping each summer along the Kankakee River. (The photo above is Rock Cut Creek in the Kankakee River State Park). The Kankakee watershed connects northwestern Indiana with northeastern Illinois. To me, it was a water road to the Mississippi, the river of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Jim. I have vivid memories of fishing with my grandfather, stalking crayfish with my cousin, and trying to build a small raft out of dry wood and fishing line so that I could cross over to this small island in the middle of the river. I imagined myself camping there, hunting for food, and finding adventure. From that island I knew the river could carry me all the way to St. Louis, to Memphis, and ultimately New Orleans.

Before fossil fuels, coal and oil, trains and cars, our rivers were our primary highways. And for millennia, the regional watersheds of which our rivers play a central role were natural communities. Each watershed sponsors a unique mix of habitats, “forests and wetlands, fields and meadows, [pools] and lakes, farms and towns” through which all life is inextricably linked by their common water source. “Every one of us lives in a watershed, no matter how ignorant we may be about it.” Snow or rain “hits ridges and either flows into our watershed or a neighboring one and is drained by a local creek, river, or stream (even if buried under concrete).” As Biblical scholar Ched Myers puts it “Watershed literacy was key to the survival and flourishing of all traditional societies. It remains so today.”[1]

For the last two years I have been experiencing this anew. A year ago August, Noelle and I spent three weeks camping our way along the Lewis and Clark Trail. We first traced the Ohio River from Pennsylvania to the Mississippi. Four generations of my ancestors were river pilots on the Ohio River, carrying American settlers west and trade back east. We then followed the Missouri River from its big muddy mouth in St. Louis to its crystal source in a pristine spring just below the Lemhi Pass in the Beaver Mountains of Montana. From there we walked 200 feet over the continental divide and into Idaho to observe water now flowing west instead of east, feeding the Salmon River, and flowing ultimately out to the Pacific ocean by way of the Columbia River.

When we returned to New York, it was only a few weeks later that we witnessed the 2013 Colorado floods, and the ecological devastation of this river we had come to love. Each night we would hear news reports of raw sewage, thick oil spills and “produced water” (chemical fracking waste) flowing into the Missouri, and for weeks we could follow on our computers the toxic flume making its way slowly east in the waters, and we would remember each place we had stood on the rivers edge.

This year our family camping trip took us in the footsteps of Davy Crockett across Tennessee. We hiked through the Cumberland Gap, as my Scots-Irish ancestors had, and then rafted down the Cumberland River. Two weeks later, on the far side of the watershed, we met those same waters again as we stood on the banks of the Mighty Mississippi.

I am really proud that my son can now look at a map of the United States and identify the contours of our nation’s mountains and rivers. Some of these geographic features shaped the settlement of states. That funny border between Montana and Idaho is actually the Continental Divide, a high ridge and the boundary between two watersheds. I wish I had learned that in school, but it was much cooler to see it for ourselves. The great squiggly line that is the northern part of Kentucky is the Ohio River. The straight line at the bottom of Kentucky, however, is an arbitrary line on a map drawn by politicians, as are the lines that define all the “boxy states” like Kansas, Colorado, and Nevada. All of these lines, the river boundaries and the arbitrary lines, cut right through the earth’s natural communities, and divide people with natural economic and social interests.

John Wesley Powell was the first non-native to navigate the Colorado River in 1869, and to explore what we now know as the Grand Canyon. (Our friend Rev Peggy Howland, sitting in the front row this morning, once rafted for seven days and seven nights down the Colorado River in Powell’s path). Understanding the importance of water as a precious resource, that watersheds created communities with natural common interests, and that arbitrary lines would lead to endless conflict, Powell suggested that the boundaries of western states be determined by watersheds. He was ignored, but he was right. According a November 2013 Washington Post article, “water usage, especially along the Colorado River, is the subject of innumerable state vs. state lawsuits, strict rationing and increasing conflict between urban areas and agricultural industries.”[2] Conflicts made worse by climate change and the prolonged drought in the American West: 100% of California is experiencing drought.

I have printed in the bulletin this morning a map of what the United States would look like if we had settled it according to natural communities rather than political interests. I hope you will spend some time with this map and consider what life would be like if we organized resources around natural watersheds rather than around human-designated political boundaries.


Interestingly, according to Barbara Rossing, rivers also play pivotal roles in biblical geography.

God encounters people at river crossings, such as the Jabbock River where Jacob wrestled with God, or the Jordan River where the Israelites crossed over on stones. River reeds protected the infant Moses, whose names means “I drew him out of the water.” (Exod. 2:3, 10). Rivers are locations of healing: for example, cleansing Naaman the Syrian from his leprosy (2 Kgs. 5:12). “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,” the psalmist sings. (Ps. 46: 4). The biblical river of life, first mentioned in Genesis, flows east from Eden (Gen. 2: 10). The prophet Ezekiel envisions a wondrous river flowing out from the new temple – ankle deep, knee deep, thigh deep – bringing life to all it touches. Stagnant water becomes fresh, providing habitat for fish, birds, and people, and watering the fruit trees on each side of the river (Ezekiel 47).

In the New Testament, the river of life flows from the heart of Jesus in the Gospel of John, becoming for anyone who thirsts a spring of water gushing up to eternal life (John 7:37-38). Baptismal life centers around rivers, such as the place of prayer beside the river where Lydia and her community were baptized in Philippi (Acts 16). In Revelation, the river of the water of life flows out from the throne of God and of the Lamb, right through the middle of the city of God. The invitation is addressed to everyone who thirsts: “Come, take the water of life without cost” (Rev. 22:17, my translation).[3]

Today is the fourth and final Sunday in the season of creation. We have in the last few weeks explored the significance of forests, soil and wilderness in God’s plan for creation. As we add rivers to our list this morning, it is important not only to note the presence of these geographic features in scripture, but to see that when orchards, land, wild places and living water appear in scripture, they appear as integrated ecologies that connect us to all life naturally in a local environment.

I had not taken sufficient notice of this before, but in our reading today those trees-whose-leaves-are-for-the-healing-of-the-nations in the New Jerusalem are part of an urban greenway made possible by the river. The orchard along the banks provides abundant food year-round. The curse on land and labor is lifted. And when the lamb, the Christ figure, is first introduced in chapter five, “A whole chorus of animals, sea creatures and creatures under the earth burst into songs of praise.” (5:13). All creation has been waiting for this moment when God’s home will again be on earth, “dwelling with creation and renewing it.”[4]

In this congregation we understand earth-care to be a part of discipleship to Christ who sits on a throne in a restored creation. And we have been challenged to make Christ’s temple as large as the earth. The three members who traveled from our church to Peru earlier this year returned with stories of people concerned for their watershed, which depends on the rapidly shrinking glaciers for water. We have marched to demand of our leaders concrete goals to reduce carbon emissions, and to levy “polluter pays” taxes on destructive industries, and we purchase sustainably harvested palms for our Palm Sunday celebration because we are concerned with the destruction of our old growth forests in the Amazon. These actions are important, but they can seem distant or abstract.

To paraphrase Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum,

  • We don’t save places we don’t love
  • We can’t love places we don’t know
  • We don’t know places we haven’t learned

A few days ago I did not know what our local watershed was. Most of us here live in the Bronx River watershed, federal I.D. 2030102, including the Bronx, Hutchison and Mamaroneck rivers. Our scripture leads me to ask, what must we do to make our own watershed, the Bronx River, a river that heals the nations, the kind of river that would make glad the city of God? I don’t know yet, but I am sure that the God who meets us where we are meets us in this Bronx Watershed, and has neighbors for us to meet, and work for us to do together.


On Friday evening I decided to join the Bronx River Alliance online. I did this because, for years, the river was a dumping ground. You couldn’t swim in it. People wouldn’t even touch it. It was called an open sewer. But over the last decade The Bronx River Alliance has worked to restore much of the river’s natural health. Understand – the Bronx River is only 24 miles long. They hauled out over 70 cars, 5000 tires, they planted trees and made paths and parks, and they gave the river a voice at community meetings, in government and in the streets.[5] On their facebook page I learned that every September they participate in International Coastal Clean-Up Day. Over 300 volunteers turned out last week to haul more than 200 bags of debris from the water. I think International Coastal Clean-Up Day should be on our church calendar next year because,

  • We don’t save places we don’t love
  • We can’t love places we don’t know
  • We don’t know places we haven’t learned[6]

We can start by learning more about our local watershed. When I post this sermon online tomorrow I will include a web link to Geostories, which is part of National Geographic. There you will find a virtual tour of the Bronx River as well as a link to The Bronx River Alliance where you can learn what neighbors have already been doing. Let’s make this 300th anniversary year a watershed year in our congregation, connecting us to earth, to neighbor and to the God who loves us toward our common well-being.[7]











[1] All citations in this paragraph are from Ched Myers, “A Watershed Moment,” in Sojourners: Faith in Action for Social Justice. May 2014.

[2] A modern version of Powell’s vision can be found at “The United States of Watersheds,’ Washington Post, November 19, 2013: . The full story is told by Wallace Stegner in Beyond the Hundredth meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (Penguin Books, 1953).

[3] Barbara Rossing in The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary. Edited by Norman Habel, David Rhoads and H. Paul Santmire. (Fortress Press, 2011).

[4] Citations also from Rossing.

[5] Source: and

[6] At

[7] To learn more about how rivers connect us, visit The link to the Bronx River tour is about halfway down the page.

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