It was a very large, slow moving river – brown as mud and highly toxic. Yet the local people bathed in it, swam in it and even drank from it. Every week there were reports of people falling ill and, over the course of a year, many deaths were reported – all due to the toxic river.
Yet the people who were devoted and attached to the river claimed it was pure, that it offered satisfaction, peace and eternal life to all those who would join them in its toxic waters. And many were taken in – people from all parts of the world. Some who came survived, indeed a few seemed to thrive – but many more became ill, disaffected, disappointed and soon abandoned the river all together.
One day as I walked by the river I heard a poor man speaking to a group of people. They told him that the river was in fact a lie, a fraud – that is was nothing like they had expected from all the hype in the Holy Book to which The River People were so attached. The old man listened patiently and when the people had finally vented their anger he spoke calmly and quietly – ‘What you say is true – this is what the river has become today – but it has not always been so. In fact at its source the river is still pure, clear, refreshing and the true source of eternal life.’ He tried to go on but they laughed at him – told him he was just a mad old man and walked away.
I noticed that the man had a battered old suitcase with him – and as the people left he lifted the case and started to walk away. But something about him attracted me so I ran over to him and asked him where he was going next. ‘Oh’ he said – ‘I’m about to set off on a long journey back to the source of the river – that’s where I live’.
I too had been attracted by the river and, as it turned out, the exaggerated claims I had heard. Like many I had travelled a long way to find it – but also like many I had been bitterly disappointed. I had in fact fallen seriously ill after bathing in the river and was that day about to return to my home in one of the great desert kingdoms of the world.
Just then the old man put down his case, opened it, and took out a flask of water. He offered me a drink – and to my utter amazement, I drank, at that moment, from the clearest, sweetest water I had ever tasted. As I drank the refreshing water the old man smiled. ‘Where did you get such water’ I asked. ‘Oh’ he said – ‘this is water from the source’. ‘But why oh why’ I asked, ‘has the river become so polluted’. ‘Ah my friend’ he said – ‘to answer that question you must travel up river with me to the source itself!’
We walked all day along the river bank eventually reaching a small village where we spent the night. The river however was every bit as muddy, dark and toxic as it had been when we first started out. My companion was a quiet man and said little. However, there was something that I couldn’t understand – in fact it amazed me. Every time he reached inside his suitcase for the water flask to offer me a drink it never seemed to be any emptier than the time before and was just as clear and refreshing as it had been the first time I tasted it. I knew he had not stopped to fill it anywhere on the journey that day – as I had been with him all the time. When I asked my companion about this he just smiled and said – ‘wait and see’.
We set out early the next morning. Over the course of that day, and several more, we passed what appeared to be large and small factory buildings close to the river. From these flowed, into the river, dark and putrid streams. Some of the buildings were extremely old and large and had, apparently, fallen into disrepair. However, at some such a few workers – mostly older people, seemed to come and go as if out of some habit formed long ago. Other factory buildings were new and many more of a more modern vintage with what appeared to be a much younger workforce. I was intrigued by some – they seemed attractive – but my friend pushed on, barely glancing at them. Passing a particularly large factory with many workers my companion turned to me and said, with what I detected was a hint of anger and pain – ‘Places like these are responsible for the poisoning of the river – they are the reason it no longer flows clearly – the reason so many become ill and die. They do not care for the damage they have caused – only their own selfish interests’. We walked on in silence.
On that second night we stayed with friends of my companion in a very small settlement close to the river. Our hosts, though obviously poor, were very kind and gave us a beautiful meal. However, I was taken aback to see that each one had, near at hand, a flask identical to that of my companion – all apparently containing the same pure, clear, sweet water. When I enquired they told me the water had come from the source of the river – and that I would understand when I arrived there – but they offered no further explanation.
And so our journey took on a familiar pattern. Some evenings we slept in the open air and others with friends of my companion. He seemed to know many people along the river – and was respected by everyone we met. After a few days into our trek he began to tell me something of the history of the river. Once upon a time the whole river had run pure and clear – from the source to the sea. However, over time people began to abuse the river and use it for their own purposes – having no regard for the damage caused to its purity. Some thought the river was there to serve them – to profit from it and use it for their own purposes. Factories, large and small, had sprung up over the centuries on the banks of the river – initially drawing the pure clean water in to their processes but returning only waste, poison and impurities to the river. Eventually most of the river was contaminated – no longer resembling the source water at all. And this had become worse as the years passed.
I had not anticipated when we left the river delta it would be several months before we would reach the source. In the final days of our journey the river became clearer by the day. Then, one afternoon, the river split in two and my friend said we should follow the tributary to the right. By now I thought our journey was surely about to come to an end – but in fact several more days lay ahead. Late one afternoon, the smaller river we had been following divided again and again – until we ended up walking beside a very small stream. In front of us the landscape led upwards. Scrambling up a large grassy bank suddenly the land levelled out in to a very large and fertile plain. But it was not the size of the plain or the stunning green of the grass that caught my eye – but the hundreds if not thousands of people who suddenly came in to view. As we walked closer and closer I realised that the most of the great crowd seemed to be centred round a large spring from which flowed the purest of water. As I stood gazing at the incredible scene before me I heard my companion say – ‘We have arrived – this is the source.’ Just at that moment something very strange happened. I realised that what I had thought was almost certainly a spring – was in fact a person. As I stood mesmerised, this person, dressed in a stunningly white robe, started to walk towards me. As he did so he lifted his arms in a gesture of welcome and I could clearly see that the palms of his hands bore the deep marks some of old wounds. Suddenly he was standing in front of me and before I could speak I was embraced in what I can only describe as overwhelming love. Then I heard a gentle whisper – ‘Welcome, I Am The Source’.
Over the next few days The Source and I had a number of conversations. When I asked him about the polluted river he wept but did not speak. In fact he did not have to – for, although I can’t explain this, I felt his heart, his sorrow and his pain. As we sat in silence I heard a still small voice in my spirit. Again I cannot explain this – but I heard repeated over and over – ‘They are unwilling to come to Me so that they may have life.’ At that moment I was engulfed, at one and the same time, by both sorrow and love – sorrow over the pollution of the river and love for those who had never realised that the polluted river was not the pure source.
As the days passed in the perfection of this place I made a determination that this would become my permanent home. I knew that some, supplied with the ‘Water of Life’ – which, some time ago, I had realised was what was kept in the special flasks I had become accustomed to, returned to the polluted river as humble ambassadors of The Source. It was, some said, their ‘calling’. But for me, as many others I met here, the deep trauma and poisonous effects of the river had simply been too much. And we were welcome here – there was no condemnation, no feelings of guilt – just pure love and acceptance.
As for my companion – I didn’t see him again. Then one day, as I was reading a book about The Source, I suddenly came across a reference I knew instinctively referred to the friend who had guided me all these months from the place of pollution to the place of peace. Truthfully, I had no idea until that moment who he was! But I recognised him from what what another had written of him while on a similar journey –
‘The Angel showed me Water-of-Life River, crystal bright. It flowed from the Throne of God and the Lamb, right down the middle of the street. The Tree of Life was planted on each side of the River, producing twelve kinds of fruit, a ripe fruit each month. The leaves of the Tree are for healing the nations. Never again will anything be cursed. The Throne of God and of the Lamb is at the centre.’
Revelation 22: 1 – 4 (MSG)