When my hope starts eroding, I turn to a river. I want to stand on its banks, kneel down, drink deep.
One of the most evocative images in Scripture for me has long been the picture of a river of life flowing from the throne of God in Revelation 22. The waters are clear as crystal. They flow with restorative powers, a sustaining force that cleanses and renews.
When I was commissioned to design a stained glass window for the facade of a building housing a Christian non-profit with a global reach, I decided to draw on the imagery of the river of life in Revelation because the leaves of the trees growing along its banks are “for the healing of the nations.”
Although the initial commission was conceptualized and the drawings completed, the project was never realized. North Greenville University asked to adapt the design for installation on their campus. They proposed positioning it above a doorway. In this arrangement the river flows over everyone who walks through the doors of the building, becoming a metaphor for baptism, spiritual birth, and new life.
Life in the Water
This summer when we were in the States I took my kids to see the window. We stood under the rushing stream and talked about the rivers that flowed out of Eden to water the world. The same water coursing through the garden later found its way into the visions of Ezekiel and Isaiah.
In his commentary on Genesis, Walter Brueggemann suggests that the rivers in Genesis, Ezekiel, and Revelation all “attest to the gift of life which may overcome every fracture.” These are healing waters—resurrection waters.
In Ezekiel 47, the prophet describes a stream trickling out from under the altar of the temple. The flow of the stream gradually rises and widens until it becomes a mighty river so deep that no one can cross it. Wherever this river runs it turns foul water into fresh.
“There will be life,” says the prophet, “everywhere the river goes.”
Fruit bearing trees flourish on either side of the river and their leaves are for healing, an image echoed in Revelation 22, where the leaves of the trees “are for the healing of the nations.”
Healing Leaves and Living Vines
When I was drawing this design for glass, I wondered what sort of leaves Ezekiel and John envisioned. What sort of leaves would sooth the wounds of the nations? I sketched grape leaves. I painted grape vines curling around the contours of the flow of the water, an allusion to Jesus’s statement that he is the vine and we are in the branches. When we remain connected to the vine, we bear fruit; but apart from it, we are barren. In the case of the vine and the river, we are conduits of life derived from one source: Christ.
In the gospel of John when Jesus is at a well speaking with the Samaritan woman, he says, “Everyone who drinks from this water will get thirsty again. But whoever drinks from the water that I will give him will never get thirsty again—ever! In fact, the water I will give him will become a well of water springing up within him for eternal life.” (John 4)
A well of living water springing up from within our souls: that’s what Jesus is offering here. He’s saying that there’s an inexhaustible supply of satisfying water within our reach if we receive it from his hands.
A little later Jesus proclaims publicly:
“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:37-38)
Come to the Waters
Jesus’s invitation to come and drink alludes to two shimmering prophecies in Isaiah: a summons for the thirsty to come to the waters (55:1) and the promise that, “You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.” (58:11) Jesus grasps some of the most majestic moments of Israel’s prophetic tradition and identifies his own mission and meaning within them. Then he turns to us and promises that the same living water flowing through his life can flow through our lives too.
Jesus is the source of living water, but those same streams run through our souls if our lives are aligned with his.
The window, then, is not just a snapshot of the river in Revelation, it’s an outer reflection of what should be the internal, spiritual life of every Christian: we should be filled with rivers of living water that splash out of the boundaries of our lives.
Revelation 7:14-17 and Isaiah 49:8-10 promise that the Lamb of God, the compassionate One, will guide us to the springs of the “water of life.” If we follow along in the steps of the Lamb he leads us to drink deeply from fresh water. But too often, we stay thirsty. Too often, we remain parched, just like I was this morning when I woke up totally consumed by the awful way of the world.
Jeremiah tells me why many of us are so unsatisfied. He warns us of standing beside the clear, running water, but only drinking from our own hand-made cisterns. Rather than stooping to drink from the river of life, we fashion our own leaky cups. Our thirst is a tragedy of our own making:
“For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jeremiah 2:12-13)
Jeremiah is right. A lot of days I find myself holding tightly to my own broken mug, trying to mend the cracks, when I should kneel down and drink from the water of the river of life.
Above all, this window is an invitation to kneel down and drink. Along with Isaiah, it cries to the parched and weary,
“Come, everyone who is thirsty, come to the waters…”
You can see the stained glass window at the Craft-Hemphill Center at North Greenville University in Travelers Rest, SC. Greenville-area artist Lou Ellen Beckham-Davis used my drawing and watercolor painting to adapt the design for the entrance of the Center.
The window has a total of 29 panels with a surface area of approximately 200 square feet.
I have also designed stained glass windows for the Ray I. Riley Alumni Center at SWBTS and for Lakeside Baptist Church in Granbury, TX.