The Desert Blooms

They say water is the most powerful force on earth. It erodes coast lines, carves canyons, can overwhelm the land in floods and tsunamis. But there is another way, a less obvious way, in which water is powerful.

It nourishes life.

We see the power of the Amazon or the Mississippi River but sometimes we miss the teeming life supported in and around their banks. The Nile makes this reality obvious. From humble beginnings at Lake Victoria in Uganda and still unknown sources farther south, it snakes its way over 6500 kilometers (4000 miles) northward, journeying through eleven countries before it reaches the Mediterranean Sea. Every school child knows the great Nile Delta in Egypt. Satellite images reveal a ribbon of green stretching through the desert–and even into the Mediterranean itself.

The ancient Greek philosopher said that Egypt was “the gift of the Nile”. He was not exaggerating: virtually every aspect of Egyptian civilization lies along its banks.

Because of the Nile, the desert blooms.

Throughout the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms and the Prophets, those who are close to God, the ones who are captivated by his Law, are depicted as trees planted by rivers.

Oh, the joys of those who do not
follow the advice of the wicked,
or stand around with sinners,
or join in with mockers.
But they delight in the law of the Lord,
meditating on it day and night.
They are like trees planted along the riverbank,
bearing fruit each season.
Their leaves never wither,
and they prosper in all they do.
Psalm 1:1-3 NLT

By contrast, the desert or wilderness, is anything but blessed. It is a cursed place where wild beasts and owls make their homes. When the prophets speak of God’s punishment of the nations, it often comes in the language of the wilderness and desolation.

But, when God rescues his people, the opposite is true. The desert flows with living water. Life springs forth. Trees and grasses. An oasis in the desert. Life abounds in unexpected places. God is the kind of God who both can and does make the most inhospitable places into places of blessing and life.

I will open up rivers for them on the high plateaus.
I will give them fountains of water in the valleys.
I will fill the desert with pools of water.
Rivers fed by springs will flow across the parched ground.
I will plant trees in the barren desert—
cedar, acacia, myrtle, olive, cypress, fir, and pine.
I am doing this so all who see this miracle
will understand what it means—
that it is the Lord who has done this,
the Holy One of Israel who created it.
Isaiah 41:18-20 NLT

God is the source of living water no matter where we are. When he provides it, life will grow. Images of deserts and the lushness of life along a river make immediate sense in the world of Egypt and Palestine and Babylon. For many in the modern world it can be hard to relate – unless you live in Phoenix or Cairo, Lima or Jodhpur, Dubai or Jiuquan. Today most of us face a different sort of desert. The desert of cultures with no place or time for God. Cultures which seem to choke the life out of those who do

The job of the Christian is to be like a tree planted by waters. But how can we when the land is parched? How do we follow Jesus when it is so hard to simply get by? Paul, when writing to the Colossians tells us:

Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness. Colossians 2:7 NLT

We must drive our roots deep. The water will give life. And it is powerful. Jesus, at Jacob’s well, offers the Samaritan woman living water, telling her “those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.” (john 4:14 NLT). Later in John 7 we read:

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. John 7:38-39 CSB

Jesus offers living water to all. That water does not need an external source because in Jesus, through the Holy Spirit living water blooms up within us.

Revelation 22 offers a powerful picture of what God is all about. John is shown the heart of the New Jerusalem:

Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. It flowed down the center of the main street. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations.

No longer will there be a curse upon anything. For the throne of God and of the Lamb will be there, and his servants will worship him. And they will see his face, and his name will be written on their foreheads. Revelation 22:1-4

Life flows from God. It comes from his very throne, the symbol of his power and authority. It produces fruit and heals the nations. Where God is, the curse is gone. This is the power of God. This is the point of living water. One day we will see the river flowing from the throne, today we must seek it out.

Too often we only look for signs of life where we expect them. We look for a river that we can see. But often, especially in a dry and parched land, somewhere below the surface lies an aquifer, a river of living water. We may not see the river, but God always makes a way. The Holy Spirit is not seen, but his work goes on, nonetheless. It is our job to look for it. God’s Church does not always show up where or how we expect. It may be hidden below our feet or in plain sight. In his church the Holy Spirit is always at work and the river of living water may be found.

Being rooted in Christ, allowing the spring of living water to well up in us through the power of the Holy Spirit requires more than just my individual relationship with Jesus. The desert does not bloom when there is a single plant. In fact, a single plant is an impossibility. Reproducing requires pollenization. Sustainability requires solidarity. Together many roots hold the soil together, preventing erosion and reclaiming the desert. Even the concrete wilderness of the 21st century cannot overcome the power of a plant whose roots are fed by springs of water. Life finds a way. Trees break the concrete transforming the landscape. Whether short and gnarled or tall and majestic, they are a testament to the power of water, the power of life.

This then, is our job. To bloom in the desert no matter what it looks like or when. When we join with one another remarkable things happen. The soil is retained, the land transformed. Beauty abounds. The Church is bigger than we think. Wider. Older. More varied. The Church exists from its founding by Jesus until the end of time. Jesus told his followers to make disciples everywhere – literally of the nations (Matthew 28:19).

On the day of Pentecost there were Jewish believers from all over the Roman world–possibly from as far as India in the east to Arabia in the south, throughout modern Turkey and as far as Rome itself, touching the Mediterranean islands like Crete and across the northern rim of Africa including Egypt and modern Libya (Acts 2:5-13). Soon the church would break its religious as well as ethnic bonds as Philip preached to the Samaritans and to the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8), Peter would go to a Roman centurion (Acts 10). The Church at Antioch in Syria which sent Paul and Barnabas was led by a diverse groups of men: Barnabas a Jew from Cyprus, Simeon called the “black man” (Niger – Latin for black), Lucius a North African from the city of Cyrene west of Egypt, and Saul who was a Roman citizen from Tarsus (eastern Turkey today). Soon it would draw in an even wider array of peoples and still the work is not complete. In Revelation, John is given a vision of the church that no doubt defied his expectations and still defies ours:

I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands. And they were shouting with a great roar,

“Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne
and from the Lamb!” Revelation 7:9-10 NLT

Today, the picture is not yet complete. Still, we are struck by the fact that God builds his church in and through all of us. We have a long way to go. We have much to learn. Here and now, as we go, as we seek to grow where we are planted, we need one another. We need to listen and learn, to teach and encourage. From those who have gone before and those who are spread out across our world. We need to point one another to the oases and the hidden rivers.

There is water enough for all because God is an ever-replenishing source.

As we are rooted deep in Christ, as we allow the work of the Spirit in our lives individually and as the Body of Christ, the living waters well up.

The desert blooms.

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Kevin O'Brien

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