Water. The source of life. We need it to survive: to drink, to water the plants we eat.
From our very beginnings we rely on liquid sustenance, growing strong while carried in our mothers’ bodies — a kind of literal living water. When we are born, that continues. I notice how my friends who are breastfeeding get so easily dehydrated, their bodies working hard, feeding someone else all the time. They keep large bottles of water nearby constantly, hydrating their own bodies so they can nourish their children.
We need water — for ourselves, for our children, for our crops, for the livelihood of our whole community.
It’s no accident that civilization springs up along the banks of rivers, near lakes and streams, near the source of this vital thing. “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life,” Revelation says, “flowing from the throne of God and the lamb through the middle of the street of the city.”
The river — the water — is life, and its source is God. In this heavenly picture, the river runs right through the city center, lined with fruit, sustaining growth month after month, season after season.
This earthy image is one of a new heaven and new earth as a thriving ecosystem, fed by the unending source of life. The water and the fruit you need are here in plenty, and God will sit on the throne, overseeing this community of light.
“There will be no more night,” Revelation tells us, “they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord will be their light.” Revelation promises light and water aplenty.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Rev. 22:11-21 speaks of our origin and ending. It is the voice of the one who is our source from birth to death. “It is I, Jesus,” he says, “who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches.” The glorious vision of heaven come down to earth that Revelation depicts comes from Jesus, our bright morning star.
And here at the close of this book he beckons to us: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ ” The text goes on to implore that everyone who hears this message, these promises, would join in saying, “Come.”
All who thirst are invited to come and drink this living water, this sustaining gift. To come and drink until we thirst no more.
Here in these closing verses of Revelation, in addition to this invitation, we receive a warning. In taking this gift of life, these living waters as well as this gift of prophetic words, the text includes a warning. “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city.”
We are neither to add nor subtract from the message as delivered. In this admonishment I receive freedom from the pressure to interpret, to figure out each detail of what Revelation depicts.
The words are harsh, yet I also feel relieved at the message that while I may think and talk about and wrestle with these words, ultimately I can merely receive the words as prophetic gift and trust the final promise: “Surely I am coming soon! Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”
Meghan Florian, of Durham, N.C., works in the Center for Theological Writing at Duke Divinity School. She is a member of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship.