The Gracious River (Or, Why We’re All Wet)

Art by Kate Ladd, click to visit her on Etsy
Art by Kate Ladd, click to visit her on Etsy

As many of you know, since getting into recovery more than seven years ago, I’ve discovered that God is in the business of drawing people to himself quite apart from religion, the Bible, church, or professional Christians.

I didn’t used to think God could do that.

Today I recognize and celebrate how God works wonders not only through myriad religious traditions, but through folks in my own tradition that I don’t necessarily agree with. It seems no matter how narrow or stunted the funnel we hold up to God, given the tiniest opening for love, God pours himself into the world.

Which brings me to the excerpt I want to share with you today. It’s condensed from a longer version in author James Finley’s book, Christian Meditation. Just to set you up, a “river enterer” is Finley’s metaphor for a person who seeks to experience God.

I know it’s way long, but I think it’s worth your time.

I hope that those of you in the Christian tradition whose spiritual odyssey has been expanded and enriched in opening yourself to other religious traditions will relate to this parable.

Now imagine that you are a river enterer. Imagine, too, that you have learned to be a river enterer in the religious tradition that traces its roots back to Jesus. But there is something missing, something that is not right. Seeking to sort out just what the difficulty is, you study the history of your river-entering community.

You discover that at first it was very simple. Men and women simply entered the river. Soon a path began to form leading down to the water’s edge. Word got out, and a growing number of people began showing up to use the path.

One day, someone observed that river entering is so important it seemed only fitting there should be a ceremony celebrating the admission of new members into the river-entering community. And before long, there arose rituals with hymns and candles as people gathered at the river.

Then one day someone observed that river entering is so special that there should be some kind of little tent over the path that goes down into the river. Others agreed. And a festive, brightly colored tent was built over the path.

Then someone observed that river entering is so special that a tent was hardly a suitable way to honor all the ways that river entering enriched their lives. Others agreed. And so there was the first fund drive to raise money to build a large and beautiful building over the tent that covered the path that went into the river. And everyone agreed that it was an inspiring and uplifting building indeed.

Then someone wrote a book titled The Meaning of River Entering. Someone read the book, did not agree with its premise, and so wrote another book refuting the teachings of the first book. Someone read both books, disagreed with both, and wrote a third. Soon there was a proliferation of books on the meaning of river entering. A second fund drive was required to build a library.

Then someone suggested that a school be built to promote the study of riverology and the granting of degrees to learned riverologists. Another fund drive raised the moneys to build a fine school, a seminary of sorts.

Then someone observed that [the path to the river] was getting so crowded, it might be best if everyone did not enter the river. It might be better if only certain members of the community entered the river, and then distributed river water to the others. The decision was made to create a new ritual to celebrate authority invested in the riverologists to distribute river water to the community.

Somewhere along the way, the riverologists tended not to enter the river nearly as much as they used to. At some point they began to pipe river water into the building. And there were rumors that the water was actually shipped in from undisclosed sources.

This is the situation that has developed in the river-entering community in which you find yourself. It seems that most everyone is content to sip bottled river water, read books on river entering, attend river-entering ceremonies, and agree and disagree with each other about the meaning of river entering.

Disheartened, you walk alone one day down by the river, trying to grasp just how everyone got into this predicament. As you are walking along, you slip and fall into the water. In doing so, you discover that the river is so gracious as to accept you completely in your solitary mishap. All alone, unplanned—with no building, no teaching, no ceremony—you get completely wet.

You come out of the river and start walking down the shore, and you are surprised to come upon a group of people who have built a large building over a tent that is over a path that goes down into the river. You are inclined at first to tell them they can’t do what they are doing. You are tempted to tell them they are not even really getting wet. They only think they are getting wet. If they want to really get wet they are going to have to travel with you to join the river-entering community from which you came. Or perhaps some riverologists from your community could come to show them the correct and truly effective way to get wet.

But then, in recalling the personal journey that has brought you to this place, you decide instead to ask if they would mind if you used their path that goes down into the river. In doing so, you get completely wet. Relieved and grateful, you venture father down the shore to discover other buildings where river enterers gather. You use their path that goes down into the river and, in doing so, discover how completely wet you get, regardless of the color of the tent that is over the path.

Although the teachings regarding the meaning of river entering vary greatly, one thing remains clear: each time you enter the river you get completely wet. And in each community you discern the presence of seasoned river enterers, men and women who even in the scorching sun remain drenched in the graciousness of the river.

In venturing still farther down the shore you eventually come to the point at which the river empties into the sea. As you wade out into the water there is only water as far as you can see. Taking all this in, you are surprised to discover yourself being interiorly drawn back to the river-entering community from which your journey first began.

As you arrive back at your origins, you enter the large building and head straight for the path that goes down into the river. You are touched by the sincerity and devotion that went into setting up the festive little tent that covers the path. You are touched, too, by the depth of religious feeling and commitment that went into each detail of the building. You see all these things not as diversions from river entering, but as sincere efforts of men and women attempting to honor and reverence a grace and mystery they hold dear. You realize that perhaps you were a tad too judgmental. Perhaps, had you humbly done more river entering yourself, you would have realized that more river entering was going on than you had realized.

You enter the river, and in doing so you become completely wet. As those standing about see how completely drenched you are as you come up out of the water, they are moved to enter the river as well. You, together with them, rediscover the origins of your own tradition of river entering. Together you seek to give witness to the good news that we are, from all eternity, completely wet.

–James Finley

P.S. In recent years, Dave and I have had the privilege of attending numerous of Finley’s spiritual retreats. We always come away profoundly re-convinced of our absolute preciousness to God. Here’s a post where I wrote about this experience—it’s called “Smitten,” and it’s one of my favorites.


Author: Heather Kopp at

Heather Kopp is an author and blogger who writes about the intersection of addiction and faith. Her memoir about her recovery, Sober Mercies, was published by Jericho, a new imprint of HBG (Hachette Book Group) in Spring 2013.

23 thoughts on “The Gracious River (Or, Why We’re All Wet)”

  1. I believe there are many paths to God, but only one way into God. Lord knows, I’m against exclusivism (is there such a word), but I believe the river is actually a person.

    No intent to push back, but rather hoping the waters don’t get muddied into a resultant state of toxicity (despite appearing refreshing and healing). Dealing with addiction is not necessarily the same dynamic as dealing with the underlying issues that will ultimately satisfy the soul.

    “Christians” often communicate that God has nothing, or at least less, to do with those that are sinning (for sure if a person is not “saved” and even for believers who are currently “unrepentant” – meaning they haven’t been sorry enough for their sin, asked for forgiveness and determined not to repeat the sin – and are showing perceptible signs of “victory” in the eyes of the judges of this repentance, even if it is the person themselves. Inevitably, failure, in that area or another, lurks in close proximity).

    I believe that God is journeying alongside every human he has created. Unbelief is not spiritual death as in rigor mortis, but rather separation, as in not being “in Christ” through the repentance (change of mind) in relation to believing/receiving the free gift of union, in him, delivered/accomplished by grace, through his blood (the water of the river),and received by faith as a free will decision – reflective of unforced love).

    The river (Jesus) will wash and heal and be the tent that we take residence in, as he takes residence in us.


  2. I can’t stop thinking about this post.
    As it happens, I was hiking away from the River–with my nose in a book about the River–when I tripped, rolled backwards down a mountainside, and fell in.
    What I learned about grace from my own experience has blown up my conceptions of discipleship–particularly as it relates to my children.
    I can offer myself to God as an agent of His grace, but I can’t make them wet. I can’t make anybody wet. I couldn’t even make myself wet.
    But the gracious River has His ways. That’s what i need to remember.
    Thanks for sharing, Heather.


  3. I love the parable. But what happens when river enterers meet desert enterers or mountain climbers? We (I wish and pray) need to find a way to honor and respect ALL the ways humans come to find God and God reaches out to humans. Because God is bigger than and ideology or our understanding. We can’t begin to comprehend. But we cling so HARD to what we think we know. Peace and tolerance.


    1. Marjie, yes the parable has its limits, but I think it’s trying to say what you’re saying here–that there are many ways to enter the river and experience God, and no matter what our path, he welcomes us all equally and graciously and we do well not to think our exact path or tradition is the only one that leads to the river–and getting wet. Thanks for your words!


  4. Heather, I will have to read this book. Im always open to spiritual thought from those who think deeply such as yourself. I have been a member of AA for 6 years and the world has been opened up to me to how and what people think and how they get to their spiritual path. I was a hopeless alcoholic sitting in the pews with the perfect outside and a deteriorating inside and my mind told me that Jesus and the Christians were too perfect to save a repetitive sinner like me. But I found unconditional love the in rooms of AA, no judgement and a rich mix of beautifully loving and spiritual people. I still have yet to return to “my church” because I find my spiritual place in AA and exploring different paths to the river. Jesus still is my Higher Power, but I don’t have to go to a place that has tents and buildings and rituals to prove it to others and myself. I love that Jesus knows my path and directs where I should go. The way others do that is none of my business. Im glad you put this out there to affirm my path and tame the judge in me.


    1. Paula as a humble part of an AA tribe thank you for offering a heartfelt expression of what may be axiomatic these days. Twelve Step meetings are mostly more healing than traditional houses of worship. There are great churches here and abroad. But rivers invariably rage and have errant and unpredictable paths. Predicting “clouds and pillars of fire” is just impossible. Mixed metaphors. I know. 🙂 If a person doesn’t have a wound or limp its hard for me to trust them. But joy comes in sharing mercy and redemption with stories of a hard journey. No one says their favorite verse is “In this world you will have trouble.” Scripture offers that. So we run to the pain not away from it.


    2. Paula, this is so well said! Yes, I totally understand. It took me a while after getting sober to feel clear about what kind of path within my tradition I wanted to travel, and it needed to be one that honored other paths. I am so grateful for the generous God I found in recovery and the wisdom we all get to share in the rooms. I love what you said about not needing to go to the building to prove something to others. So true. You are in a good place, friend.


  5. Heather – I am always humbled by your words and just wanted to say ‘Thank You’ for being a vessel through whom God’s unlimited Love flows! You help keep me sober and you also help me keep my eyes focused where they should be…on God. May you be blessed over and over again for the blessing you provide!


  6. Heather this was a cascading blessing just now. Thank you for pointing towards that central pillar of the gospel which is the truth and mystery of faith is found in the collective body of believers, seekers, sinners and scoundrels. I wear all those hats. The temptation for people on a white water pilgrimage is to pull their canoes out of the water and rest on a sandy beach. Make a fire. Chat about past adventures. Then the tendency is to stay because it seems safer and more comfortable. Soon the reckless fury of the water is a distant or “controlled memory” which causes some to manage the risks associated with plunging into the deep. This was a gift today. I’ll read it more than once. Thanks….


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