He makes springs pour water into the ravines;
it flows between the mountains.
They give water to all the beasts of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
A strange thing happens in Arizona around Christmas: loads of people decorate their homes as if they lived in the rural Midwest or New England. Some put fake snow on their windows.
It has snowed in Phoenix in December, but snow events are so rare they are not easily forgotten. Arizona, south of Flagstaff at least, is desert—dry, parched land that nurtures little more than jagged cactus and desperate-looking wild pigs. (If it’s as bad as that, why does everyone move there?)
The truth is, Palestine, where Jesus was born, looks far more Arizona than it does like Vermont, and it’s helpful to remember that fact when considering this verse. No psalmist was sitting on a cottage porch in Minnesota when he penned a song. They were all in the desert, where springs were likely more vital sites on a map than cities.
Not long ago, I was at the site of an ancient buffalo kill, where decades ago a guy with a backhoe unearthed a bed of bison bones thought to be 10,000 years old. Today there’s a huge, blonde Quonset there, a heavy-duty air-conditioner, and an observation deck built around the site, a place where visitors can watch the researchers meticulously excavating all those bones—hundreds of them, thousands.
The only way to get to Hudson-Meng Bison Kill is by way of dozens of miles of gravel roads that eventually lift you up into the Nebraska badlands. The site is not only off the beaten path, there’s barely a path at all. And yet, there, amid the dusty sandstone, there sits a spring. Water. The guy who once owned the land wanted to make a pond, so he brought in a backhoe to dig a dam. That’s when he found this immense cache of bison bones.
When the guide led us around the place, she said, “Look around. Everything in the area—man and beast alike—had to find there way here. Thousands of years ago, this was Grand Central Station.”
There, in the middle of nowhere, for no good reason at all, a spring bubbled with life-giving water, overflowing with miracles. For miles, probably—and for most of the year—there was little else alive in the region, just this one lowly spring. Water always, fresh. Once upon a time, all highways had to lead to water.
Turning on a faucet just isn’t the same. When I read a verse like this, I think of the desert, the badlands, seemingly God-forsaken places where staying alive is a daily battle. The landscape the psalmist knew was no rainforest; it was a desert. He knew dry heat and dressed himself in a white robe most of the year to avoid it. My guess is, he didn’t need a map to know where the springs bloomed.
In that world—and our own—water is life. Without springs, there’d be no neighborhood. Nothing would exist. Life would seem lunar, an endless expanse of rock and sand, nary an emerald eyelash.
When he says that God “makes springs pour water into the ravines,” he sees life itself flowing thunderously into his own hands. He sees an image of “the living water.”
“Where can I get this living water?” the woman at the well once asked Jesus. And he said it was the water he would give. The finest spring of all, flowing into all the world, he said, and then too, from us. He was talking about the water of life itself.