The River of John

The River of John © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Pentecost +7, Year B (July 15): Mark 6.14-29

Here at the ending of John the Baptist’s life, I find myself thinking back to its beginning. How the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah to tell him of the longed-for son who will bring joy and gladness. How the joyful John leaps in his mother’s womb when the pregnant Mary comes to visit. How the neighbors rejoice at his birth. How, on the day of her son’s circumcision, Elizabeth declares, “He is to be called John,” to the befuddlement of those who assumed he would be named after his father. How Zechariah, struck mute months earlier when he had expressed his incredulity at Gabriel’s news, reaches for a writing tablet and insists,

His name is John.

It is the name that had accompanied the angel’s stunning news, the name that Gabriel had told Zechariah and Elizabeth to give to their son, the name destined for him. I imagine Zechariah writing it for his neighbors in large letters, scored heavy with emphasis. His wife was not mistaken in the name she gave.

His name is John.

John absorbs the insistent clarity that his parents display in their naming of him. Their strength of purpose passes into him, is borne in his blood, infuses everything that will follow. As he enters the scene as an adult, we see that the one who has been sent to prepare the way, the one who will be known as the Baptist, has himself become like a river whose course is directed not merely by its banks but by an underlying sureness of purpose. John the Waymaker does not waver from the course that is his call.

His name is John.

John had met Jesus when they were in the waters of the womb, had met him again at the waters of the Jordan, had been borne along by the sureness of his call and by the living water he found in his cousin the Christ. At the last, when we meet him in today’s gospel reading, what flows in John’s life is not water but blood, a horrendous libation spilled out at Herod’s feast. I imagine that John goes to his death with the same clarity and steadfastness that marked his birth and his life. That perhaps he heard again the voices of the parents who named him. That before the felling stroke there came an echo of the song that his father, no longer mute, had lifted on the day of John’s naming:

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1.76-80)

Death does not have the last word in John’s story; blood is not the final legacy of the Baptizer. John had succeeded in making a way for the dawn that his father sang about at his birth. The one who “came as a witness to testify to the light” (John 1.7) had completed his purpose and his call, giving himself with complete abandon. “He himself was not the light,” the Gospel of John points out, yet the Baptist shimmered with steadfast purpose and with the joy that had marked his life from the moment he met Jesus.

His name is John.

The life of John the Baptist was utterly intertwined with the life of Jesus. And yet something about his love of Christ and his singleness of purpose enabled him to remain so much himself. In the fierce and focused rhythm and flow of his living and his dying, the Baptizer beckons us to reckon with what it means to divest ourselves in the service of Christ without becoming diminished, without giving up the self that God created.

His name is John.

And what name is ours? What distinguishes and directs the flow and focus of our lives? What is the purpose we are known for—or that we struggle toward and long for? How do we abandon ourselves to this purpose and to the One who calls us to it, and move ever more deeply into the self that God created us to be?


May your life be a river.
May you flow with the purpose
of the One who created
and called you,
who directs your course
and turns you ever
toward home.

May your way shimmer
with the light of Christ
who goes with you
who bears you up
who calls you by name.

May you move
with the grace of the Spirit
who brooded over
the face of the waters
at the beginning
and who will gather you in
at the end.

[To use the image “The River of John” please visit this page at Your use of helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

18 Responses to “The River of John”

  1. Barbara Says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed ‘The River of John’ as I loved the sermon you delivered today at Trinity, ‘River of Hope’. I wanted to tell you so as I left the sanctuary, but was due to work in the bookstore and had to hurry.
    Thank you–you are indeed a blessing.
    Love, Barbara

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Thanks so much, Barbara! It’s great to hear from you, and I am grateful for your words. I was sorry to miss getting a chance to say hello this morning but so appreciated your being there. And thank you for your ministry in the bookstore! Many blessings to you, who are a blessing.


  2. carolyn Says:

    I perused this latest post first, taking in primarily the image of the River of John, and the blessing [always the blessing….].
    I’ve returned to read and linger a bit and in the lingering, an aha – nearly every day, at least once, this litany I speak ‘maintain peace of mind, move at the pace of guidance, practice certainly of purpose, surrender to surprise, ask for what you need and offer what you can, love the folks in front of you’ ~ I’m feeling a kinship with John this evening, and am grateful for this oasis named the Painted Prayerbook.
    I think this blessing calls me to learn it in my heart.

    Such meaningful work Jan: thanks.

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Carolyn, thanks so much for your words. I love your litany and am taking it to heart. I’m grateful to you for sharing this and for all your words that come as such blessings. Peace to you…and some good surprises!

  3. Gail Churchill Says:

    I hope to remember this blessing, and use it as a benediction as I travel throughout the coming week. “May your life be a river. . .. and flow with the purpose of the One who created you. . ..” My son and I are travelling to Houston.

  4. Linda Goddard Says:

    Jan, Your “River of John” image and words are so insightful and lovely! Rivers and Names are calling to me these days and your post speaks clearly to me. Oh, and your blessing is one I want to carry in my heart this evening.

    Thank You!

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Thank you, Linda! I’m very grateful. Give my greetings to the river that is flowing past you this summer; looking forward to reacquainting myself with it soon, and seeing you, too! Blessings and peace to you.

  5. Mary Strømmen Says:

    Dear Jan, I read your piece the River of John this morning, preparing for my own sermon here in Norway this Sunday. I very much enjoyed it, and, like others, was also very struck by the blessing too.
    Thank you.

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Many kind thanks, Mary! Your words brought back such good memories of a month I spent visiting friends in Norway half a lifetime ago; hoping to return one day. I am grateful for your words. Blessings to you!

  6. Christopher Blanchard Says:

    Dear Jan, I was drawn into the exquisite beauty of the river of John which both attracts and repels. Thankyou for the sensitivity of your homily which faces the challenge of that great prophetic event at the dawn of the Christian Era. It seems to tell of that meeting point of the life of the Prophet and the Redeemer which becomes our own river of life meeting first the intensity of John and then the risen Lord.
    I should certainly like to use your lovely blessing this weekend. Is it also possible to use your painting in our Sunday Newsletter for the Parish of Chepstow (South Wales, GB), With every blessing in our Lord Jesus, Christopher Blanchard. Vicar

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Many kind thanks, Christopher! I’m very grateful for your words and pleased you’ll be using the blessing this weekend. Thanks also for your interest in using the painting. Just send me an email via my images website, and we can take care of this directly; that address is Thank you again and blessings!

  7. Michael Bastin Says:

    Hi Jan, How delightful and refreshing a feminine perspective is. My wife and I have found a still-point in; just delightful; — thank you. Friendly greetings, Rev Michael Bastin. The Uniting Church in Australia. Supply Minister Wonthaggi / Inverloch.

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Thank you, Michael! I’m grateful for your greetings and for your words about my work. Thank for visiting! Blessings to you in your ministry, and best wishes to both you and your wife.

  8. AP Says:

    Loved the imagery in the words of this post, as well as the image itself… as I blogged towards tomorrow, your thoughts inspired mine. Thank you!

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Allen, thanks very much! I appreciate your words and your thoughtful reflection on this passage at your blog. Kind thanks for inviting folks to visit my reflection. Blessings and peace to you!

  9. Lisa Green Says:

    Thanks so much for this powerful post! I’ve been a fan since getting “Sacred Journeys” in place of Frederick Buechner’s “The Sacred Journey” many years ago–a happy mistake that has blessed my prayer, writing, teaching and preaching ever since. A friend gave me “In Wisdom’s Path” as a gift when I became rector of a church named for John the Baptist. I’ve probably thought more about him this past year than ever before, and your reflections resonate with and enrich my own. I particularly love your paradoxical observation that his “I must decrease” doesn’t diminish him or mean he has to give up his selfhood. Amen! Your lovely blessing will grace our services this weekend–thanks again.

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Lisa, thanks so much! I loved hearing about the “happy mistake” and am grateful for the switcheroo! Very grateful to you for visiting The Painted Prayerbook and for your wonderful words. Blessings to you in these summer days and beyond.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *