I tend to have a gentle, peaceful view of creation. It may be a holdover from the 1950’s era children’s Sunday School lessons artwork of the Garden of Eden. I still see those images and in my mind I hear the music of Cat Stevens’ Morning Has Broken whose lyrics resonate with “dew ….. sweet the rain’s fall…..wet garden”.
Water is essential in five of the six days of the first creation story in Genesis. While water, integral to creation, has gentle and calming qualities, there are violent, destructive, and frightening aspects to water and creation. Creation is a transformation, a material alteration and not always suitable for a Cat Stevens’s music video.
Water may bring about great change, even destruction from our human perspective. It is hard to separate creation/destruction, particularly by water. What we call destruction is perhaps nothing more than an act of creation seen in too short a time frame or viewed too narrowly by our own self interests.
Water, and sediments carried by water, formed the Grand Canyon, weathered the tallest mountain ranges that ever existed into the present day Appalachian mountains. Soil erosion of cotton plantations created the extensive marshlands of the Carolina’s and Georgia coasts. Seasonal flooding of the Nile each year was a source of renewal of vital top soil and nutrients for agriculture. Water transforms rock into sand, the jagged into smooth, soil into mud, the dormant seed into a plant. Water heals, water purifies, water cleans. Water sustains life on this planet. The Water of Baptism unites fellow travelers and followers of The Way. Water refreshes. Water renews. Water transforms.
The transforming properties of water, creation, if you will, can’t occur with just water. For all its wonderful properties, water is unable to move on its own. It takes an outside agent of gravity, wind, heat for evaporation or cold for condensation, rain and ice, or pressure such as geysers, to move water. By itself, water is pretty docile. Yet the movement of water droplets within a cloud generates lightening. Combined with another force, water can move, influence, transform, delight and frighten.
I love seeing that tangible evidence of the power of water. Smooth river rocks, broken glass, pottery shards, and worn seashells, whose once sharp edges are now polished smooth.
Water is extraordinary for its remarkable and unique properties. All living things require water. The Hebrew word for life, chaiim, is composed of two words: chai, living, yam, sea. Water is the matrix for our spiritual and biological processes. Water covers 70% of our planet. Our bodies are at least 65% water. Water was within the primordial soup in which life on our planet has formed and evolved. We can’t imagine life without water. Exobiologists look for a water signature on other planets and moons as a first screening for places that living organisms may be found. Our 9 months in the womb takes place in a protective envelope of water. The water breaking is part of our own birth experience. Water was the first mirror in which women and men could see their reflection as a creation in God’s image.
Living in a developed country, we take water for granted. We don’t see headlines that read “Family of four dies of thirst”. We no longer fear lack of water as a life-threatening prospect. The symbolic nature of water has lessened in affluent societies, yet the Christian scriptures have over 700 stories and text involving water. If we take a few minutes and transport ourselves back to our biblical roots, we can gain a better appreciation of water, the symbolic and literal roles of water in our sacred texts, and a deeper understanding of our scripture.
In our scriptural roots, water was often in scarce supply. It was a simple equation, no water, no life. It is of little wonder that our biblical literature is full of water imagery. Water became a central feature in the religious thinking and rituals of our biblical culture. Water in the form of nurturing rains, springs, rivers and community wells were viewed as a sign of God’s favor. Survival required a steady supply of water.
The need for and uses of water are prevalent in the biblical texts where water is used literally and symbolically. In Genesis’s first creation story water was present “in the beginning” and used to further creation in five of the six days of creation. The scriptures are rich with stories and text involving water with over 700 occurrences including the creation accounts, purification baths and rituals, the story of Noah which is yet another destruction/creation story and the still waters of the 23rd psalm. The biblical figure most associated with water might be Moses. The water imagery swirls around Moses in so many ways with the water of creation, life, death and transformation.
Moses life was spared when his floating basket was found by the Pharaoh’s daughter. Pharaoh’s daughter named him Moses, “because, I drew him out of the water.” The same water where the Pharaoh ordered that the Israelite male children should be drowned in the Nile. The irony is astonishing. The very place in which Pharaoh decrees Israelite life to perish is the place from which the leader of the Exodus shall come, drawn forth from the water by none other than the Pharaoh’s own daughter.
Years later, water was a tool of radical transformation with Moses as the Nile turned into blood and put forth a plague of frogs. A storm of hail ruined the crops. Water in the form of a vaporous cloud shielded the Israelites in a protective fog, the red sea was parted giving safety, and when the sea collapsed, it brought death to the Egyptian army. In the months that followed, water poured from a desert rock and the morning dew accompanied the manna. When Moses met God on Mt Sinai, God’s face was concealed in a protective cloud. The Israelites were nurtured with a rich imagery of the promised land where there would be abundant rivers that never dried and plentiful rain for crops.
Similarly, Jesus’ ministry is full of water imagery. Many of his disciples were drawn from fishermen, their livelihood derived from water. Jesus calmed storms at sea and walked on the water. Jesus seemed to be drawn to women gathered at a well. Jesus used the analogy of the gift of the living water for his message of salvation. Jesus was baptized in water, turned water into wine, healed the blind using spittle followed by ritual cleansing in the river; and washed the feet of the disciples.
Jesus described himself as the “living water” in his message of salvation. A friend of mine has a cookbook of traditional Afghan recipes. Whenever water is called for in a recipe, “living water” is specified. The notes indicate that living water is from a source that is either freshly collected rain or from a bubbling, active spring or moving source as opposed to stagnate water from a well or cistern. Perhaps a similar imagery was present for those who heard Jesus speak about living waters.
As we fast forward to the present, we still value water, though not for the same reasons that resonated with the lives of people thousands of years ago. We love the connection to water. The most popular vacation spots involve water. For people who have a second home, it is typically on the lake, beach, or mountain stream. We place a price tag on water. Ocean front rental rates vs second row? We see the creative ways hotels are built with balconies that maximize that tiny slice of the ocean view.
We seek out water because it is both calming in one sense and may be exhilarating in another. We can experience water with all 5 of our senses. As a young child playing in the ocean surf, in a 2 second interval I could see this monstrous wave approaching, hear the sound of the wave collapsing around me, able to feel the wall of water crashing into me, taste the water as my body did involuntary gymnastics along the sand, and, yes, “smell” the ocean. We hear thunder and see lightening, which are generated by the friction of water droplets in clouds. We see water in all its forms; sheets of rain, individual drops, puddles and lakes, waves and white water, clouds, fog, hail, frost and snow.
As a son of a Baptist minister, I did not grow up around “holy water”. I would see the basins at a Catholic wedding, its use in an Episcopalian communion service, and of course, some intense scenes from the Exorcist.
I have rethought holy water over the years and have circled back to a physics’ exam question built around the calculation of atmospheric gas molecules involving a human’s lung capacity relative to the earth’s volume and diffusion rates of atmospheric gases. The end calculation was that every time we draw in a breath, there is a 92% chance that we are breathing in at least one molecule of gas that was present in Julius Caesar’s lungs at the time of his death, I’ve long since lost the ability to calculate the odds, but when I fill a pitcher with ice water, something similar is going on.
Our planet was formed with the approximate volume of water we have today. Like gasses in our lungs, water disperses. My pitcher of water contains molecules that were previously gas/clouds, rain, and ice . Eventually, these molecules of water travel the globe. My pitcher contains water that was present at the dawn of creation. It was present in the primordial soups where life evolved and water from glaciers in the last ice age. In our biblical traditions, this water was dew in the Garden of Eden, supported Noah’s ark, and was present in the Red Sea when the Israelites fled Egypt.
Within a few moments, some of the ice has melted, water has condensed on the pitcher and some of the water has evaporated and been breathed into my lungs. If the molecules of water in that pitcher could talk, we would hear the rainstorms that raged on this planet before there was life, the sounds of water hissing and spitting as it touched molten lava. It would tell us the story of tears running down the faces of victims of Auschwitz. How it dripped from Christ’s face when he was baptized and bore silent witness as the iceberg that was struck by the Titanic. The pitcher contains water vaporized with victims at Hiroshima, water that touched our children the first time they were at the beach and was in the sprinklers we ran through as kids. This water flowed in the Ganges river, a holy resting place in other faith traditions. This water is Holy Water. Water is holy by the lives it has touched, the events it has witnessed, the places it has been. For me, water needs no further consecration to be considered holy.
There is something very Christ-like about water. Water brings and sustains life; Wherever water may journey, it accumulates and carries minerals, nutrients, and life sustaining chemicals. Water naturally seeks out and accumulates in the lowest of places.
The recent convergence of the streams of the Pandemic and the Social Justice has reminded me of the scripture reference from Isaiah 66:12 of “peace like a river” and the well-known song by that title. I suspect I have misapplied this reference. Maybe the peace we need to extend is not the tranquility of a gentle stream but a peace that gushes forth with the force to cleanse, inundate, and overwhelm. Maybe our river should be symbolic of living out a life of faith called into action.
A river is not stagnant. It willingly flows to the lowest of places, carrying with it the nutrients of life. A river teaches us humility. In order for the river to pour in, we must first lower ourselves to its level and come down off the comfort and safety of our own high ground.
A river is a medium for change/transformation. A river does not resist, but at the same time it is unrelenting. A river simply flows along its path and in the end, nothing can endure against its force. A river is patient, but forceful. Moving water will wear away a stone. We are each 65% water. If we can’t go through an obstacle, go around it or wear it down. (Paraphrase of Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad) That is how a river flows. That might be the peace like a river we are called upon to be.
I want to share the ending lyrics, link below, to the song God is a River by Peter Mayer.
God is a river, not just a stone.
God is a wild, raging rapid and a slow meandering flow.
God is a deep and narrow passage and a peaceful sandy shoal
God is a river, Swimmer
So let go.
May we provide to others the transforming Peace like a river, Love like an ocean. and Joy like a fountain.