Some of you may have been aware that yesterday was the internationally-recognized World Water Day – a day that the United Nations and its member countries have devoted to promoting sustainable management of the world’s water resources. The observance began in 1993, and continues to grow in public recognition and support ever year. One particularly popular observance has become encouragement of the public to try not to use their taps throughout the entire day in solidarity with the nearly 768 million people worldwide who lack accesses to sources of sufficiently clean drinking water. It’s hard for me to imagine how I would function without water flowing from the taps in my apartment. It’s uncontestable – water is in integral part of my life.
Water is surely an integral part of our Christian narrative, too. In this week’s gospel readings, we hear a story about Jesus and his conversations with a Samaritan woman at a well. Jesus asks the woman for a drink of water, and she points out that she – a Samaritan – cannot share things with him, as he is a Jew. Jesus replies to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
The woman is surprised – she questions him, asking if he is indeed a prophet. Yet she soon becomes concerned with the question of where God’s presence dwells. Is it on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, or a mountain outside of her town where her ancestors have always worshiped? Jesus’ response to her is this: “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain or in Jerusalem…” What we learn from Jesus’ words is that he is the locus of God’s presence on Earth. Jesus is the I AM who is bigger than any one mountain.
While it would seem here that Jesus’ presence negates the necessity of worship in relationship to the natural formations of creation – such as Mount Zion or this mountain in Samaria – I argue instead that Jesus’ words decisivelylocate God’s holy presence within all of creation. We can recognize this because Jesus – the I AM – offers us living water, a “spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Jesus’ words are not instructions to move away from connecting our worship of God to the lands that we live on, but are instead a reminder that all spaces and corners of creation contain the presence of our Creator. Water is the very touchstone that indicates God’s presence on Earth.
Water is, undoubtedly, a powerful symbol for Jesus to have chosen. We know that water is a universally present and uniquely life-sustaining element. All forms of life, from the cellular level up, are mostly water in all of its many forms. For example, up to 60% of our adult human bodies are water. The Earth, too, is mostly water – so much water in fact, that some have suggest that instead of calling our planet “Earth,” we ought to call it “Water,” as that’s what 75% of the planet is covered with. The Old Testament reading from Exodus this morning dramatically reminds us that the abundance of water is indeed a sign of God’s presence and blessing.
In water we can find a divine manifestation of God’s presence on Earth, with us, in our daily acts of participation within creation. We are brought into Christian community with water poured onto our head, and while our daily acts may lack the same sacramental significance as our ritual of baptism, it is rare when we do not feel the wetness of water upon our bodies daily. We rise in the morning to shower, brush our teeth with flowing water from faucets, feel the coolness of water on our lips as we drink, and find our hands wrinkly after spending too much in water while washing the evening dishes. How often do you touch water every day? Or better yet, how often does water touch you?
I read an essay by Lutheran pastor Dennis Ormseth on the Lutherans Restoring Creation website this week, and he made a beautiful connection to the Lutheran tradition on this very point. He notes that Lutheran catechumens are often encouraged to follow the practices of Martin Luther, who, it is told, upon beginning his day, splashed water on his face, reciting the words baptismo sum, “I am baptized.” Ormseth says, “For Luther, it was a way to ward off the power of the devil and all his temptations…[and] we should do likewise, and we might well add, “and I thank God for water; may the Spirit help me to serve and keep it this day.”” I think Ormseth is right to suggest that in our acts of every uses of water, we ought to “give the profoundest thanks for the [precious] grace of water.”
Water reminds us of our baptism, but it also can remind us of God’s presence in our lives, as well as our interconnectedness, interdependence, and responsibility for the wellbeing of the rest of creation – from the worms in our gardens to our human sisters and brothers – especially the 768 million people who struggle to identify with this symbol of living water, as their only sources of water are often causes for serious illness.
In reading about World Water Day yesterday, I learned that 1 child dies every 21 seconds from a water-related disease. Or, consider the chemical spill into the Elk River that compromised the potable water for 300,000 West Virginians. The integrity of nature’s most complex ecological systems is at stake, do in no small part to many compounding human actions that have taken for granted the sacredness of water.
I think we ought to challenge ourselves to always view water as a theological symbol of divine presence in our lives. For example, I’m sure you’re familiar with the saying, “April showers bring May flower….” Springtime is, especially here in New England, a time of rain showers. While often I find rain to be an irritant, I wonder how my own mindset might change if I saw water as a sign of God’s divine presence in the world. We know that water is essential for all life on Earth, and thus we must respect water as sacred gift. Our gratitude for this gift of God’s presence and abundance may be expressed in many ways, but perhaps no more relevantly as concern and care for the water that sustains life throughout the world God loves.
In a bit we will be heading outside to bless the gardens as we enter into the sometimes rainy spring season. We have placed a bowl of water outside, and I invite you to dip your fingers into the it – embrace the feeling of water on your skin, and remember God’s continual presence in your life, and in all life within the cosmos. If you are so inclined, feel free to shake the water off of your fingertips and share God’s love with the earth we stand on, too.
In this time of Lent, we may find ourselves in a spiritual state that resembles dry wells and desert-like streams. Yet we anxiously await the spring rains, the incoming flood of living water in the resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning. As we go out into the world today, may we witness to and give thanks for the ever present, living waters that remind us of God’s overflowing love.
I would like to close now with a prayer offered by the National Council of Churches on Earth Day in 2003. I think it captures well my prayer for our Christian community as we reflect on our relationship with living waters.
whose Spirit moved over the face of the waters,
who gathers the seas into their places
and directs the courses of the rivers,
who sends rain upon the earth
that it should bring forth life:
we praise you for the gift of water.
who spared Noah and creatures of every kind
from the waters of the flood,
who led your people over dry land through the sea
and across the Jordan to the land of promise,
who marks our adoption as children
with the sign of water: we thank you for the gift of water.
create in us such a sense of wonder and delight
in this and all your gifts,
that we might receive them with gratitude,
care for them with love
and generously share them with all your creatures,
to the honor and glory of your holy name.