God is Like Water
The Community of St John wrote in the 2nd century a story that likened God to water. They put on the lips of Jesus the words: “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”[i]
Over the last couple of weeks there have been numerous water stories in the press.
Auckland and other regions have had a deluge, with some experiencing significant property damage. Somewhat ironically the heavy rain has led to water rationing as our treatment plants have struggled to cope.
There has been a petition and protests around companies depleting New Zealand’s fresh water resources in the production of bottled water. This is not unrelated to the huge amount of plastic bottles and other debris now floating in our oceans, particles of which are being ingested by fish.
There are ongoing stories about the quality of water in New Zealand’s streams, and the causative effect of dairying. Likewise there are concerns about the quality of our seawater, and whether our beaches are safe.
Not so prominent in our news are the geopolitical ramifications of climate change – like the decreased water flow from the Himalayas and the possibility of conflict as three nuclear powers [India, China, and Pakistan] try to satisfy their aquatic needs.
Is God like water?
In the past the water splashed on the head of a baptismal candidate was talked about symbolically as essential to life [as in drinking water]; as refreshing and cleansing [as in washing]; and as something we travelled over [going on a sea voyage to a new land – as many of our ancestors did]. Water symbolised blessing, life, vitality, and hope. Water, like God, cared for and sustained us, and led us on.
In traditional baptism liturgies reference would be made to the so-named ‘miracle’ of crossing the Red Sea as Moses led the Israelites out of bondage into freedom. Though as we heard this morning the ‘freedom’ had its downside too – but more about that shortly.
Also in those old liturgies there would be reference to John the Baptiser dousing Jesus [and many others] in the Jordan River – now somewhat a trickle – as a sign of theo-political commitment to flushing the Romans from their Jewish homeland. Like with the Red Sea legend water symbolised the pathway to freedom and God’s commitment, as well as our own, to the same.
God is like water.
Yet our present day stories about water suggest that not only does God, like water, care for us, but in this time and place we need to care for water. We can no longer assume that clean water will endlessly be with us, or that we will always be able to swim at our magic beach, or that our kai moana will be safe to eat, or that governments and corporations will value sustainability over self-interest, and peace over profits.
So I would like to suggest the baptism into which we Christians have been baptised is also, in this time, a commitment to water. That which has blessed us needs our help and our commitment. God needs us on this one.
The story of Jesus and the Samarian woman didn’t happen in real time. It was created by that 2nd century Community of St John. What was real was that this Community had at least two different ethnic and religious groups within it, and there was tension. One group characterised as male, Jewish, and holding more power, is represented by the Jesus figure. The other group characterised as female, Samaritan, and vulnerable, is represented by the figure of the woman at the well.
The dialogue happens around water, and begins with water. The Jesus character makes himself dependent by asking the woman for a drink. He thus breaks the codes that regulated male-female and cross-faith interactions. He does this to initiate a dialogue. Both characters, like men and women, like Jew and Samaritan, like God and humanity, like similarly and difference, need each other.
Jesus treated her as a valid conversation partner, engaging her in serious theological conversation. The fact that he disagreed with some of the woman’s affirmations is the best proof that he was treating her with respect. Jacob Neusner, in his book A Rabbi talks with Jesus, explains that for a rabbi to argue and dialogue with others was a sign of respect.[ii]
She is the spokesperson for the Samaritan group within the St John Community.[iii] She makes progressive affirmations of faith that prepare the way to her being sent as a witness.[iv] Jesus broadens out from his own Jewish cultic tradition by affirming that God is best worshipped in spirit. Instead of an argument saying my culture, heritage, and holy places are better than yours the Jesus character, to quote Barack Obama, ‘goes high’. He points away from the past to a different future – one where there is common water.
I would suggest that this dialogue reflecting the different competing interests and perspectives of two cultural groups in the 2nd century Christ movement gives us pointers towards life-giving water. The lesson from John 4 is that common community can only be built when we are not afraid of overcoming old prejudices and are willing to break the social conventions that dehumanize us. In the search for life-giving water our prejudices – whether they be of gender, race, learning, or religion – can get in the way of developing cooperative models for the good of all. We need each other.
The notion of God as spirit transcends religions, and can even transcend a theist/non-theist/a-theist divide.[v] Similarly the need for life-giving water for the survival of species could also transcend individual, corporate, and national self-interests. But then, like in the history of God, it might descend into endless bickering and conflict.
God is like water.
The first reading this morning comes from the desert tradition where water is scarce and thirst is real. Here water, like God, is hidden in unexpected places.
This is not the first time in the saga that the wandering Israelites have lacked for water. The first time, they had been in the wilderness for just three days.[vi] That story goes that when they arrived at Marah, they found the water there undrinkable on account of its bitterness. After the people complained, Moses called out to God and God provided a piece of wood, which, when thrown into the water made it sweet and suitable for drinking.[vii]
In Exodus 17 the Israelites have camped at Rephidim, but there was no water to drink. The complaining floats to the surface again. They demand of their leader, Moses, "Give us water to drink!"[viii]
Moses interprets the people's demand for water to be a test of Yahweh, their God. The people's continuing doubt seems both to be about who is in charge (they still identify Moses as the one who brought them up out of Egypt, rather than Yahweh) and why they have been chosen. In Egypt, they were chosen by the Pharaoh for work[ix]and ultimately, for death.[x] They suspect that this is Moses'/God's intention for them as well, for they wonder if they have been brought into the wilderness to die.
God tells Moses to take the staff he used at the Nile River and to meet God on the rock at Horeb, from which water will flow when Moses strikes it with his staff.
This God seems to forget about the people's needs but responds with creativity when the people loudly protest. The people keep pushing the question: "Are you just another god like Pharaoh?" There is interplay here: the people work to shape God's character just as God works to shape that of the people – we make God and God makes us.
Yahweh brings forth water - and the life it symbolizes - out of something that appears to be lifeless. Out of Egypt and out of the wilderness, God will find the means to make water/life flow in unexpected ways.
But it will require a certain amount of trust from the people, a willingness to put faith in a God who seems not to do things in the typical way. And Moses names the place Massah and Meribah, not after the miracle, but after the people's doubting and testing: "Is Yahweh among us or not?" (17:7) This name highlights the wildness and freedom of God, but it also memorializes the fears, questions, and doubts of people of faith.[xi]
Is God like water?
In the current water crises, similar to the desert/deserted Israelites, we want to know who is in charge; and we want accountability [which is often a pseudonym for blame]. We want to know how this/these situations came about, and who and how will the fix happen. We complain. We think that the buck stops with our equivalent of Moses.
But actually, although there are ‘Moses’ who have responsibilities and may have neglected them and may need to do better, the problem is bigger than any Moses, any one leader or collection of leaders – and the problem is deeply spiritual. For water is also, and primarily, a question of spirit. When we build a building, create a product, cook a meal, buy a plastic bottle… are we thinking of future generations? When we petition government are we petitioning ourselves? Are we willing to trade a decreased personal income for a healthier planet? Maybe a prerequisite for international trade should be compliance with agreed international water care standards. Are we willing to do something, anything, to make a better future?
I find two things hopeful in this Exodus story today. Everything was up for debate, challenged, and thought about – even (especially) God. ‘God’ was the highest value and He/it too was questioned. Likewise solutions to the big problems like water will need similar rigor. And secondly, a solution was found in an unexpected place – a rock!
God is like water. And water we passionately and persistently need to care about. I believe the baptism into which we have been baptised is also, in this time, a commitment to water. That which has blessed us needs our help. God needs us on this one, and we need spirit.
[i] John 4:14.
[ii] Jacob Neusner, A Rabbi talks with Jesus: An Intermillennial, interfaith exchange (New York: Doubleday, 1993), p.3.
[iii] Note the use of plural personal pronouns in verses 12, 20-22.
[iv] Verse 39.
[v] ‘Spirit’ does not need to be a being, or something beyond human experience.
[vi] Exodus 15:22.
[vii] Exodus 15:23-25a.
[viii] Exodus 17:2.
[ix] Exodus 1:11
[xi] See the work of Amy Erickson https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1067