Water and Its Rites

From a presentation at MAHEC  [Mountain Area Health Education Center]:

       It is a pleasure to be with you all today.  I am thankful for this opportunity to speak with you, and I must say that both water and its place in Christianity are subjects far beyond the scope of our time together or my peculiar gifts.  However, I hope that you will leave here today with a greater insight into water as a framework for life and for the rituals that celebrate and bless new life.

          So let us begin by looking at water as one of the meta themes of the sacred scripture that Christians affirm.  The very first line of Genesis begins with a reference to water.  Before what we refer to as creation actually happened, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1).  This is admittedly difficult to imagine, but the concept of there being water before there even was creation is essential to how further encounters with water in the scriptures will be interpreted.  The term “face of the deep” refers to the face of a mythic sea monster called Rahab, who, in some accountings, was cut in pieces to make creation.  The book of Isaiah refers to this event, and judging by the way the first five books of the Bible were compiled and redacted by authors who would have been influenced by the same cultural context, the first line of the Bible may have been written with the same mindset.  Regardless, the most important point, for our time together, is that this deep is symbolically connected with water, and all creation purportedly began by a wind from God sweeping over these symbolic waters and bringing forth life.

       Light was the first to come forth and was separated from the darkness making it distinct.  Creation seen in this light comes from the separating of something.  It happens again with the water and the dome, and then again with the water and land.  This process of separating, as a form of begetting, goes on and on through the creation of life in both the land and waters, and further to the creation of humankind.  In the first biblical version of creation, everything happens due to the separation of primordial water by God.

       In the second version of creation, the one that is more anthropocentric and focused upon the narrative of Adam and Eve, we get an inside view into a time before rain had caused the plants of the earth to grow.  This version views a sort of subterranean water as coming forth to water all the earth, thus creating the world.  This water, we are told, flows out of the garden of Eden to the four corners of the then known Earth.  Into the heart of this water, “the one of earth” or “Adam” and “Eve” or “life” are placed to care for creation.  These two versions are different, but both of their metaphors will play out through the rest of scripture and find their way into ritual contexts.

       I wanted to take a little more time with this creation section because it forms a powerful pattern that is replicated throughout later scripture.   The most significant reference to water after creation is the creation re-dux story of Noah, or The Flood.  This story is known in other forms and traditions, but creation’s reversal by method of water must have been a powerful cultural memory.  40 days and 40 nights of rain.  All life on board a vessel that floated upon the waters which was engineered by God and made by human hands.  A new wind blows over the earth, the water resides, and God promises, giving the rainbow as a sign of the covenant, never again to allow a flood of such magnitude.

       This is the virtual close of the creation section.  Next follows the Egypt/Israel struggle including Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and his tribe leading sons, all the way to Moses.  In this section, water begins to take on more ordinary qualities. We hear of sacred wells, much in the vein of Brigid’s well, of Jacob and family making a river crossing, and eventually we come to the Exodus story which prominently features water.  The Exodus narrative, in which Hebrew slaves were freed from bondage in Egypt by God, is one of the most formative parts of our scripture.  In this saga, we hear about Moses, the eventual channel of God’s covenant law for Israel, as he grows from mere babe to prophetic leader.  Water plays a key role in Moses’ development.  Much like Noah’s ark floating upon the flood waters, Moses is launched in a basket from one reality (his Hebrew home of origin) to another (Pharoah’s court) by means of the Nile.  This river plays a significant role in the development of the narrative.  After the slavery of the Hebrews becomes more brutal and unbearable, God though Moses seeks to confront Pharaoh to set them free from bondage.  Pharaoh refuses.  Thus the Nile becomes a fount of protest.  Like the flood in Noah’s time, the gifts of water become curses.  The Nile becomes undrinkable and the teeming life that is within it grows to unhealthy levels (frogs and flies).  And finally, toward the climax of the narrative, the Red Sea itself is parted.  Like Noah, who floated to safety upon the flood waters, the people of Israel walked safely on dry land, while the water consumed their oppressors.

       The miraculous nature of the event is not my primary concern, but instead the symbolic connections that are emerging.  We see that water can be manipulated by God to both bless and curse, and that the separation of the waters that we witnessed in creation is replicated symbolically in the parting of the Red Sea.  This connection is far more fascinating to me than what may have occurred on the natural level.  It seems to say to me that water’s role in creation and re-creation is pivotal.  In both the Flood/New Creation narrative and the Exodus Saga, water takes a central role in communicating God’s intentions to the people of God.

       The essentiality of water becomes even more evident once the Israelites start crossing the Sinai Peninsula.  Since they were traveling in the midst of a desert, and in a very large cohort, their water needs must have been great.  During this section of the saga, water that springs forth from a rock on Mt. Horeb serves as a reminder of Israel’s reliance on God. And at the close of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible or Torah), we find the community of Israelites perched on the edge of crossing into what they called the promised land.  The last step was to cross the Jordan river, which they did with Joshua, in a final reminder of the Red Sea crossing and the Noah/covenant stories.  The Israelites reach the waters edge with a new Ark, this time the ark of the covenant, and when they place their feet in the water, the water parts, and the people cross over on dry land.

       So, major themes involving water that we have thus far covered:  Water as primal element before creation, water as conveyor of both blessing and curse, water that is something separable and which plays a major role in salvation narrative.  Later on we will see how authors of the Christian scriptures used these concepts to say new things about the work of their God in their own day.

       Of course, water continues to be a theme throughout the Hebrew scriptures, running through the Psalms and the Prophets.  But since this conference is focused on the healing power of water, I would like us to look at one passage in particular in which water, with all its symbolic connections we just discussed, serves as the agent of healing.  This story is found in the book of 2 Kings which is a long work documenting the various kings in Israel and Judah’s history following the great kings, Saul, David and Solomon.  It serves as a bridge work between Joshua, Moses’ successor, and the books of the prophets.  Accordingly, a large part of it chronicles two major figures, Elijah and his successor Elisha.  These two prophets are exemplary types of the ones to come, and the stories about them are filled with various miracles.  For our purposes, we are going to examine a moment in Elisha’s ministry in which a foreign army commander comes to Elisha seeking healing for his leprosy.  The political situation at this time was dicey to say the least, and the tension only serves to highlight the healing.  I would like to read this to you in its entirety. [read 2 Kings 5]  Naaman returns to the same Jordan that Joshua and the Israelites crossed to reach the promise land, and leaves being cured of his leprosy.  Now, I don’t think this story is about sending all sufferers of Hansen’s disease to the Jordan or showering them with water in the hopes of curing their infirmity.  Instead, I think this story points to the kind of healing that is beyond the physical.  It is no accident that it is the Jordan river and Naaman’s complaint about washing in other rivers seems well founded until we view this as the code speech it is.  From the perspective of the author, Naaman’s healing is bound to the promise and covenant that was made known to the people of Israel, and the Jordan was the place where they “entered” this new experience, this new life.  And thus we see the template for the sort of healing affirmed by Christians in one of its most powerful rituals: baptism.  Through contact with sacred water, if you will, Naaman emerges into new life.

       The writers of the Christian scriptures, who were virtually all members of the covenant people (Jews), knew these stories and connections and sought to link the powerful messages contained in them with the person of Jesus.  Although each author makes these connections in their own specific way, the witness of water’s continued role in communicating God’s purpose is communally strengthened.  One thing all the Gospels have in common is an accounting of Jesus’ baptism in this same Jordan river.  Now, in this section of our talk, I will be focusing on Baptism as the most fundamental form of healing known to Christians.

       So let us look at Jesus’ own baptism, which is the prototype for all baptisms that followed.  This baptism occurred in the Jordan River, with all attendant previous symbolism, at the hands of John the Baptist, named for this work of baptizing in the wilderness.  Most scholars see John and Jesus as being later types of Elijah and Elisha, and knowing this, the baptism of John is easily linked to Naaman’s healing in the Jordan through the word of Elisha.  John was baptizing others in the wilderness, and this rite of passing through the waters of the Jordan served as both a purification rite, and a symbolic reminder of the heart of God’s covenant.  Baptism was seen as dying to an old reality (purification) and rising to a new one (healing).  John’s cry in the wilderness is for Israel to wake up and remember what life is all about, and to accomplish this, he returns to the waters—waters that speak of the deepest truth Israel remembered about itself.  When Jesus comes to be baptized by John, John initially does not want to do it because he sees Jesus as God incarnate and does not feel worthy to do the baptizing.  He speaks of the one to come that will baptize not only with water, but with the holy spirit and fire, and then believes that Jesus is this one.  It is of great interest to me that after John baptizes Jesus, we read that, “The heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Now this language is clearly linked with the language we spoke about regarding creation (God saw that the light was good), and it is employed for this purpose: to communicate the symbolism.  Jesus’ baptism serves as a portal into the rest of his active ministry, including the many stories about his healing power.  In participating in a new creation through baptism, Jesus becomes a human channel of the divine power that created all things.  Of course, whether or not one believes this is a matter of faith, but this is certainly what is being communicated through the scripture. After Jesus’ ministry was finished, his followers continued the practice of baptizing initiated by John, but did so in the belief that baptism with water in this way constituted initiation into Christ’s mystical body.  This mystical body is one of the metaphors for the community of believers later to be known as the church.  Some prevalent themes that arise surrounding this baptism are forgiveness of sins, new birth, “being clothed with Christ,” and being joined with Christ in his death and resurrection.  The majority of New Testament writers have one thing or another to say about baptism, and each of these themes is developed by them to communicate how Christ fits into the story of salvation that was handed down to them.

       Probably the closest theme to the subject of healing is that of “forgiveness of sins.”  While we may look at this as a purely spiritual theme, the ancient Hebrews would have seen a strong physical component in the theme of forgiveness of sins.  This is due in large part to the belief that sin, or separation from God, was the cause of physical maladies.  The books of Leviticus and Numbers are full of prescriptions for the community regarding cleansing rites associated with different forms of uncleanness, or sin.  Some examples were uncleanness incurred by touching a dead body, by menstruation, or by touching unclean animals.  Ritual washing in the Temple was often one such prescription, and the Naaman story we spoke of earlier is a later example of how washing and healing are related.  Christian baptism took this to whole new levels, choosing to focus more on the forgiveness of spiritual sins instead of the physical uncleanness we see in the Mosaic law.  This is due in large part to Jesus’, and more vociferously, Paul’s insistence on fulfilling the “spirit of the law” rather than the letter of the law.  Early Christians saw in Jesus a new way of encountering the world and the rite of baptism naturally sought to communicate this new reality and even more, to impart it through the powerful symbol of water.

       To get a feel for what these early believers sought to communicate through the water of baptism, it is worth looking at New Testament references to water in relation to Jesus.  Besides the baptism stories that are found in all four gospels, some major water moments or metaphors are:  The Sea of Galilee, the large lake in northern Israel formed from the Jordan river where Jesus supposedly walked on water, where he calmed the storm, and where his earliest disciples fished.  Again, regardless of how you view the physical probability of these miracles, the message being communicated is that Jesus, like the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, has control over water.  But with Jesus and the New Testament, there is always an added twist, therefore, Jesus does not separate the waters to walk on dry land, but walks above them.  Jesus has the ability to not only be God’s agent in calling down the plagues of hail and rain, but the ability to set things right again.  Jesus, like the God in creation, can bring forth teeming creatures from the sea.  Without some understanding of the prior usage of these symbols, these stories lose much of their communicative power and I believe much damage has been done by Christians due to missing these connections and focusing instead on the “miracles” themselves as merely something to be believed or denied.

       The Gospel of John is the most explicit in equating Jesus himself with water.  Although water stands as a sort of wisdom in this context, Jesus says in John 7:37-38, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.  As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of healing water.”  Jesus makes this statement during the festival of booths, which was a yearly ritual observance that commemorated Israel’s wandering in the Sinai desert.  Part of the ritual of this festival was carrying water from the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem to the Temple.  The implication for baptism is that in drinking of the wisdom that is Jesus through baptism, each believer then becomes a channel of life for others.  Much of intentional attempts at “Christian healing” resonate with this concept.  This living water is again referenced in an encounter at Jacob’s well between Jesus and a Samaritan woman.  [Read John 4:7] Jesus is breaking social norms in speaking with a woman, and a Samaritan at that, and the presence of water as a central metaphor in this text is clear.  The identification of Jesus as living water underlines most of the beliefs surrounding the communicated power believers receive when initiated into the body of Christ at baptism.  Another example of this in the Gospel is Jesus’ healing of the lame man by the pool at the Sheep Gate. [Read John 5] This particular pool was known for its healing qualities, especially when a natural spring caused movement within it.  In this story, it is the dangerous obedience to Jesus on the sabbath, that communicates the healing to the lame man.  This only underlines John’s point that Jesus is living water which can heal the infirm.

       Though the Gospels offer much in the way of Jesus’ connection with water, the concept was even more powerfully communicated by Paul before the gospels were even written.  Paul, an extremely well educated Roman Jew, really provided the framework for linking baptism and Jesus’ ministry.  His most powerful image remains, for me, that of the waters of baptism as a sort of tomb for the old self which is “buried” with Christ.  Paul, having had a remarkable conversion experience that included blindness and new sight, articulated this concept in his letter to the Romans saying, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3-4).  Here we see a convergence of the concept of dying to sin, which hearkens to aspects of the law of Moses and its clean/unclean dynamic, but with a twist.  This twist is that it is Christ’s life, ministry and death that destroys the separation between God and creation, that sin has been vanquished forever in this divine life Christians recognize in Christ.  Baptism, and the water which communicates it, is the way the believer dies with Christ to sin, and is empowered to embody the new creation that Christ announced and embodied.  This theme is reechoed and developed in other epistles.  For Paul and those who followed, baptism began to emerge as the central rite of initiation into the community centered on Jesus.

       Lastly, regarding the scriptural witness concerning water, we find in Revelation, a book that makes many Episcopalians uncomfortable due to its use and misuse in other denominations, the final image of the new Jerusalem. This city is a literary representation of the new creation.  An angel has shown John, the author, many allegorical images throughout the book, but the final one hearkens back to the foundations of creation.  The passage reads like this, “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.  On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:1-2).  This vision builds upon the creation stories and particularly the second one in Genesis, with its tree of life reference.  The healing of the nations is a reference to the prophetic vision of Isaiah in which all nations are gathered upon the mountain of God to share a great feast.  What we see in this final scriptural image is the belief that the Lamb, or Christ, is the source of the river of the water of life that feeds the tree of life, which in turn produces leaves intended to heal.  In this image, we move away from the all too often privileged (at least in this day and time) concept of water/baptism as merely personal, and move further into the social and planetary realms.

       So… All these images and of course, many I have not mentioned or discerned, point to how Christians interpret the healing power of water.  While the water itself is not necessarily something to be praised and worshipped, its role in conveying the gifts and intentions of God is central to the entire story of salvation.  Are there any questions pertaining to this material?


In this final section of the presentation, I would like to talk about the implications that the healing experience and ontological reality of baptism have for the Christian community.  I must preface this section by saying that I can only speak from an Episcopalian perspective; each branch of the Christian tree may offer its own peculiar gifts in this area. However, I believe that due to its central importance in the history of salvation, we Christians should be intimately involved with water and its issues.  For me this means, reading about the goodness of creation and water’s participation in it, and making a determined and sustained effort to promote clean sources of water.  If I affirm creation as good, then I believe it is part of my baptismal covenant responsibilities to see that the water entrusted to us approaches the good that accompanied it in creation.  This may mean fighting for water rights, it may mean cleaning up our streams, rivers and seas, or it may mean helping dig new wells in communities without potable water sources.  While the concepts that can be derived from scripture can be wonderful, they are essentially only clever artifice if not used to animate a profound engagement with the world.  It means responding when disasters like Katrina strike, or the Indian Ocean Tsunami, both horrific examples of the destructive power of water.  If Christians truly believe in the healing power of the waters of baptism, a healing that takes something dead and recreates it anew, then we must be engaged with this “healing of the nations” as a result of the healing we have received in Christ.  This means healing the brokenness caused by war, the separation that prevents us from solving the climate change crisis, and the various divides that arise among races and classes of people.  We humans, who emerge from the watery world of the womb, whose entire bodies are infused with water, would do well to remember the healing source that birthed and sustains us.  For the Christian, we see the connection between these worlds and the baptism we have received in Christ and we are charged through our baptismal vows, to engage the world in the name of this living water whom we profess as the Christ.  In that engagement, and in the rite of baptism itself, we encounter the deepest sort of healing known to us.

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