Water in Christianity

Hand, water

At the February 2012 meeting of the Shepparton Interfaith Network, there was an Interfaith Dialogue on "Water in our Spiritual Traditions." Joan McRae of the Uniting Church gave one presentation on Living Water in the Christian Church.

Reflections on Water in Christianity

The Christian Church has a well-developed spirituality of water. It is biblically-based, but the limits of this brief reflection preclude an exhaustive discussion of water and the Bible.

For the Christian Church, water is living water, a concept which has a range of implications. There is a close connection between water and life – no water, no life.

Our highly-developed sense of thirst underlines this daily, especially at this time of the year. Our human need for water is absolute. But, equally, the earth's need for water is critical to the health of our land, or any other.

Living water has a strong biblical basis. The first Genesis creation story has God commanding the waters to bring forth living creatures – from the beginning, water is life-giving. The Psalmist sings of trees planted by living water, of resting by still waters. And, while the waters of the Sea of Reeds or Red Sea brought death to the Egyptians, they are celebrated in the drama of God's great act of salvation for the Hebrews.

A Christian spirituality of water is largely based on two New Testament passages. John 4:7-15 tells the story of Jesus' meeting a woman by a well in the noonday heat, and asking her for a drink. To her amazed response, Jesus replies: '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. ... Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I give them will never be thirsty. The water that I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.'

Hand, water, Spirit

Here, the spiritual aspect of water, living water, 'gushing up to eternal life'. Living water is not just Jesus' gift to us, but also, a gift to others.

Living water transforms us when we receive it, but it also has the capacity to change others as well. And the corollary: just as the land can be dry and thirsty, so our souls can be dry, because the stream of living water is not flowing in them. Living water can be equated with eternal life, salvation. Living water thus often features in our prayers,so that we do not become dessicated Christians.

The second New Testament basis comes from the passages dealing with the Baptism of Jesus. John the Baptiser says "I have baptised you with water; but he (the one who is more powerful than I ... coming after me) will baptise you with the Holy Spirit." (Mark 1:8) Living water ... It is this living water which is the centre of the sacrament of baptism, the water which cleanses from sins, as John preached, but which also brings new life. "Baptism plunges us into the faith of Jesus Christ" sings our baptismal liturgy. (Uniting in Worship 2, p.74) So in baptism we can say that we die to the old life – drown, if you like - and rise to new life in Christ – through these living waters.

One baptismal prayer illustrates this, piling up the water imagery :

God of life
through the breaking of waters
and the coming of the Spirit,
you bring us new birth;
you give the living water,
which becomes in us
an eternal spring quenching our thirst,
flowing through us
and refreshing us for eternal life.
Washed and cleansed,
we are called into service with Christ.

(Source: Uniting in Worship 2 p. 78)

Congregational reaffirmation of baptism uses the sign of water, but quite differently from its use in baptism – the person may put water on himself or herself, but not on another person.

Living Water Thirsty Land was the theme of the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) national Assembly meeting in 2009, and for the following three years. At this Assembly, the UCA explored the theme in a number of ways. Our indigenous sisters and brothers made beautiful, dramatic, heartfelt presentations of their understanding of water in relation to land and faith. Our liturgies and prayers developed the theme. A hymn was written round the theme: Holy Spirit, rain. Water imagery permeated the week-long Assembly meeting. Later, there was a pilgrimage to Living Water.

For this, people make physical and spiritual preparation for pilgrimage, for spiritual renewal, using the ancient disciplines of prayer, study, worship and pilgrimage. They journey towards a local spring, stream, lake or pond – or even baptismal fonts in a series of churches, using special resources for study, holy conversation and worship. So the living water of the Spirit and of the Gospel spring up.

Hand, water

The pilgrimage reflects Australian life – dry barrenness, followed by floods!

In this way and others, the spirituality of water becomes very practical, earth-based. Spirituality goes hand-in-hand with actions. Uniting Church Synods support Green Church. The Synod of Victoria and Tasmania has a staff team actively involved in environmental activities, including use and care of water, care of rivers. Some congregations have won awards for their green life.

But there is also an echo of the waters of chaos, present before creation. We are reminded of this powerfully destructive energy in Noah and the Flood and the Red Sea drama, but also in the terrifyingly widespread floods in Queensland and New South Wales this week, the third flood in three years in some areas. Is this a new thing, or part of an ancient pattern of flood and drought?

What of rising sea levels? The creeping out of the waters of chaos?

Think of drowning in our seas and rivers – or swimming pools – and of drowning to sin in baptism, then rising to new life, reformed, reshaped, rejuvenated, as thirsty land is refreshed by the forces of water.

Living water – one of God’s greatest gifts, whichever way you think about it!


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