© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering, UCC, All Rights Reserved
If, as we have discussed over the past three weeks, the pathway to the human soul is through the air, and the soil at our feet is an amalgam of what we are made of, then water is the wellspring of our very existence. Not only do we celebrate it as as a natural home, we can see it as the symbolic flow of our physical and mental being. Both literally and figuratively, water is the fount of creation and the means by which we continually cleanse, recreate and purify ourselves. Two weeks ago, we reflected on how air and meditation breathing put us in touch with our souls. Last week, we saw how dirt and soil are tangible examples of what we are made of. If we are the humble humus of earth, we should adopt similar attitudes of humility. I hope today for us to see water as a symbolic conduit through which we experience life. Without it we would not be born. Without it we would not be able to grow and change into new and better people. As an essential element for life, water is equally important for our spiritual well-being. In it, through it and from it we find solace, challenge and renewal.
Billions and billions of years ago, when the earth was still in its infancy, when volcanic activity was common around the globe, when the oceans were a primordial soup, when the atmosphere was still a toxic mix of ammonia and other gases, something amazing took place. On this inhospitable ancient earth, many scientists believe that peptides and protocells – not actual living organisms – chemically developed the ability to synthesize oxygen from the sea. Through the process of photosynthesis and energy from the sun, these protocells were then able to use nutrients expelled from underwater volcanoes to become the first one celled forms of actual life – beings capable of using energy to grow and reproduce. Born from the depths of water evolved living creatures as we know them today.
In almost every religious description of creation, life emerged from a watery source. God moved upon the face of the waters in order to begin creation, according to the Jewish and Christian Bible. In the Q’uran, Allah set the throne of the Divine on the oceans and created all life from them. The home of the gods is at the confluence of rivers, according to Hindus. And, for Hopi Native-Americans, water was the original essence of the universe – air, land and life sprang from it. Water is said by most world religions to be the Great Beginning. Such spiritual descriptions of where creation first began are interestingly not far off what science tells us is likely true. Water is the source of life.
This scientific and spiritual understanding of water as the creative womb of original life has also been true for the beginning of civilization. Cultures and societies were first built around sources of water. Ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece, Mesopotamia and Aztec nations flourished and grew because of proximity to it. Indeed, the cradle of civilization – the location of where anthropologists believe the first complex society emerged – was located in the fertile crescent, the triangle of land between the Tigris and Euphrates river deltas in modern day Iraq.
Besides beings the source of creation and the necessary resource for the beginning of civilization, water is also the incubator for individual human and animal life. We are formed and nurtured in watery fluid. Our first human experience is to float, and even inhale, water within the womb.
Many of you know the Biblical story of Jonah – one in which water plays a vital symbolic role. Jonah was asked by God to travel to the city of Ninevah to proclaim judgement upon its people for their disobedience to God. He was to be the messenger of God’s verdict. Not wanting to assume the risks that have befallen all prophets, Jonah fled from the task assigned him by God and jumped on board a ship departing from Israel. When a terrible storm erupted around the ship and threatened it with sinking, the crew investigated who among them could have caused such Divine wrath. They soon discovered Jonah’s disobedience to God and, not wanting to share his punishment, the crew threw him overboard.
Jonah was quickly swallowed by a large fish, later described in the New Testament as a whale. In it, he spent three days and three nights. That part of the story was later described as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ three day experience in the belly of a tomb. At any rate, Jonah spent his time within the whale to reflect on his disobedience. He prayed to God thanking the Divine One for saving him from certain death and he also sought forgiveness for disobeying God. The story says that God, out of mercy, forgave Jonah and offered him a second chance. The whale was then induced by God to literally vomit Jonah onto dry land.
Jonah fulfilled his assigned task of proclaiming judgement on Ninevah only to be surprised when those fair citizens listened to him and repented of their evil ways. Once again acting out of mercy, God forgave Ninevah and commuted their death sentence. Jonah was furious at God for using him as a messenger of doom only to then have a change of heart. God, however, reminded Jonah that he too experienced forgiveness and should want the same for Ninevah.
The story is a classic Biblical example of teaching a lesson through imagery and myth. God is merciful and kind to those who are obedient and repentant. If one changes behavior to become a better person, all is forgiven.
While we might scoff at the mythological flavor of the Jonah story and disagree with those who see it as literal truth, it should not be discounted. The Bible and other Scriptures are full of insights and pieces of wisdom useful for life. As we often say here at the Gathering, we take the Bible and other Scriptures seriously, but not literally.
Water is used in the Jonah story and in many other Bible stories as the means by which one is tested and eventually purified or changed. Water is the means by which Jonah tried to escape, the depths into which he was challenged and the means by which he was forgiven. In another Bible story, a flood of water tried, judged and mostly killed humanity. All of creation was saved, however, by an Ark built and sailed by the faithfulness of Noah and his family. Through the Red Sea were Pharoah and the Egyptian army destroyed. And through it were Moses and the Israelites saved as they fled from Egypt. In a baptism of water Jesus was transformed into a prophet of God. In countless other stories and myths, from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner to Moby Dick to the Epic of Gilgamesh – an ancient text about an earth ravaging flood – water is both terrifying in its ability to destroy as it is benign in its cleansing and purifying qualities.
That is the beauty and power of water as a spiritual element and symbol. The same water from which God’s spirit hovered to create life, nearly destroys it in great floods and tsunamis. The still water which the good shepherd leads us to lie next to, also brews into terrible and deadly storms. It is both living water according to Jesus and a deep abyss which is dark, unknown and full of scary creatures. Water soothes, bathes and caresses as much as it burns and drowns. It hydrates and nourishes just as it challenges us with unstoppable power. We need it as much as we fear it.
If that is case, how might we think about and then use water as a spiritual element? We can use the air and our breath to meditate and focus on the soul – the very essence of who we are. We can dig into and commune with soil to see its rich abundance as the stuff of ourselves. Such an understanding compels us not to think too highly of ourselves since we are created from dust and dirt and to them we will return. But how do we commune with and spiritually understand water?
Over the last few weeks I have experienced periods of some sadness and depression. These were not new to me as I have experienced such periods from time to time over my life. I know full well these are self-indulgent pity parties but that awareness does not prevent me from feeling their pain. Last Sunday when I woke up I was so sad and fearful that the outdoor service and planting communion would be a complete flop that it was difficult rallying myself to get ready for church. In my depressions, I will focus on all of the little things in my life that I wish were better or that could go wrong. And yet my clear and rational mind tells me such thoughts are foolish and selfish. I am a very blessed person in so many ways. Usually, I am able to employ a form of self cognitive therapy and change the way I think.
Water, however, assists me in that change and has a curative power over me. As I stood in a warm shower last Sunday and allowed the embrace of water to envelope me, I was soothed and caressed. Some kind of peace came over me and allowed me to move into a more positive mindset. Sitting by an ocean or a lake is peaceful and calming to me. Hearing the murmur of a small fountain or the rhythmic rush of ocean waves on a beach offers gentle reassurance. By touch, sight and sound, water heals me. It changes me. It renews and restores. I love to be near or within water.
And I think I am not unique in this feeling. Jesus told his followers that whoever drank of his living water would never thirst. As I noted earlier, we are reminded in the famous 23rd Psalm that the good shepherd or God leads us beside still waters. The Divine One is often found in placid ponds, azure blue seas, a thunderous waterfall or even a small and tranquil bathtub. In that regard, water has the mysterious ability to wash and to calm us. Just as for Christians it washes away sin and for Muslims it purifies so one can pray to Allah, water physically AND emotionally cleanses us. It may wash away the literal dirt of life but it also washes away our psychological dirt. Warm water not only cleans my body and but it calms my being with its smooth embrace – wrapping me in a liquid blanket. Cascading water is also beautiful to hear because it subconsciously reminds us of the water muffled heartbeats we heard within the womb.
There is a primal pull within us to seek nearness to water. We want its calming power as much as we want its ability to renew and refresh. When I am sad, water revives. When I am anxious, water soothes. When I am in need of reflection in order to change my thinking, water is a peaceful presence. It enables my re-birth.
And this re-birth comes not just from water’s ability to create peace. It also comes from the challenges water puts into our lives. The dual nature of water – to calm and to challenge – is a part of its character. When we plunge into its depths to swim, dive, or snorkel, we accept the challenge to enter a foreign realm. Water pulls us downward to suffocate and bury us – to smother the air from our lungs – and yet, if we master its qualities of viscous buoyancy, we can conquer it and move freely within it. I love the freedom and challenge of swimming – to so wondrously glide through it.
When we ride its currents on a boat, we employ its properties of displacement and flotation to travel with even greater ease. Once again, I love being in a boat – any kind of a watercraft – when I can feel like I am master over this domain to sail across its depths, to paddle gently over its waves or to rush along its charging rapids. What a thrill!
At other times when we laugh in the face of a terrific rain storm, build canals, dikes or channels to control its floods, or slide across its frozen form of ice and snow, we accept its taunts to try and control it. What we eventually learn whether it be in swimming, boating or trying to control its power, water allows us just enough ability within it to lull us into thinking we are greater than it. Too soon we find ourselves in ocean currents beyond our power, or in waves too large to navigate or confronting such massive quantities of it that we are overwhelmed. Water is a seductive mistress – luring us with is gentle ways, challenging us with its power and then sharply reminding us that we are nothing in its unfeeling face.
The challenges of water are like life challenges we face. Do we flee or do we engage? As the many Bible stories suggest, water’s ability to confront us with difficulty and hardship is usually a good thing. Noah conquered a flood, Moses escaped through a deep sea, Jonah escaped from its dark depths and even Jesus was figuratively buried into it with his baptism. All were tested. And all emerged and were changed for the better as a result.
That seductive lure to lie by still waters is good, therefore, only to a point. It might calm us for a time but until we meet its power and its challenge, we will not be truly changed. Indeed, an old African proverb says that “It is the calm and silent water that drowns a man.”
Water is thus a spiritual element and metaphor for how we address life. Its curative powers to soothe, embrace, confront, challenge and offer beauty encourages us to both reflect and engage thus enabling a renewal of our thinking. It is no accident, as I have said, that throughout history and within multiple world religions, water is the conduit and the symbol by which we change and by which we are re-born.
Let us each, my good Gathering friends, go down to the riverside, the lakeside or the sea shore this summer. May we find solace and peace in water’s gentle beauty – with breezes whispering across its blue waves. May we hopefully have the opportunity to stand in the open rain exulting in water’s power or swim across a pool and marvel at that chance to meet its power. Let us above all ponder and think and honor the great essential elements of life – air, earth and water. God is in them. Their holiness is all around us, inviting us to let go of our man-made lives and instead plunge into the natural realm with joy and abandon. This June, this summer, I pray for each of us that we return home to nature – the womb, the cradle and the essence of all creation. I wish you, one and all, great peace and much joy…
During this series on essential life elements, we have explored different ways to experience communion other than partaking of bread and grape juice. For water communion, I suggest finding a small piece of terry cloth and a glass of water. Take the cloth and dip it into the water so that it is damp. Now hold it in your hands and prepare your mind for a time of reflection and meditation.
As you hold onto the damp cloth, I hope you will use it to feel the coolness of water…………
think about the soothing influence water has for you………..
conjure in your minds a warm bath……..a cool swim on a warm summer day……..the soft sound of rain falling on a porch roof ……….the slow, rhythmic rush of ocean waves on a beach.
Feel the water in the cloth and imagine yourself floating in some peaceful pool or lake or ocean setting………..the water is all around you and embracing you as you allow your mind and thoughts to simply float.
Feel in your damp cloth communion with all the water around the world.
Feel the power of water in floods and storms………..sense that power in your hands and in the cloth.
If you can, remember times in your life when you have been challenged in life………..and let your image of water’s power be a metaphor for that life challenge you have experienced.
See yourself overcoming that challenge – thinking and working and striving to grow and learn and change.
Let this water be a symbol for you of such growth and re-birth.
Allow yourself now to feel as calm as possible right now. Let this communion water take you to lie down beside still waters………….the grass is fresh and full of flowers……….a slight breeze blows across the water………….and you are completely at peace.