Water, Water Everywhere?

Drought, flooding rains, and melting ice threaten the planet and our souls

Drought in the west isn’t always news. But the drought now covering western North America is historic. A few days ago, the New York Times reported:

It’s very bad, both in terms of the size of the affected area and the severity. The latest map from the drought monitor shows that 90 percent of what it considers the West — California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana — is in drought. Conditions are “severe” or “exceptional” in about half of the region. Colorado, Wyoming, Southwestern Texas and North and South Dakota are also affected.

There’s little water and too much heat, a deadly combination across the region.

Two days later, the New York Times covered conditions in Detroit, where Michiganders experienced a very different problem:

Up to seven inches of rain fell early on Saturday in parts of Detroit and Wayne County, Mich., stranding hundreds of vehicles on flooded freeways and prompting the rescue of about 50 drivers, officials said.

“This isn’t normal here,” said Lt. Michael Shaw, a spokesman for the Michigan State Police. “Every freeway in the county had some level of flooding.”

During the same few days, Bloomberg published a satellite photo essay on melting glaciers using new technology to measure ice melt and sea rise:

Glaciers in the Gulf of Alaska and in Asia’s High Mountain region are melting so fast that the changes can be seen from space, with the shrinkage now measured in years rather than decades. . . Over 4% of the ice volume in these two regions disappeared between 2011 and 2019, according to the first study to monitor large-scale changes in glacier thickness, mass and sea-level contribution. 

And, of course, sea-level rise is one of the suspected factored in the collapse of the condominium in Florida. Reports have emerged of shoddy construction and engineering flaws. But did water undermining the structure add to the building giving way? Experts say it is more than possible.

There’s too little water, too much water, and melting ice and rising seas. Water nowhere and water everywhere. That’s a threat to the planet. And, although we don’t often think about it, it is a challenge to faith traditions as well. It reminded me of this passage, a section from my book, Grounded, that explores the spiritual importance of water. The crisis of water points to a crisis of our souls.

Just off the road in the Scottish village of Invermoriston, there is an ancient well fed by a spring that has existed since pre-Christian times.  According to local legend, the spring was once toxic and people feared the water, believing it possessed by demons.  When anyone drank from it, they sickened, developed ulcers, and many died.  

Around the year 565, St. Columba, the missionary saint from the Isle of Iona, arrived in the village.  He prayed over the spring. The evil spirits inhabiting the water fled and the spring suddenly ran clear. The grateful townsfolk converted to Christianity. The water was fit for drink. And, because of the saint’s blessing, it also possessed healing powers. The villagers were grateful for the cleansed well that gave new life to their community. St. Columba’s ancient biographer wrote, “Since that day the demons have kept away from the well. Instead, far from harming anyone, after the saint had blessed it and washed in it, many ailments among the local people were cured by that well.” Columba’s fame spread through the Scottish highlands, where he performed many miracles with water – not least when he encountered a great sea monster and chased it into the deep waters of Loch Ness. Although the latter tale is better remembered today, the Invermoriston spring is one of the storied healing wells of Celtic lore.

Throughout human history, the quest for God has often twinned with a quest for fresh water. The Hebrew creation story begins with water; it is the only thing that exists with God before the rest of world is made. Jews mark their sacred journey with water stories, whether of the great drought of Joseph’s time, Moses parting the Red Sea, or their ancestors crossing the Jordan River in the Promised Land. Indeed, water is such a powerful force in Hebrew scripture that the same word, ayin, signifies both spring and eye, especially the eye of God. Thus, this ancient biblical tradition suggests that waters are also a place of vision, where human beings see God.  

Water is so ubiquitous in spiritual traditions that Ian Bradley, a professor at St Andrews University in Scotland, discerned eighteen different metaphors for it common across world religions – including water as a metaphor for heaven or paradise, the location of human encounter with God, the source of life, a primary symbol for death and journey to the next world, union with the divine, wisdom, the sacred feminine, a sign of hospitality and generosity, possessing holiness or blessing, and the practice of healing.

* * * * *

Indeed, water plays a central role in the Bible from beginning to end. In Genesis, water is present with the spirit before creation; in the last book of the New Testament, Revelation, life-giving water flows from the being of God’s own self. Watery images serve both as warning (the flood of Noah or the drowning of Pharaoh’s army, for example) but also carry the promise of God’s kingdom (when the desert shall run with streams and every well be full).  Indeed, the power of water as a fertility symbol and the spiritual feminine is evident also in these ancient stories. Three of Israel’s patriarchs – Isaac, Jacob, and Moses met their wives at a well, signaling that their unions will be life-giving and fertile. 

The New Testament, written in the first century, is set in what is now Israel, a land then under control of the Roman Empire, ancient home to the Hebrew people, the place God had promised them would be a land of milk and honey. In ancient geography, Israel was part of what was called the Fertile Crescent, an arc shaped cradle of land, home to the watersheds of some of the greatest and most storied rivers of human history. It was in these watersheds that humans first invented and practiced irrigation, making possible the growth of cities and modern agriculture.  But they were also susceptible to drought, and things like soil and water management were generally unknown.  

By the time of the New Testament, much of what had been rich farmlands were struggling with desertification, as the moist soils and the rivers that gave them life began to dry.  The Jordan River, where John the Baptist baptized hundreds of people including his cousin Jesus, was, and remains to this day, one of the region’s major sources of fresh water.  The Sea of Galilee, a fresh water lake fed by the Jordan, was where Jesus preached his most important sermon and performed his most dramatic miracles.  But of equal importance for human habitation in Israel is the underground water supply, the springs hidden from view: the fresh water of mountain aquifers accessible for much of history only by deep wells. 

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus meets a woman at one of these wells and strikes up a conversation with her:

"Give me a drink." (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 

The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)  

Jesus answered 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 said to him, "Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?" 

Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but 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."

The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water."  (John 4:7-15)

I have heard many sermons on this passage; indeed, I have preached a few. Typically Christians cite this passage to prove a unique claim of Jesus – that Jesus is “living water,” a moniker that identifies Jesus as divine. In the story, Jesus does more than Jacob, the Hebrew patriarch who provided the drinking well, a spot most likely deemed sacred by local villagers. Instead, Jesus implies that he is water, not just a well. As he and the woman talk, Jesus layers spiritual metaphors for water: liberation, yearning for salvation, hospitality, healing, and as a source of life. With each poetic turn, his invitation to these waters becomes more compelling. Wisdom, like a spring, that bubbles up through his insights. He gives water, and he is water.

* * * * *

The encounter is an interesting parallel to the story of Eve. In Genesis, the devil tempts the woman to eat forbidden fruit to gain divine knowledge. At the well, Jesus invites this Samaritan woman to drink God’s water to gain spiritual wisdom. The entire story is a reversal of sin; here, Jesus and the woman re-enact Eden with a different result. The woman’s eyes are opened; she understands. Yet, instead of being run out of the garden by an angry god; she runs and tells her friends that she has met the One who is Living Water. She is not cursed. Rather, the woman is blessed and offers blessing. Water is present at creation, and it is here also, at the world’s re-creation through Jesus. 

This story frames the Christian imagination regarding water. Oddly enough, in the spiritual history of water, it is not really unique (its most unique feature is how ordinary it is; unlike many other ancient waters stories, there are no supernatural elements present, no demons, no monsters, not even a healing). The story of Jesus and the woman at the well echoes shared human spiritual experience, perhaps even a universal one, that God – or the gods – provide water; and, in doing so, the water is (in some way or another) divine. Although later Christian theology will carefully draw a distinction between water-as-symbol and water-as-God, one must admit that even for the staunchest monotheist, the metaphorical territory here is pretty thin. Water is life; life is water. Living water is God; God is living water.

In the not-too-distant future, however, living water might be mere theological memory – a spiritual metaphor increasingly lost to our descendants. If nothing else, those coming after us will surely interpret the spirituality of water in starkly different ways than we do now. For water is under siege all over the planet, watersheds are collapsing, streams and rivers drying, even once-safe water systems face toxic threats. The story of Jesus and the woman at the well – the search for both safe water to drink and the water of salvation – may be more urgent than ever. And much depends on how we navigate these rivers of change.

(This essay is adapted from Grounded: Finding God in the World, A Spiritual Revolution, pp. 71-77)

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With what deep murmurs through time’s silent stealth
Doth thy transparent, cool, and wat’ry wealth
Here flowing fall,
And chide, and call,
As if his liquid, loose retinue stay’d
Ling’ring, and were of this steep place afraid;
The common pass
Where, clear as glass,
All must descend
Not to an end,
But quicken’d by this deep and rocky grave,
Rise to a longer course more bright and brave.
— Henry Vaughan, from “The Waterfall”

You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for hourse and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. "Floods" is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were, that valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory - what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our "flooding.”
Toni Morrison

I don’t know who God is exactly.
But I’ll tell you this.
I was sitting in the river named Clarion, on a water splashed stone
and all afternoon I listened to the voices of the river talking.
Whenever the water struck a stone it had something to say,
and the water itself, and even the mosses trailing under the water.
And slowly, very slowly, it became clear to me what they were saying.
Said the river I am part of holiness…

My dog Luke lies in a grave in the forest, she is given back.
But the river Clarion still flows from wherever it comes from
to where it has been told to go.
I pray for the desperate earth.
I pray for the desperate world.
I do the little each person can do, it isn’t much.
Sometimes the river murmurs, sometimes it raves.
— Mary Oliver, from “At the River Clairon”

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Blast from the Past: The ROBCAST

In 2016, I sat down with Rob Bell on The Robcast to talk about Grounded. It is well-worth revisiting! CLICK HERE to listen.

Experiencing Jesus: ON FAITH AND CULTURE

Columnist Jonathan Merritt reflects on Freeing Jesus and the importance of experiential faith to theology in this Religion News Service essay.

Bible Weaving: “BEHOLD I DO A NEW THING,” Keynote Address

Enjoy this address that draws together a number of biblical texts from Isaiah, Jeremiah, Deuteronomy, Matthew, and John exploring “new things and new ways” in times of change. This was an assembly address for the Eastern Synod of the Lutheran Church in Canada on June 25. My orange shirt signals solidarity with Canadians mourning the death of indigenous children in residential schools. CLICK HERE to listen, my talk (about 40 minutes) begins just after the 25:15 mark.


SUMMER REFRESHER with Diana Butler Bass, hosted by FaithLead

Nearly ten years after Christianity After Religion was published, FaithLead has invited me to share what's happened AFTER the book in demographics, theology, and the emerging shape of Christianity — and reflect upon a decade of pursuing the central questions presented in the book. In this Teach-In, join me back to the future of Christianity, revisiting trends of the last ten years as well as looking at surprises along the way, opening our imaginations toward hope and joy in living through a time of dramatic change. 

LIVE with interactive conversation - not prerecorded.
Friday, July 23 7:00 PM eastern; Saturday, July 24 noon eastern. Yes, we know that’s a summer weekend. But grab a cool drink, sit on your porch, and join some friends for this summer refresher!

CLICK HERE for more info and registration. Readers of The Cottage receive a discount. ENTER CODE: COTTAGE0725.

ALSO: Those who register by JULY 2 will be entered in a drawing for one of five autographed copies of Christianity After Religion.


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