Sunday was our Harvest festival, as part of which we held a collection for WaterAid, a charity which aims to ensure that everyone has access to clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene by 2030. In honour of our chosen charity, our morning's reflection was a whirlwind tour of water in the Bible. It turns out water is quite an important theme in the Bible, and there is going to be a lot in what follows. Please don’t worry about taking everything in, there won’t be a test at the end. Just pay attention to the most important thing that God wants you to discover, the thing that catches your heart or your imagination.
Creation / Genesis 1:2, 6, 9, 20; Genesis 2:10
In the beginning, water represents chaos, and that is a theme that recurs throughout the Bible, so that when John writes in Revelation that “there will be no more sea”, there is a sense that perhaps he is really talking about the final end of the primordial chaos, when creation is at last perfected. At least I hope that is what he means, and that he is only speaking metaphorically, because I love the sea, and I think I would be sad even in heaven if it truly were no longer. And even if water initially represents chaos, it is also water that first starts to give the earth form, as the separation of the waters above and below and then the separation of the water and the land create sea and sky and earth. Life too comes first from water, with fish in the waters below and birds in the waters above, and the river flowing from Eden watering the garden to sustain all that grew and lived there. We are barely two chapters in, and already water is revealed to be a powerful and contradictory force. No wonder that it will go on to provide such rich imagery for God and creation and our human experience.
Flood / Genesis 6:11-13; 7:17-19
It might be a Sunday School favourite, but it is doubtless a difficult story. We could lose ourselves down a rabbit hole trying to unpick the theology of the flood narrative, so I think that is best kept for another time, but it would have been dishonest to leave it out of a study like this altogether. At the very least we can say that the story of the great flood reminds us of the incredible destructive power of water, something which many people across the world still discover with terrifying immediacy every year. A few years ago, we woke up on Boxing Day to discover that the River Aire had widened its course by several hundred metres, and we briefly had a river view from our bathroom window as it flowed down the Kirkstall Road into Leeds City Centre. By any standard it was a minor flood, and the waters retreated after only a couple of days with no loss of life, but even then we saw firsthand the damage that had been done to properties as we helped with the clear up, and it was months before some of the businesses were able to open again. We underestimate water at our peril.
Survival / Exodus 14:21-22; 17:5-6
In the Exodus narrative, water sets the stage for a display of God’s might and becomes the means of Israel’s freedom, as the waters of the Red Sea part to allow the Israelites to flee their pursuers. But a lack of water soon threatens their survival, and they are only saved by another miraculous invention, when God tells Moses to strike a rock with his stick and makes water pour out of it. It is easy for us to take water for granted when we have such easy access to it, but it really is a matter of life or death for all of us. That is why the work of charities like WaterAid is so vital. In the first twenty five years since they were founded in 1981, they reached 24.9 million people with clean water, 24 million with decent toilets and 16.7 million with good hygiene. And they are still going. That means there are millions of people living healthy lives who may not have been living at all without them. They are Moses in the desert, hitting the rock with their stick.
Variety / Job 38:8-11, 22-36
These verses come near the beginning of the speech in which God replies to Job’s complaints, reminding Job that he knows so little about the world that he can do nothing but trust. God issues a whole series of rhetorical questions, the ultimate meaning of each being that it is God who has brought into being the heavens and the earth and everything in them. In many ways these chapters give another account of creation, with even richer detail than the first. Even just the handful of verses which speak of water shows the amazing variety of the natural world - sea, cloud, waves, snow, hail, rain, storm, dew, ice, frost... If harvest is about being thankful not just for crops but for all of creation, theses verses give us a bountiful harvest of things to be thankful for.
Emotion / Psalm 46:4; 137:1
In the Psalms, water is a place and a sign of both joy and despair. Psalm 46 imagines the city of God and the river that runs through it. This river is an image which appears elsewhere in scripture - in Ezekiel 47, the prophet is shown the river that runs from the temple, along which grow trees which provide fruit for food and leaves for healing, and which never fail because the river from the sanctuary waters them; and in Revelation 22, John sees this same river flowing from the throne of God, although this time it is flanked not by many trees but the single tree of life, which produces twelve kinds of fruit every month, and whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. Psalm 137 gives us a very different image, at least on the surface. But pay a little attention, and you realise that the rivers of Babylon are the Euphrates and the Tigris, two of the headwaters from the river that flowed out of Eden. These rivers are part of the river of God, still blessing those who come to it, this time by providing a space for lament while there is no joy.
Justice / Amos 5:24
Some translations of this verse speak of a “flood of justice”, and I can see the appeal of a picture which imagines a great force sweeping away unjust structures, but I do think there is something more gentle and joyous about the idea of justice rolling like a river, cutting through those unjust structures in a way that changes the landscape rather than obliterating it completely. And I love the exclamation mark at the end of the verse, because I love the sense of excitement it expresses. There is something unstoppable about the flow of this river, a sense that if we just stop preventing it, if we just let it flow as it wants to, justice will come. As I read this verse, I see a river stopped by a dam built from greed and inequality and prejudice, and I see people clawing at the dam, tearing great chunks out of it in the name of generosity and fairness and understanding, and water pouring through. Doing the work of social justice is joining those people, and if enough of us get involved, whether that is donating to organisations or going on marches or signing petitions or getting into politics, the dam has to break and justice has to come.
Life / John 4:13-14
We are skipping on to the New Testament now, and what I suspect may be one of the first passages many of us think of when we hear water and the Bible, the encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well. Here water becomes a metaphor for eternal life, which is really better translated as “life of the age”. It is easy to fill in the blank and assume that this means life of the age to come, but I think there is a blank for a reason. The fourth gospel uses “eternal life” in much the same way as the other gospels use “the kingdom”, and just as the kingdom is presented as both now and not yet, so the eternal life that Jesus offers seems to begin in this world and carry us into the next. It is the life of an age which transcends boundaries of time and space, the life of God’s age. It is a life characterised by relationship with God, faith in Christ and the gift of the Spirit. We can’t do justice to the fullness of what that life means this morning, but I wonder how much more of that life we would experience if we remembered Jesus’ words every time we went to the tap for a glass of water.
Baptism / Galatians 3:26-27
Finally, we come to the waters of baptism, which speak of cleansing and of transformation and of rebirth and of dying and rising with Christ. I don’t believe there is any magic in the waters into which we are baptised, but I do believe there is power in them, as there is power in all symbols. There is something incredibly vulnerable about allowing another person to lower us under the water, and in that moment of vulnerability we open ourselves up to experience God in a way that happens in very few other moments. At least that was my experience of baptism, which marked the point at which I began obeying the call that led me here. Like so much of faith, it is an utterly mad thing for us to do, and yet it is completely perfect.
Water is the starting point for all creation and God’s continued gift to us. It is the thing we most easily take for granted while we have it and the thing we most value when we do not. It is rich in beauty and power and meaning. It can be chaos and destruction and despair but it can also be life and justice and transformation. It is a glorious thing for us to celebrate this Harvest and it is a wonderful thing for us to have given to others.