One has to be careful, or lucky, if one chooses to preach on the topic of water, especially if one announces the subject in advance. Who knows whether or not one will be speaking against a background of parched countryside or addressing a congregation who have been drenched to the skin as they travelled to church.
Over the last few months, floods have devastated many parts of the land, and the earth, apart from hard-core surfaces, oozes moisture around the feet that tread it. Yet only a few years ago we experienced a summer drought, and stand-pipes were seen in the streets in some areas of the north. The Prince of Wales speaking in the south west of the country, pointed out the disasters caused by drought, only to have his speech drowned out by sound created by a sudden unexpected storm as torrential rain beat upon the marquee in which he stood. The press and television news enjoyed it immensely. “Long may he reign”, commented one newspaper.
There are many reasons why one might wish to talk on the subject of water on a Sunday morning in Hucklow Old Chapel, not least because religion is deeply concerned, amongst other things, with matters of life and death. Water, its presence or absence, is the crucial determinant of whether life shall exist or not. Life on our planet appeared only after water had condensed out of the poisonous gases which surrounded the young sphere. Life, when it arrived, appeared first within the seas and oceans, later to spread over the land, and into the skies above. Life is ever threatened, and ultimately extinguished, in the absence of water.
Space probes, even as I speak, are travelling to Mars, with sensitive, sophisticated instruments on board to ascertain whether water is present below the surface. If there is water, the chances are increased that there is also, or was once, some form of life on the barren planet.
A central role is played by water in determining the quality of life, or indeed, whether life exists at all. Literally, water resolves matters of life and death. And this is reflected in the work of many Christian and other religious charities, who use funds for furnishing and maintaining water supplies as a priority in those lands smitten by famine and drought. When disasters such as earth-quakes strike, ensuring supplies of clean water for the survivors is a priority.
In our own country, it was the provision of clean water and the building of sewage systems during the nineteenth century which dramatically improved the length and the quality of life, probably more fundamentally than any other action. Not without cause did our Victorian forebears preach, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”. The secret of, if not ever-lasting life, then certainly of prolonged life, depended heavily upon building reservoirs and the construction of sewage farms
One could make out a strong case that pollution of water supplies, the wasteful consumption of water, the greed of directors of water companies as they award themselves large salary increases, the denial of clean water to communities, are profoundly irreligious acts. However, I will leave that to another day, for I would follow this morning other trains of thought.
It is because water is central to the existence of all living creatures that it has long had a place in the language of religious imagery. There are innumerable examples in the Bible, both Old and New Testament. There is the story of David the King, for example, hiding in the cave of Adullam thirsting for water and dreaming of pure contents of the well at Bethlehem, which was located upon the other side of the enemy lines.
You will remember that three brave men risked their lives to fetch David a drink of water from the well. He then couldn’t drink it because it was too precious, representing, as it did, a sacrifice that others were prepared to make for him. The water here was a symbol for the bravery of men prepared to sacrifice their own lives for the comfort of friends.
The waters of Babylon were a symbol of the pain of captivity. “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land”, asked the exiles, longing for freedom in the land of their ancestors. In the New Testament there are a number of references to the “water of everlasting life”, a token of hope and promise.
Sometimes part of our devotions involve a service for naming of a child. In such a service, water plays a central part. Here again it is a symbol, though the symbolism of the water will mean different things to different people.
A traditional belief centres round the cleansing properties of water. By using water in a service of baptism, one is washing away the contamination of sin that rests upon the child, some would say. I’m afraid that is not how I see it. To me the naming of the child, the christening service, is primarily a service of four aspects; those of joy, of hope, of celebration, and of welcome.
A new life brought among us is a joyful yet humbling experience, for who can see new life emerge without being astounded – awe-struck at the miracle that is life. And no matter how often it is witnessed, the miracle is new and fresh. Those of us who hold, however tenuously, to a belief in God, who speak of God the Creator, are strengthened in our faith by this supreme illustration of creation, the presence of new life. A birth reinforces faith. So the service is one of joy.
Such a service is one of hope, for new life is a promise. It is a start of the journey that is life; a lengthy one we trust. Long or short we cannot know, for we cannot see forward into the unknown. “All hidden lies the future ways.” starts a well-loved christening hymn. But we surround the child with hope, love and good wishes, praying that he may do better than us, may explore the world, spreading love and hope to others as he journeys on. So the service is one of hope.
It one of celebration. I looked up celebration in a Thesaurus, a book which suggests words of a similar meaning. One word given under celebration was coronation. What can be more suitable as, for the day at any rate, the child is king or queen. In one of the most well-known passages in the New Testament, Jesus places the child in the centre, and quite rightly so. So the service is one of celebration. We salute the king.
And it is a service of welcome.
The artefact around which such services are conducted is the font. Water symbolising the beginning of life, and its continuity. John the Baptist baptising in the Sea of Galilee, we name our children in our churches and chapels with the water of life.
Another powerful metaphor of life frequently employed with the theme of water, is to compare a human span of existence to a river or stream. The source is a small spring, the end of the journey is the entry to the great sea whose horizon disappears into the eternal distance.
So back to water, the true elixir of life. Water is essential to life. But life is more than mere vegetable or animal existence. We may have difficulty in finding the language to describe exactly what consists of a good and full life, but we know it has components of love, of sacrifice, of understanding, of worship, of creativity and much more beside. So in naming a child and anointing his head with water, in speaking of the river of life or the ocean of eternity, we are symbolically recognising not existence alone, but true life.
One last thought. Life is not only found in water; water is found within life. You remember that couplet from the Ancient Mariner
“Water, water, everywhere
Yet ne’er a drop to drink”
The mariner was at sea, surrounded by water, yet unable to drink it because it was salt, so his life was at risk. Most of our bodies are composed of water, some eighty percent or more, I am told. Physical life requires a renewal of water to the body, or we shrivel and die.
If water is symbolic of life in its true fullness, then the individual requires constant supply of this nourishment, just as the physical body needs its liquid supply. Feeding love, care, compassion and understanding is not a task like giving one injection that will last a life-time. Just as we need constant liquid intake throughout our lives, so we need constant spiritual renewal, if we are not to become dried up husks.
Throughout our lives we need to drink of the waters, both literally and symbolically. As we give love, so we need to be surrounded and immersed in love. Words with which we sometimes commence our services come to mind.
They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.
They that wait upon the Lord drink deeply of the waters. They renew their life, not merely physically by drinking water on which we all depend, but by the transfusion of liquid spiritual renewal.
In my view the “water of spiritual life” is as it were a solution with the ingredients of love, of compassion, of understanding, of a belief in service to others and in the inter-dependency of the human race. The renewal of faith is essential if these ideals, these vital constituents of a complete life, are not, as it were to dry up leaving a seared and dried body behind.
The parched body of mankind is revived by water, not only from the kitchen tap, but from the fountain of faith which dances in our places of worship.
Fulwood 21 June 1992
Mexborough 21 February 1993
Hucklow February 2001