Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 24 October 2010: Creation Series: Water

24 October 2010 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence

“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink”.

The most famous line from The Rime of The Ancient Mariner written by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the late eighteenth century; featuring words spoken by desperate sailors lost at sea and tormented by thirst for fresh water.

During this month in my sermons at Matins I’ve been looking at the way we as human beings interact with the created order.

So far we’ve thought about our relationship with animals, giving thanks to God for the great diversity of creatures in our world and the companionship that many of us enjoy with them.

We’ve considered the subject of food and its association with generosity, hospitality and celebration; but also with the problem of over consumption by some people while millions of others die of starvation; and of how we should respond to these issues as Christians.

Then last Sunday marked the beginning of One World Week ~ so we considered the importance of working with the whole human family to address such things as caring for the earth and its resources, building relationships of mutual respect, and celebrating the diversity of cultures both globally and in our local communities.

Next week on All Saints Sunday we shall think about living a balanced way of life, taking inspiration from the Rule of St Benedict. But this week I would like us to spend a few minutes thinking about the critical place water has in our lives and at how it also plays a central part in religious symbolism.

Life of course would not exist without water. Each of us needs to drink on average about 2 litres each day and without water we could die in less than a week. But we not only drink water; in fact in Britain less than 1% of the drinking water produced by water companies is actually drunk, the rest is used on lawns and in the house on such things as showers, toilets and washing machines ~ each of using around 350 litres a day.

In addition to this, water is also needed in industry and agricultural and for a great many leisure activities.

So in everyday life water sustains us and keeps us alive, it cleanses and refreshes us and it can bring us a great deal of pleasure.

There is another side to water though which is not so positive, because although it is so essential to life it can also be the cause of death, and death on a large scale.

We have only to think of the terrible Asian Tsunami on Boxing Day in 2004 which killed over a quarter of a million people, or of the recent floods in Pakistan to know that water is not only capable of killing people in their thousands, but of depriving them of their homes, communities and livelihoods, thereby causing misery and despondency. 

These attributes of water, both positive and negative are echoed in the part water plays in religious symbolism.

Water features over and over again in the stories and prophesies of the Old Testament. Let’s look at just a few examples.

The first image we have is in the book of Genesis and is a positive one associated with paradise. In the Garden of Eden with its trees and plants providing fruit for the animals and people, water flows, giving and sustaining life.

But a few chapters later when human beings had fallen from grace we have the story of the great flood, with only Noah, his family and an ark full of animals being saved from destruction.

The Book of Exodus tells the story of the people of Israel escaping from Egypt and struggling through the wilderness towards the Promised Land. In the wilderness their desperation for water causes them to turn on Moses their leader and to wish they were back in slavery.
On this occasion Moses strikes a rock from which water flows and quenches their thirst.

There are many accounts in the Old Testament linking water with washing and cleansing. In Leviticus, we find instructions about ritual cleanliness and beyond the books of the law, in an account in the second book of Kings we have the story of Naaman being cleansed of his leprosy by washing in the river Jordan.

Then towards the end of the prophecy of Ezekiel we have an account which again links water with hope and the giving of new life. The prophet is caught up in a vision which takes him on a journey through the temple precincts where water is glowing in great abundance.

It eventually becomes a great river sustaining the fruit trees along its banks and a producing an abundance of fish of many varieties.

All these things with which water was associated in the Old Testament later become vital in the understanding of baptism in the New Testament and in our understanding of the sacrament of Baptism ever since.

When a baby or an adult is baptized the pouring of water symbolises the washing away of sin and the giving of new life.

But we also use the language of death when we bless the water before administering this sacrament, saying the words: “We thank you, Father, for the water of baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit”.

Here then water is used as a powerful symbol to remind us of drowning ~ dying to the old life, and rising up to a new life, just as Christ defeated death and rose to new life.

As we rise to that new life; our eyes, our ears and our hearts should be open to living life in a transformed way ~ seeing the world as belonging to God and ourselves as stewards responsible for its care; and seeing people throughout our world as God’s children; our brothers and sisters with whom we share of the earth’s resources. 

So in the physical world water is linked with life & death and in our spiritual lives it has the same association.

As we give thanks for the life-giving qualities of water we must recognise our responsibility towards those in our world who do not have access to clean water and suffer deprivation and disease as a result.

As we think about the association of water with death we likewise have a responsibility towards those in our world who have suffered through flooding making sure we supply aid and relief.

But then we face the much bigger challenge of listening to the prophets of our day, because water could bring death on a scale beyond our imagining.

We are warned that our abuse of the environment causing global warming will lead to many parts of our world ending up under the sea, while other parts dry up completely, possibly leading to armed conflicts over access to fresh water. 

So water is a precious gift. Today as we thank God for that gift let us do all we can to make sure that water remains a source of life in our world and does not become a major cause of death.

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