Seth Patterson April 22, 2018
Scripture Genesis 1:1–6
I could smell it before I could see it. Even through the sealed bus with its climate controlled filters, you could smell the water in the air, you could smell the sea. After a week in the arid landscape that surrounds Jerusalem it was as if we had radar for water, the instinctual parts of our brains could sense the approaching sea. I don’t remember that we knew where we were going, but I do remember the sense of relief and joy at smelling the water in the air. I was at the very beginning of a 6-month trip around the world with my college. We began in Geneva at the United Nations and then to Israel/Palestine where we were hosted by a convent in Jerusalem and took day trips around the country. Afterwards, we went to Egypt, India, Nepal, Hong Kong, mainland China and South Korea. But on September 14, 2000, we were in Caesarea, Israel, with an unexpected end-of-day stop at the beach. The day was hot, but the breeze off the Mediterranean was cool and the sun was beginning to finish its slide to the horizon and dive into the sea. This stretch of beach was empty. The ruins of King Herod’s palace were to the left and the remnants of a Roman aqueduct to the right. And in the middle the Mediterranean Sea, inviting us and beckoning us with its refreshing coolness and ancient allure. So, as soon as we tumbled off the bus excitedly, the majority of my group of college peers stripped down to their underwear on this empty beach and let the sea envelop them, appease them, baptize them. Even our professors, both in their late 60s, succumbed to this primal urge and splashed in the blue sea. I did not go in to the water. I remember thinking I didn’t want to be wet and sandy on the long bus ride back to Jerusalem. But also, knowing myself, I just wanted to sit back and observe the powerful scene more than dive into it. But each of us was drawn to the water in our own way, pulled in and seized by its power, its necessity and its holiness. The water was life-giving.
Water. Today on this Earth Day, we focus on and celebrate water. “It is the driving force of all nature,” observed Leonardo da Vinci. It is the driving force of me and of you and of us. Water is life. Our most ancient of ancestors began in the seas, and each of us begins in the sea of the womb. While we eventually became terrestrial, water is no less important for our very survival. Each of us is made up of more than 50 percent water; even our bones are 30 percent water. We can only live about one week without water, while we can survive about three times as long without food. We are made of water just as most of the earth is water. Each of us mirrors in many ways the earth that we inhabit and that sustains us. Leonardo da Vinci, again, compared the rivers of the earth to our own blood flow, drawing river systems and vascular systems side by side for comparison. In Taoist philosophy, water is seen as reflecting one’s path in life: it twists and turns, adapting to the barriers that it encounters from one point to another. The Lebanese-American Christian poet Khalil Gibran wrote “In one drop of water are found all the secrets of all the oceans; in one aspect of You are found all the aspects of existence.” The Persian Muslim poet Rumi wrote in his exquisite and beautiful way:
The Water said to the Dirty One, “Come here.”
The Dirty One said, “I am too ashamed.”
The Water replied, “How will your shame be washed away without me?”
Our own Christian origin myth about the world that I read earlier describes the separation of the waters to create the world we are able to inhabit. The ancient Israelites imagined a world that was flat with a dome covering it. Like an overturned bowl on a table, this dome keeps the waters above from flooding the world below. It describes the separation of the waters to form the land that we can stand upon. And God said that it was good.
I cannot imagine that all of this is new to anyone here. We know the importance of water intellectually, metaphorically, historically, biologically, spiritually and a myriad of other ways. We know it inherently and instinctually, the way that my group in 2000 was drawn as if by a magnet to the sea. Inhibitions, self-consciousness and clothes were shed in a deep desire to just get into it and feel it on our bodies. Water is life. We baptize our babies with it in order to symbolize newness and the gathering of a community of faith around this new life. I am preaching to the choir here, I know.
I also know that we easily take it all for granted. Even though we know the importance of water on so many levels, that importance often gives way to forms of apathy and indifference. Like the air we breathe or the need for loving touch, the importance of water can often be taken for granted. I mean, we flip on the faucets and there it is, right? We flush the toilets and there it goes just to be replaced with more clean, fresh and life-giving water. Does anyone know how much water this church uses in an average month? Forty-five thousand gallons. This one building, in one month uses 45 thousand milk jugs’ worth of water. And no one lives here and it is only one building in a city full of buildings in a region full of buildings in a state full of farms and buildings. Forty-five thousand gallons. That is 6,000 cubic feet of water. That is about a 1,000 square foot house full of water used each month, just at Plymouth.
One of the ancestors of the land we stand on today, the Ojibwe, have a long tradition that is being reintroduced today called a Water Walk, or to use the Ojibwe word, a Nibi Walk. Done only by women, water is carried along a river passed from person to person along the entire length. They try to move like the river, continuously day and night until they reach their destination. Women make the offerings for the water, sing the water songs and make the petitions for the water to be pure and clean and flow continuously. Each woman carries the water about a mile before passing it on to another, moving the water 25 to 30 miles per day. The organizers of these Nibi Walks describe the purpose as this:
Water Walks are focused and implemented in faith: faith in the water spirits, faith in the earth, faith in humankind and faith in the power of love. No amount of money is more powerful than these forces. When we spend time respecting and thanking the water for keeping us alive, it becomes impossible to abuse it. When we spend time praying for the water, we spend time praying for ourselves; in praying for ourselves, we pray for all of our relatives. (http://www.nibiwalk.org/about/)
Even as we can easily take for granted the water we use day by day, there are options available not only to recognize the sacredness of the water, but to embody it as well. We ourselves are water and water is sacred and we are sacred. We can do more than flush it or drain it away with some intention and love and thoughtfulness. We can be agents of saving our own water-filled selves. Water is, as Robert Frost says in his poem “Going for Water,” a pearl, and pearls often represent purity. We can be good and generous stewards of this purity and this life.
But just as water will not be formed into a shape without a container, water is more than this simple maxim that water is life. While it is absolutely true and necessary to be reminded of, it is not that easy. Yes, water is life, and, yes, water is not just defined as life. As my group bathed in the waters of the Mediterranean in Caesarea, we noticed that a few guys were much further out than we thought they were. They were beyond the prominent sandbar and we quickly realized that they were being pulled further and further out. Our group mobilized and started to grab anything that could serve as a flotation device while others ran to find an Israeli to aid in bringing help. What we didn’t realize was that the reason no one else was swimming here was because everyone knew to not swim here. There was a notorious undercurrent and my friends were being pulled away from shore by it. Yes, water is life, and, yes, water can be more powerful than we can ever be. We use water to clean off daily life and we use water to clean wounds.
These five young men were bouncing around in the ups and downs of the sea but were not yet at the point where the waves were breaking in the distance. We had a couple powerful swimmers in our group who took the flotation devices out to their friends and helped them stay calm as they stayed afloat. I decided at this point to enter the water and find a way to be useful. I decided to stand on the sandbar and be a halfway point for the people delivering the floatation devices and those taking them out to those who needed them. I also thought I would stand on the sandbar and represent the point at which one would no longer need to struggle. Once you got to me, you could walk to shore. The water was warm as I waded to the sandbar 50 feet from shore and it was gentle. The sun was beginning to set into the sea and a glorious sunset filled the horizon. Yes, water is life, and, yes, water is more powerful than we can ever hope to be.
In Hinduism the River Ganges is the source of both life and death. This one river is where one bathes and is cleaned and given renewal, and it is also where one is brought at death. The river, the water as the source material for the world, is both life and death.
Standing on the sandbar as my friends were slowly being brought back to shore, I was pulled under the water as if an invisible set of hands grabbed my ankles and pulled me under. I rolled along the surprisingly soft sandy seafloor for what seemed like an eternity. Yet it also happened so fast. Next thing I know I am above the water, all alone, in the crashing waves. As soon as I would get my head above water I would be pushed back below. I didn’t know which direction was shore, and when I would catch a glimpse of it I would lose it again after being pushed under again. I was not a weak swimmer—I had been swimming all of my life and had always loved the water—but I was insignificant to this powerful sea. Eventually, through panic, exhaustion and lack of breath, I stayed under the water for longer and longer times. I remember how quiet it was underneath the waves. How peaceful it seemed compared to the roar when I would break through the surface. Then I decided to stop struggling. I decided to let go. I guess I decided to die on my own terms, or at least something that felt like my own terms. I made the decision to stay under. I remember wondering what death would feel like. When would my life flash before my eyes? I remember trying to send a message to my family, to my parents and sister, telling them that I was sorry to be gone. My chest burned and it felt like I was falling asleep. I felt more questions than answers.
Yes, water is life, and, yes, water can be death. It is a disservice to the power and sacredness of water to limit it to only one thing. Yes and yes. Water is life and water is not life at the same time. The Ganges is life and the Ganges is death. Genesis describes the division of waters: the waters below the dome are the good and the waters above the dome are the dangerous. It is only this dome, made by God, that holds back the destruction that the water could bring. Yes and yes. We cannot have life without death. We cannot have water give us life without the water also offering or accepting death. I imagine we all can recognize this, and some people know this more deeply than should ever be imagined.
I didn’t drown that day, 18 years ago. Obviously. But I cannot tell you why I didn’t. Here is what I remember, but I cannot honestly vouch for the facts in any of this. I was under the water as I described earlier and then I wasn’t. I was above the waves, and it was getting dark and there was a man next to me. An Israeli man with dark skin and hair cut short. He said nothing, but pointed and I swam after him. I reached the sandbar. I walked to shore. He was with me the whole way and then went back into the sea. We never spoke. We never touched. I never learned his name. I then saw my group a ways down the beach. I walked to them. We checked in to make sure we were all there. We were. We returned to Jerusalem.
Robert Frost ends his poem by saying: “Now drops that floated on the pool / Like pearls, and now a silver blade.” A pearl and a blade. Life and death. Yes and yes. It is absolutely true that water is life. And life is only life because there is death. In the letter to the Romans, Paul tells them this:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3–4, NRSV)
This is not comfortable for me. And it may not be comfortable for you. To live into the fullness, the wholeness, is not easy. It shouldn’t be, I suppose. It is not easy or comfortable to acknowledge the death that is contained within life. The Nibi Walkers do not carry water because it only contains goodness. They carry the water because it is necessary and it is powerful and it is life, with all that life means. It is sacred and this is God. Yes and yes.