All Saints Sydenham

10th August 2008

Year A, Week 18

Living Waters


Water is one of those things which we take for granted; that is, until it isn’t available when we need it. The Pier at Weston-super-Mare which burnt to ashes recently was a case in point. There was no lack of fire-fighters and appliances ready and willing to extinguish the flames – but not enough water or, more probably, the wrong sort of water! Where have we heard something like that before, I wonder!

Just consider. We turn the tap on and expect clean, wholesome water to come out; we flush the loo and expect the same to happen; we dive into the swimming-pool without fear of catching cholera or some other water-borne disease. So we make a lot of assumptions about water without really knowing very much about it.

So, given that the Prophet Isaiah tells us to ‘come to the water, all you are thirsty’ let’s begin with some interesting facts about the stuff itself.

A potato is 80% water; a tomato 95%. Every human being is 65% made of water which means there’s nearly twice the amount in us of everything else put together. So, whatever water does when it is outside us, the probability is that it will do it inside us. So knowing a bit about water is to know a bit about a large proportion of our physical selves.

Water behaves differently from practically every other liquid on earth. Most liquids behave like solids and gases: they get smaller as they cool and so grow heavier. So does water – but only up to a point: suddenly, just before it freezes, water, perversely, starts to expand! By the time it is solid it occupies about one tenth more space than it did when it was liquid. So ice floats in water with the result that ponds and seas get iced from the top downwards, whereas almost every other liquid solidifies from the bottom upwards. This means that fish can survive underneath because of the heat the ice holds in, and when the sun comes out the ice immediately begins to melt and turn back into water, which it would do much more slowly if it were lying at the bottom. So oceans, and ponds, seldom freeze up totally.

Water, of course, is essential to human and animal life. Deprived of water the human body dies in a matter of a day or so whereas it can live without food for many times as long as that. And water, unlike many liquids, has the curious ability to form a kind of skin on its surface, enabling us to pour it in a neatly from a jug, to direct a hose where we want it in a single jet whether onto a fire or a flower-bed.

That should be enough to convince you that water is a remarkable substance; so now let’s see what use our faith makes of water, sacramentally and symbolically.

The Sacrament of Baptism depends upon water. God made us his children, members of his Church and fellow-heirs with Christ by the fact that we have had water poured over our heads in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So God is evidently in the business of using physical things to bring about spiritual ones.

And whenever God does something like that we can be sure that He wants us to look more deeply into the matter in question. Sacraments are not like magic – they don’t just work willy-nilly and no questions asked. They are what we call The Means of Grace which provide us with the Hope of Glory.

What else does water in baptism suggest? Well, one of the properties of water is its amazing ability both to clean and to dissolve things. It cleans because of its ability to separate particles of other matter from each other, like earth for instance, so that they can be easily removed from our hands instead of caking together like it does when it is dry. It flushes away harmful bacteria. And, incidentally, it prevents the body from overheating by the fact that when water evaporates it takes in the heat from the body to do so whether the water is there in the form of sweat, or clinging to us after we’ve just been swimming.

Likewise, the grace of God cleanses us from sin; it also breaks up the bits of unnecessary earth which so readily form a deposit on our souls; and thirdly it enables us ‘to have a right judgement in all things’ in other words not to allow us to get too overheated by any trouble which comes our way. So instead of making hasty judgements based only on our feelings, if we allow the grace of God full scope in our lives we shall often find that things which once looked impossible, we can succeed in doing.

That’s the sacramental use of God’s grace. Let’s now look at what it symbolizes in our minds – and here we shift to the life-giving power of water.

All creatures, as we thought a moment or two ago, need water to give them life. That’s equally true of plants as it is of humans and animals. A plant which goes un-watered starts to curl up and die – not instantly, but over a shortish period of time. Even a plant which has been neglected may recover given a timely slosh of water, but that won’t always do the trick.

Well, our spiritual lives, our souls if you like, depend on receiving adequate regular watering with the grace of God, which comes into our lives through prayer, through bible-study and our regular reception of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

Notice the importance of that word ‘regular’. You might imagine that pouring several gallons of water on a plant at one go would mean that you would only have to water it every few weeks. But that’s not what happens. Too much water at one go is almost as bad as too little.

The same is true of prayer and bible-study. We need to do ‘a little something’ every day, or even possibly two or three times a day. Drinking five pints at a go is not the same as drinking a pint every two or three hours. Reading a small portion of the Bible two or three times a day, and offering a short prayer to God at intervals will be far more satisfying both to us and to God than trying to do too much all at once.

Of course that doesn’t mean that every now and then it isn’t a good idea to have a rather longer session, just like, if we have been working very hard in the heat and feel dehydrated, a rather larger intake of water will be beneficial. Reading the whole of one of the shorter books of the Bible at one sitting, or setting aside a whole hour to think about and pray to God is an ‘optional extra’ which will do us a world of good. But having a simple, and not-too-demanding rule about these things are the real foundation of a healthy spiritual life, just as four or five drinks at intervals throughout the day makes for a healthy body.

‘Come to the water all you who are thirsty’ the Prophet Isaiah told his listeners. ‘Why spend your wages on what fails to satisfy?’

Why indeed! When so few people know the facts about water is it surprising if they know even less about the grace of God?

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