Water: Symbol, Element, Utility I

Back in April, Cheryl Meban, Presbyterian chaplain at University of Ulster (and brains behind Cheryl Wonders), hosted an exhibition at the Belfast Campus on the theme of Water: Symbol, Element, Utility. It featured over 60 pieces which were for sale to raise money for TEAR Fund’s Water and Sanitation Campaign.

I was delighted to write some reflections for a consideration of the theology and spirituality of water. Whatever about the merit or otherwise of my contributions, the conversation afterwards was wonderful.

Anyway, I’m reproducing here and forthcoming the reflections I used.

In the beginning of the creation of the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

So begin the Scriptures. Before even there was light, there was water. But this water is enigmatic, impenetrable and fearful, capable of swallowing a person whole and losing them forever in its smothering airless grip.

The primordial deep would gulp down all that is were it not for the constraining power of the Almighty Creator God, who moves to bring order and to separate. And so we see and know his craft,

•    Light, so that the work might cohere and find its place outside of the darkness.

•    Sky, so that dimensions of space would make sense.

•    And on the third day, dry ground, so that human beings would have a place to stand.

Three days it takes before God has controlled and corralled the dangerous, surging force of the water.

“Let the water under the sky be gathered into one place, and let the dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land”, and the gathered water he called “seas”. And God saw that it was good.

The chaos and engulfing menace of the water is held back by the hand of God. It is his restraining power and good grace which ensures that the boundaries to it’s advance are established and the threat of being overwhelmed is held at bay.

We note fearfully though that the watery chaos is not destroyed; instead the primeval waters are permitted to surround the habitable earth on every hand, but no longer able to bring chaos to the planet. (cf Gen 7:11; 8:2).

And we people of faith settle to the uneasy awareness that this is the true state of the creation. We are only one step away from utter chaos. If God removes his care and grace, creation would revert to the primeval nothingness.

And it happened once.

Water by Wendell Berry
I was born in a drought year. That summer
my mother waited in the house, enclosed
in the sun and the dry ceaseless wind,
for the men to come back in the evenings,
bringing water from a distant spring.
veins of leaves ran dry, roots shrank.
And all my life I have dreaded the return
of that year, sure that it still is
somewhere, like a dead enemy’s soul.
Fear of dust in my mouth is always with me,
and I am the faithful husband of the rain,
I love the water of wells and springs
and the taste of roofs in the water of cisterns.
I am a dry man whose thirst is praise
of clouds, and whose mind is something of a cup.
My sweetness is to wake in the night
after days of dry heat, hearing the rain.