Ascension, Lavender Hill
7th September 2008
A fortnight ago my sermon was a parable based on the Powerscourt Waterfall in Ireland, and the fact that how we look at things affects what we actually see. Looking upwards towards God we see one thing; looking downwards on man we see something quite different. Some of you said they found this parable helpful, so it seemed a good idea to talk a bit more about Water which is one of those words which crops up over and over again when we read our Bible.
Water’s something we take for granted – that is, until it’s not there when we need it. Remember the Pier at Weston-super-Mare which burnt to ashes recently! There was no shortage of firemen – but not enough water (or the ‘wrong sort of water’!) ready to hand.
Whenever we turn the tap or we flush the loo we expect clean, wholesome water to come out; we plunge into the swimming-pool without fear of catching cholera or typhoid. So we assume a lot about water without knowing much about it.
Given how often the Bible talks about water here are 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 our body consists of twice as much water as everything else put together. So, anything water does outside us, it will probably do the same inside us. So, to know about water is to know about a large proportion of ourselves.
One of the most fascinating things about water is how it behaves when it gets colder. Most liquids get smaller as they cool and so grow denser. So indeed does water – but only up to a point: suddenly, just before it freezes, water, starts to get bigger! Frozen water, ice, takes up one tenth more space than unfrozen, so ice floats on water.
This means that ponds and seas form ice from the top downwards, whilst almost every other liquid solidifies from the bottom upwards. This means that fish survive because of the heat the ice holds in, and when the sun comes out it’s the ice on top that melts and turns back into water. If it were lying at the bottom it would take much longer. So oceans, and ponds, seldom get completely frozen.
Water is also essential to human and animal life. Without water the human body dies in a matter of a day or two, although it can live without food for many times longer than that. And, as you probably know, water forms a sort of skin on its surface, making it possible to pour it neatly from a jug into a glass, to direct a hose accurately onto a fire or a flower-bed without the water going in a shower all over the place.
So whatever else it is, water is a remarkable substance. Now let’s see what use God makes of water, sacramentally and symbolically.
The Sacrament of Baptism depends upon water. We became God’s children, members of his Church and fellow-heirs with Christ because at our baptism we had water poured over our heads in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So God is obviously into the business of using material things to bring about spiritual results.
Now whenever God works in that way, He wants us to ask questions like ‘What does this mean?’ and ‘How does this work?’ Sacraments aren’t magic. He doesn’t just ‘work’ them and say to us ‘Don’t ask questions!’ They are ‘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 it separates solid particles of matter from each other, sand or earth for instance, so that they can be washed off our hands instead of caking together like they do when dry. Water removes harmful bacteria. It also prevents our bodies from overheating because, in the form of sweat it evaporates and in so doing lowers the body’s temperature.
Not only does the grace of God cleanse us from sin; it also breaks up the bits of unnecessary anxiety which coagulate like a deposit on our souls; and thirdly it helps us ‘to have a right judgement in all things’ in other words not to allow us to get too overheated when trouble comes our way: it ‘takes the heat off us’. So, rather than making those hasty judgements based on our feelings, we shall often find that God’s grace enables us to succeed in doing things which once seemed impossible.
That’s the sacramental use of God’s grace. Let’s now look at what it symbolizes in our minds – and here we must think of the life-giving power of water.
All creatures need water to give them life. That’s true of all humans and animals, and most plants. A plant which needs watering starts to curl up and die – not instantly, but over a short-ish period of time. Even a neglected plant 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 once is almost as harmful 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 of water at one go is not the same as drinking a pint every hour. Reading a small portion of the Bible twice a day, and offering a short prayer to God at intervals will be far more satisfying (both to us and, incidentally, to God) than trying doing too much all at once.
Of course every now and then it’s a good idea to have a rather longer session, just as, if we have been working in the heat and are dehydrated, it’s sensible to have a rather larger intake of water. In the same way it’s a good idea every now an then to read the whole of one of the shorter books of the Bible at one sitting, or set aside a whole hour to think about and pray to God. But this is an ‘optional extra’ though it will do us a world of good. But keeping a simple and not-too-demanding rule about these things is the best foundation for a healthy spiritual life, just as five drinks taking during a day make 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 that they know even less about the grace of God?
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