Water is essential for life.
Without water, we die. Without water, there is no life. Period.
Look around the world right now and you’ll notice that there are far too many people who struggle to survive…because they don’t have access to drinking water.
844 million people don’t
have clean water.
(WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) Report 2017)
31% of schools don’t have
(UNICEF, Advancing WASH in Schools Monitoring, 2015)
Every minute a newborn dies from
infection caused by lack of safe water and an unclean environment.
Worldwide, 1 out of every 5 deaths of children under 5 is due to a water-related disease.
And here’s the thing—access to water affects a person’s whole life. If a kid, for example, has access to clean water, he/she does not need to travel miles to fetch water. That kid can then stay in school and get an education. Also, with clean water, disease and sickness is lessened, and the child can grow up healthy with access to more opportunities. And, with clean water access comes better food security and reduction of hunger. Access to water can break the cycle of poverty.
Now for many living in the U.S., water scarcity is not a thing. Many of us used to think that that kind of thing happened in far away places like Sub-Saharan Africa. And then Flint, Michigan happened. You remember that? Also, as recently as last year, there were a few days in certain Philadelphia suburbs when the water was unsafe to drink due to septic issues. Imagine if that problem were to last weeks, months, even a year?
Many of us take water for granted. It’s coming out of our faucets, shower heads, flushing our toilets, and making our coffee. But what if you had to travel miles on foot just to have access to water? How would that change your view of it? Water would become precious to you. Water would become life for you. Water would be more valuable than money.
We ought to view water in this way—as a precious treasure, and something that all people [and all living things] deserve access to. For without it, life is no more.
I hope that you can embrace water as a tangible thing but also as a symbol of life, of wholeness. For that is what a small story found in all four canonical Gospels is all about—water.
You may have heard of this tale. Jesus of Nazareth, now a grownup, heads to the river Jordan in the middle of nowhere to meet up with this crazy preacher named John. Now, there’s context here, right? John is Elizabeth’s kid, and Elizabeth is somehow related to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Were they cousins? Very possible. But the Gospels seem to point out that John and Jesus didn’t know each other yet. How could that be? Well, it’s possible that when King Herod was trying to kill all the first-born sons of Judah back in the day that while Mary and Joseph fled with Jesus to Egypt, maybe Elizabeth and Zechariah and John went somewhere else to hide. Perhaps Jesus and John grew up apart from each other. And then, it’s possible that Jesus heard about this crazy preacher by the river Jordan and wanted to meet him. It’s possible. But we really don’t know. What we do know is that the first version of this story, in Mark, is shorter and just says that Jesus traveled from Nazareth to where John was and got baptized, i.e. submerged in the water of the river. Then, the heavens opened [I’ve always taken this to mean that it may have rained], and then the Spirit came down [fluttering like a bird] and a voice told Jesus that he was a pretty good dude.
But the later Gospel writers added some commentary, because honestly, this story is problematic. I mean, think about it—many people believed [and still believe] that Jesus of Nazareth was without sin. So, why in the world would a sinless Jesus need to be baptized by John, who was doing that so as to forgive people’s sins? Um, yeah. So the later Gospels try to explain it away and in my opinion, they fail at it. I actually think this whole “sin” thing isn’t the point of the story at all.
The point is the water.
See, John and Jesus were doing the same thing, in their own ways. They were preaching and teaching what the ancient Hebrew prophets did, like Isaiah, telling anyone who would listen that the world was messed up, out of balance, and injust [especially to the vulnerable and marginalized], and that Yahweh had just about had it. Time to repent [which means turn around], time for a 180 and the water was a symbol of that. You submerge yourself in that river, you make a decision to move forward in a new way. You leave behind whatever was dragging you down. You commit to being just and compassionate to others. You decide to be just and compassionate with yourself.
The water is the tangible element in nature that everyone needs to survive. There is not one single living thing on this earth that doesn’t know about water. Every day water is part of our lives. So it’s the perfect, universal, tangible symbol for something that may seem not so universal or tangible—the Spirit.
See, many read this story as Jesus’ big moment when God pretty much certifies Jesus as the Messiah and some type of demi-god. In fact, that’s what most people wanted. Truth be told, if you read the whole story in the Gospels, John had his own views about who the Messiah would be. We have NO IDEA how John really reacted to meeting Jesus. We just know from the earlier story in Mark that John baptized Jesus. And then they went their separate ways. So make your own conclusions.
But what resonates for me is what is consistent in the story—the water. The water changes the people who are baptized in the Jordan river. The water changes Jesus of Nazareth. After the water, Jesus launches a movement of ragtag, poor, marginalized people who promote justice, peace, and love. They go from town to town, and eventually make it to the epicenter, Jerusalem. The water-spirit drives them there, keeps them together, motivates them when they lose momentum, fills them when they feel empty.
The last thing I’ll say about this story is that the voice coming from heaven was mostly likely heard by lots of people. In other words, don’t take the story so literally that you see these events as happening all in the same linear time frame. The voice was meant for Jesus, yes, but was also meant to be heard by others, and was also meant to be heard by you and me in 2019, reading this story.
Because we’re invited to the water ourselves.
We’re invited there no matter how long it takes us to get there, or where we come from, or who we call ourselves. We are invited to the water, invited to submerge ourselves in it, to feel its drops trickle down our face, to feel the sensation of cool water in the middle of a hot desert. Yes, we’re invited to the water and we NEED this water to live. It turns us around, it reminds us of who we are and who we are becoming, and then we just might have a chance to embrace this Spirit-thing that is sometimes hard to understand or accept. The voice is also for you and for me, for all of us, telling us that we are just fine as we are made, we are beloved as-is, but that also at any time we can go back to this water and make a change.
We can turn around. We can do a 180. We can keep becoming.