May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Tonight my sermon is the concluding chapter of a five part series that has included sermons by Rev’d Christie Capper, Rev’d Dr Theo McCall, Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson and the Very Rev’d Frank Nelson.
Frank, who gave the first sermon of the Just Water series, told us that his father, Derek, was a civil engineer; and we know, of course, that both Frank and his father came from South Africa. I am now giving the concluding sermon in the series and, along with my late civil engineer father, Maurice, I too came from South Africa. How very Adelaide for such a coincidental encounter to have occurred!
Touchingly, Frank dedicated his sermon to his late father, Derek; he did so given the pre-eminent role that civil engineers have played enabling the world to have better, safer to access this vital resource. And so too do I dedicate tonight’s sermon to my late father, Maurice, who was personally passionate about the global issues of water and feared that, in our unjust world, water wars could become an icon of the earth’s brokenness in the twenty first century.
During his very varied career as an engineer, my father had two particularly water-related jobs. His first job after being demobbed from the Army was to be the Chief Engineer on the ‘Mfolozi Drainage Scheme in Zululand; a scheme to drain swamps to enable sugar cane plantations to be developed. It was here that I would spend the first year of my life. Later, he would be appointed the Chief Resident Engineer of the Val Haarts Irrigation Scheme which was, at the time, the second largest irrigation scheme in the southern hemisphere. Those experiences taught him critical issues involved in appropriate management of fresh water resources.
Over Lent, we have been invited to consider the profound aspects of water in God’s plan for his Creation. The Dean, Frank, spoke to us about the varied effects of water, positive and negative, in the land of his birth, in New Zealand and in Borneo – I was struck by his description of ‘dongas’, badly eroded landscapes where water had harmed not helped. Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, using the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well, took us to ‘that thin place where the living water that is of God will gush up and bless us with eternal life.’ While Rev’d Dr Theo McCall preached on the sacred balance of water and creation; he reminded us that our spiritual life is not removed from reality and that, in contemporary life, we have lost connection between the sacred and the secular. Using water as a communal metaphor of life, Theo spoke of the loss we each and all suffer when we don’t understand the Gospel as both communal and environmental. Finally, Rev’d Christie Capper, preaching on ‘Water and Justice’ presented us with alarming statistics about the way in which humanity has not so much used water as abused God’s gift of water.
From my own experience, I could relate to all that was said in those previous sermons. I have personally seen, not only in KwaZulu Natal but also in New Zealand and here in our own state, the devastating effects of soil erosion – life giving soil washed away by poorly-managed life giving water.
I have seen the capacity of water to carry disease not wellness. I still have in my memory the distressing image of young children I met in what is now South Sudan showing me the awful Guinea Worms creeping slowly beneath their skin seeking a break in which to come out and return to a water source to complete their life cycle. The children knew that they should not pull at the emerging worms for fear of breaking their heads off, leaving the rotting remains in their bodies to cause septicemia. To quench their thirst, these children had drunk water contaminated with the eggs of Guinea Worms, and by doing so they had become infected, suffered debilitating weakness until the worm’s life cycle completed itself by exiting their bodies and returning to pools of water to lay more eggs.
On the more positive side, I have visited poor communities where their wish to be hospitable could, in their poverty, be represented by nothing more than the simple offer of glasses of water to drink. Lacking other outward trappings of wealth, these humble glasses of water became almost sacramental.
In our Gospel reading tonight from John, we heard Jesus say:
‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.’ As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’
Rivers of living water. We draw water from rivers and also from wells; but in each case we seek to draw water that will refresh not poison us. We all know that stagnant water would fail us not nourish us. If you go hiking, you know that it is always safest to draw water from running streams, especially just below waterfalls rather than from still ponds. These are physical realities.
But we can also draw metaphysical parallels from the physical reality of water. Once, whilst attending a retreat with my mother, my wife and I, my father made an insightful observation about the location and nature of wells. Firstly, he spoke about their location, stating the obvious that we never see wells on the top of hills or mountains, only in the depths of valleys. The logic being that ground water exists closer below the surface of valley floors than on mountain tops. But the spiritual metaphor he drew from this was that when we stand on the mountain top and are able to see the far horizon of God’s glory, we have no need of the spiritual refreshment of living water to encourage us. But when we are down in the valleys of this life’s reality, when the far horizon of God’s glory seems so much out of sight, when we are in the shadows of the valley rather than the light of the mountain top, it is to the wells of living water that we look for spiritual nurture. Was this not what Jesus promised the Samaritan woman at the well?
But a further aspect of my father’s observation related to the difference between still water and that of moving or living water. The former, water without movement or life, cannot nourish; only moving water, or living water – the water with God’s breath upon it – can profoundly satisfy. Still water becomes stagnant water. Moving water is constantly refreshed. In Revelation, the new Jerusalem is built by a river, not a lake.
Have you ever paused to consider just how amazing water is? It is so essential for life and everything that we do that its universality in our lives and world can lead us to overlook just how astounding it is. Consider these facts:
- Unlike most other substances, the solid form of water is less dense than its liquid form – which is just as well, for if it wasn’t the case, ice would suffocate all life on the sea bed rather than float on the top. And of the few substances that do act like water in this regard – such as silicon and germanium – they don’t do so at room temperatures.
- Furthermore water is sticky, resulting in large surface tension (the meniscus) and this tension keeps us alive as water can pull blood up narrow vessels in the body in a gravity-defying act. If this weren’t so, we would only be able to live as shallow blobs hugging the floor.
- Finally hot water freezes faster than cold water; no one yet knows why this is so, not even the Tanzanian secondary school student Erasto Mpemba who first reported this amazing phenomenon and after whom this effect is named.
But there are also traps to befall us by believing we know water better than we actually do. Consider the colour of water – what colour is it? I imagine that most of you would believe that water is colourless and that its blueness is a reflection of the sky. That turns out to be incorrect – actually water is ever so slightly blue in colour according to spectrographic analysis.
Secondly, while water appears clear, it is no simple looking glass through which we can see clearly in both directions. If we stand above a pond full of fish, we can see all of them easily enough; but the surprising thing is that they cannot see us anywhere near so clearly. The fish below the water can only see a circle above them of what lies beyond the surface – all the rest is dark. This phenomenon is called Snell’s Window or Circle. (In the printed version of this sermon, which will also appear on-line, I have put a diagrammatic representation of this phenomenon).
I mention these two unexpected characteristics of water – colour and differential visibility – more than just for interest sake; but because of their metaphorical spiritual significance.
Water means life, without it there would be no life. But the water of this world may also limit understanding of the bigger reality of God’s creation within which it exists. For while God sees us clearly as we swim in the water of this world, we only see him through tinted eyes and even then only have a very limited vision of him – our own Snell’s Window if you like.
Today is Palm Sunday, the day when we celebrate the singing of hosannas upon the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. As our services this week will again progressively unveil, the hosannas of today will become dark and profound by Friday and will not shine again until that truly glorious ‘Kristos Anesti’ moment at dawn next Sunday. The hosannas of today are like the water of this world – Hosanna to the Son of David, seeking and promising only a finite life; the hosannas of next Sunday will nourish us with the living water that Jesus offered the Samaritan woman at the well – Hosanna to the Son of God.
Just water – this Lenten series of sermons finishes tonight. We are arriving at the living water of Jesus; but on the journey we have nevertheless been reminded of God’s creation and of the importance of this world’s water to it. So as we seek the living water, so too must we care for the world’s water. One of the aims of Just Water 2017 is:
Nurture shared understandings, focused upon the season of Lent and World Water Day, to weave together a compelling theological vision centered on human dignity, justice, stewardship and community.
We have been presented with many alarming facts and statistics about the parlous state of water in our world and the social injustice that accompanies it. There may seem to be ‘water, water everywhere’ but that is not true any more of fresh water; increasingly it is polluted, diseased, not shared fairly or even simply drying up. I recommend you look at www.justwater2017.org , the website for the campaign, where you will find a great deal of useful information about the state of the world’s water.
Frank began his first sermon in the Just Water series with a quote from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’; so let me finish quoting some of the closing stanzas of that remarkable poem. Their setting occurs after the ancient sea lag has related his tale of woe to a hapless wedding guest he had accosted. The mariner’s concluding words, for the purposes of this series, can be considered as a metaphor for the sins of failing to steward God’s Creation wisely. The sadder but wiser ancient mariner conveys his sad learnings thus:
Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
God breathed life into the dry dust of the earth to create life; water, refreshing water, being a testimony to that divine act. How are we to react to this divine act that has the feeling of a communion about it? Will we treat with this refreshing water as a gift of God or will we, as humanity, continue more to despoil than to honour it? If the latter, then let us be warned by the last two verses of the Rime, where the wedding guest turns away from the church door, turns away from the living water of Jesus:
The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone: and now the Wedding-Guest
Turned from the bridegroom’s door.
He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.
Will we be cursed to be sadder and wiser when the damage is done to the globe’s water resources? Or will our prayers be ‘best (for we) loveth best all things both great and small’ so that the divine gift of the water of life, will live on?