“Water and Creation: a sacred balance.”
Preacher: The Rev’d Dr Theo McCall, Chaplain – St Peter’s College
Readings: Isaiah 44: 1–5, Rev. 22: 1–5 & Ps 148
“Water and Creation: a sacred balance.” My family and I had the recent joy of spending our summer holidays overseas, just to make you envious. It is always nice to spend time out of Australia, because it makes you realise what fantastic country we live in. I didn’t know, at that stage, that I would be asked to contribute to the Cathedral’s Lenten series on water, but as it happens, I did spend some of the trip thinking about water, possibly because a significant part of our time was spent in England, where it rains a lot! I have no idea whether those who have lived in England their whole lives know what a real drought is, or what it means to struggle for a reliable, consistent supply of drinking water. All I know is that there was plenty of water around. The middle part of our trip was quite different. We visited the extraordinary country of Morocco! Morocco and Australia have more in common than you might imagine. Both are constitutional monarchies. The king actually visited the city of Marrakech while we were there. Both have a stable form of government. Many of the cities in both countries lived perched on the edge of the desert. A consistent, safe supply of water is a constant issue for all who live there and here.
My family and my wife’s sister’s family were staying together in a riad, best described as a very simple family run hotel, owned by an Frenchman named Pascal. The afternoon we arrived Pascal sat both families down and talked about some of the joys and some of the risks of holidaying in Marrakech. “Don’t drink the water” was high on his list. “And when you go to a restaurant, the waiter will just start bringing out bread roles and bottles of water, and will charge you extra for them. Send them straight back, if you don’t want to be stung for the extra cost.” The first meal we had that evening, the bread roles and bottles of water came out and, almost to a person, we cried out to the waiter, “No bread, no water, non merci, take them back!” The waiter was somewhat startled, but, being extraordinarily polite and hospitable, as we found all restaurant staff in Morocco to be, he dutifully took them away. We found out later that the bread was free, and the bottled water so cheap that it might as well have been free!
Pascal’s warning about the non-bottled water was right though, with both my youngest son and Mrs McCall coming down with the dreaded stomach bug, perhaps from brushing their teeth, perhaps from water used to wash a salad.
Water truly is the stuff of life. So, it makes you wonder, how we have stuffed it up so badly? People have fought over water forever. Reliable sources of drinking water have been a cause of both celebration and conflict for a long time. It was easy as a tourist to feel rather smug when visiting Morocco, thinking, “Back home, I can drink water straight from the tap,” forgetting, of course, just how much treatment our water undergoes in the process of making it into our homes. How is it that, after a mere couple of hundred years of European settlement, we have managed to foul our water supplies so spectacularly? Several years ago, when my father-in-law leapt into the river Torrens to rescue our disabled daughter who had tripped and fallen in, he was bed-ridden for a week, and on antibiotics for longer, trying to clear the bugs from his system. I suspect that water, even more than electricity, will be continue to be a national headache.
I chose our readings tonight from the book of the prophet Isaiah and the Revelation to John as illustrations of what life with God can look like. A life lived in harmony with God, with an awareness of the sacred and all that is beautiful and wonderful in life, truly does result in us being like trees growing beside flowing streams.
But this spiritual life is not one removed from the reality of the physical. The ancients knew this: the author of 2nd Isaiah knew this more than most. The extraordinary vision of hope, which he gave the people of Israel languishing in slavery and exile in Babylon, is a vision of hope for their physical reality. John of Patmos knew this too. Although there are strong elements of eschatology in his writing (eschatology meaning a hope for life after death and a transformed world), including this incredible vision of the river of the water of life bringing life and healing to all, nonetheless, his writing also expresses the hope that the present sufferings in the physical world will ease. Neither Isaiah nor John would have drawn a false distinction between the spiritual and the physical. Indeed, it’s not too big a generalisation to say, that the Bible is packed full of examples of the spiritual impacting upon the physical. When the people of Israel moved away from God, when they rejected God, that was when the droughts came, that was when the water dried up, that was when the crops failed.
Whether there is a direct and immediate connection between our loss of relationship with God and the rains failing is an interesting point. There’s certainly more of a connection than we sometimes allow for: when we lose our belief in the sacredness of the earth, and view it merely as something to be exploited for our own gain, there can absolutely be dire consequences. The state of our river systems in this country is testament to that. In the southwest of Western Australia, where we lived for a time, you could plot the rainfall on where the farmlands ended and the remaining natural bush began. The tree line marked the point where the rainfall became more reliable. Many of the farmers were working incredibly hard to replant bushland on their farms, to help with soil erosion and rainfall, to correct the mistakes they’d made: in some cases they were literally their mistakes, because some of the original farmers who cut out their farms from virgin bush were still there.
At some point in our history we lost the connection between the sacred and the secular. We started to make a distinction between the spiritual and the physical. We restricted faith, spirituality, and religion to something that was personal, done mainly on Sundays. It could change peoples’ lives for the better, to be sure, but mainly at a personal level. The grand Christian vision of changing the world, of connecting the spiritual and the physical, the sacred and the secular, was watered down, pardon the pun (given tonight’s theme).
At one point in my parish ministry, in another state, I had a particular assistant priest, who did wonderful pastoral work, but had the habit of saying occasionally in his sermons, “The Gospel is personal.” What he meant of course was that the Gospel should have a personal impact. But I had to bite my tongue and stop myself from saying in the notices later in the service, “The Gospel is also communal” or “The Gospel is also environmental.” You can look back at the broad themes of history and argue that since the Enlightenment, when the individual was recognised as precisely that, an individual, we have seen the gradual loss of community, and the gradual loss of the sense of connection between us and the environment around us. The Reformation built on those themes of the individual within Christianity. The Industrial Revolution absolutely contributed to it, including a loss of local communities as big cities formed, and also through the increasing affect of pollution on the environment. The much more recent separation, in some people’s minds, of science and theology hasn’t helped. (Thankfully there are a number of scholars, both scientists and theologians, pushing back against that particular separation.) There are probably some other factors that I’ve missed, perhaps beginning with the ancient Greeks and their distinction between body and soul. But the result is that now it’s an ongoing struggle to proclaim, “The Gospel has something profound and powerful to say about the connection between the spiritual and the physical.”
Yet, when we turn back to God, when we have a relationship with the divine, with the beautiful energy of the Universe revealed to us as God the Holy Trinity, when we acknowledge that we don’t exist in isolation from everyone and everything else, then we will indeed be like willows beside flowing streams. Then God truly will “pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground.” Obviously Isaiah uses this imagery of water on the thirsty land and streams on the dry ground as a metaphor for the beauty and abundance of a life lived in God’s presence. Later Jesus would link this metaphor with life lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. But, for Isaiah and his fellow prophets, the metaphor was not too far removed from the physical reality. For the ancients “rain in the dry land” wasn’t just a metaphor of God’s blessing – it was literally God’s blessing too. For those of us who live in countries like Australia and Morocco, rain is very much a blessing.
When we reach a place of being in a beautiful relationship with God, when we praise God with everything we think and everything we do, then our eyes are opened to notice the rest of God’s creation doing the same thing. Psalm 148, our psalm of praise for tonight, has all of creation praising God – not just the creatures and the people – but the entirety of God’s creation, including that archaic but rather beautiful notion of the waters above the heavens, from whence the rain comes. When we achieve a sacred balance, the balance of lives lived in harmony with another and all of creation, then all of creation joins us in praising the Creator, and God in turn blesses us through his creation, in the autumn rain which covers us in blessings. It is a picture of a beautiful world now, and a vision of the life to come in the kingdom of heaven.