Living Water Undoes All Opposition.
A few years ago I was responsible for introducing some high school students to the wonderful world of metaphor. Though not an easy task, it can be fun. For example, when preparing I came across a collection of particularly bad metaphors. Here are a few gems from the treasury:
“Her face was a perfect oval- a circle that had its two sides pressed together by a thigh-master.”
“The little boat drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.”
“The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just as maggots do when fried in grease.”
“Her eyes were two round circles with black dots in the center.”
“His vocabulary was bad, as bad as well, whatever.”
“John and Sarah were two hummingbirds that never met.”
At least one of these doesn’t meet the official metaphor criterion, but if you’re like me, you read them and think, wait, where’s the metaphor? And if that’s the metaphor, how does it work and why is it important? Consider the metaphor argument is war. Our everyday language utilizes this metaphor in a various ways:
Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.
I’ve never won an argument with him.
You disagree? Okay, shoot.
If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
He shot down all my arguments.
I’d like these examples to highlight how metaphors structure our perception of the world, and how our metaphorically structured conceptions of the world guide our way of acting and being in the world. To a large degree we behave some ways and not others because of the metaphors that guide our perception and action in the world. We don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war; we actually win or lose arguments. We often consider the person we argue with our opponent; we defend our own positions and attack theirs; we plan and use strategies in order to render their position indefensible, and when needed, we might abandon that strategy and pursue a new line of attack. The result of the arguments is war metaphor is that even though there aren’t physical battles, there certainly are verbal battles, and sometimes, these do indeed lead to real wars.
To further illustrate how metaphors guide our perceptions and consequent actions in the world, imagine what arguments might look like were they conceived instead as a dance. Rather than opponents you might have partners whose aim is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. They might practice and rehearse together, having a mediator to give a third opinion or guidance as they work to complement each other rather than destroy each other, etc. Changing the metaphor from war to dance would allow a culture not only to perceive arguments differently, but also participate in them differently.
I raise the issue of metaphor because when I approach the Bible in order to learn who Jesus is so that I have an idea of who I’m communing with, I’m not exactly sure how to make sense of what I find. Exacting who Jesus was seems to have proven difficult even for the gospel writers: Jesus is a bride- groom, and then he is a thief in the night. He’s a savior on one page, and a lamb on the next. He’s a light, the Way, and a Shepherd. In one chapter he’s a prince, in another he’s a word, and in another he’s a boy. Later on he’s a scapegoat, and also a Messiah. Jesus was a fisherman, and also a loaf of bread. He’s a rabbi, and also a carpenter, and then even a fraction: the third of a trinity. But of all the Jesus metaphors, I am most drawn to the Jesus as water metaphor. After all, whatever else he was, he was human- which maybe means that whenever I pray to Jesus, literally 78% of who I’m praying to already is water.
The gospel writers seem to insist that Jesus’ life and ministry is incomprehensible without that essential covalent bond of oxygen and hydrogen that covers 70.9% of the earth’s surface. Water and communion with Jesus, are they so separate? Consider what our gospel writers tell us of Jesus’ life and ministry:
David Duncan points out that our dear Lord was a fisher of men, and also fish I guess. Not to mention that Jesus insisted that his ministry begin by being submerged in water, that his first miracle entailed turning water into wine, that he constantly took to boats and even though he slept and seemed totally unconcerned, he calmed the seas for his followers and even walked on water, told the Samaritan woman that his gift is living water, that whoever drinks of this water will never be thirsty again, that this water will gush up to eternal life, that he himself is the Living Water, that he healed the blind by spitting his water into mud and wiping it on eyes, and that he took water and showing what discipleship is like, washed others feet. In the garden he wept water that eventually returned to oceans. And on the cross hung not a system of thought concerned with orthodoxy but a brutally murdered Jew who, when stabbed in the side, bled water. And after rising from the dead, he met his fishing disciples on the beach and dined with them, seaside. And I’ve always wondered if after the resurrection and when for the first time Peter sees Jesus, is it significant that Peter jumps into the sea in order to be with his savior, Jesus?
I may be channeling a Princeton theologian, a Barthian perhaps, who is thinking, “Oh Geez. This kids all wet. If I hear anymore of this dribble I might begin to drown in the twin “P’s”: paganism and pantheism. Sure, he should get his chance to make a splash but I hope he doesn’t cause any ripples. Not to worry: soon enough I’ll be back in my dorm room where I can read someone dry like Calvin or Moltmann or Cone.” But maybe that theology student should ponder that the word theology occurs nowhere in the Bible. The two references to Theophilus are not references to a Muppets character, and if Biblical references to theologians are there, they fall under the headings of Scribes and Pharisees. Yet in that very same Bible, the word river occurs 144 times, sea gets 458 uses, rain tallies 116, and the word water is used 539 times. The biblical authors, it seems, had high regard for water. And unless one wants to hear in Jesus’ words the patently obvious truth that yes, as a living human being who is 78% water, he really was Living Water, we might do well to ask what how that designation might help shift our perception of the divine and thereby re-inform what it might mean to commune with Christ.
In 2002 I moved to Yosemite, California for a summer job. Prior to my time in Yosemite, the greenest space I’d ever seen was my parent’s suburban backyard, and the only clear water I’d ever known was from machine- made faucets. Yosemite still seems one of the few remaining Narnias that Washington and its consumer society hasn’t yet sacked, though its inroads are more and more evident. I remember many things from that summer. One was learning to cast a fly rod in an Ansel Adams Wilderness meadow stream. Another was arriving at an unmapped, spring- fed, granite creek about fourteen miles outside the national park.
As I scurried around and through the Manzanita trees, down the gorge’s somewhat loose rock and stood for the first time, before water clearer than gin, unknown gods began emerging from hibernation in the religious recesses of my bloodstream. I had never seen water like this; I had never known such gods existed.
I began to friend rivers, and it happened much like any other friendship. It started shallow and worked deeper. Water striders were what I saw first: inch long, straddle legged, white bellied, black topped creatures who as David James Duncan put it, embarrassed poor St. Peter by demonstrating that bugs not only walk on water, they run on it. A bit deeper I saw rocks so carefully cut and colorful they may have been Chagall’s inspiration. And then deeper, where should I wade into the dark depths I would be pulled in, I leaned over looking into a deep hole of churning water. I watched as the foam starred surface eddied until it became a Van Gogh night sky with water meteors and sun glint novas dancing over the earthy moss that bent and bowed to the current. Drawn like a magnet, my psyche and heart spun and spiraled, growing foam- dazed- heady- drunk until the pieces of mental machinery I’d been told I needed – day/ night, right-side up/ right-side down, valuable/ worthless, surface/ edge, containment/ boundary, where I end/ where water begins – began to dissolve like earthworms in rain water.
This river’s water – as water always does – undid these and many more oppositions, diluting and mixing and tumbling and turning and mixing and tumbling and turning them until one bled so thoroughly into the other that nothing stable or opposed or different remained, but rather mystery and depth- holding hands, as mystery and depth often do, with gratitude. Before me and calmly flowing over granite was more of what comprised nearly 78% of my very being: water. Its depths another world within this one, I was no longer able to distinguish between us.
Maybe they meant little else than an impotent metaphor, but I think the gospel writers, John the Baptizer, and the early church
writers knew something of water’s uniqueness, its cosmic, soulful significance. Debbie Blue reminds us that water cleanses and purifies; it cleans and washes away not by doing away with but by submerging what was thought impure orunwanted into the vast expanse of a river rushing and intertwined, washing the impurities out to the ocean, raising them to the sky, and returning them again, incorporated into the whole. You reach into water but your handscome up empty. Water is formless and fluid. Attempts at grasping don’t work: it slips through fingers. It can’t be controlled or formed or shaped. Water can’t be pulled or poked, resisting our attempts to mold it into our own image, what we want or desire. Water is latent potentiality. It is what might or could be, full of creative potential and fertility. Water is nourishment and sustenance. It quenches thirst and satisfies, brings to life. According to many religious traditions, including our own, everything that has form came into being through water. And yet water is also tears endlessly flowing and filling the land, flooding and engulfing and uprooting life of all sorts. Water is so many things and is yet also nothing. It is Chaos, void. Water is Sheol: the deep dark, abyss: the lake of hell. And it is also preexistence: the nothingness before anything was. And it’s the nothingness that threatens to dissolve us back into itself. It is death. In the aquatic symbolism of many cultures, to be immersed in water is to return to the pre-formed state, to bere-immersed into the amniotic water where one being is inextricably united to another, dissolving all pretensions of individual form or self-identity. To be immersed in water is to be dissolved into the undifferentiated mode of existence. And to be submerged in water is to possibly lose one’s very life. Every civilization is built on it and no civilization continues without it. Continents are colonized for it and persons sent to the front lines for it. And yet no institution or brick or mountain or body can withstand its erosive effects. Eventually, water undoes everything, returning all to itself. Water’s meaning and significance is cosmic, vast, pregnant, but not exactly neat and packaged: it is life, death, fear, fertility, beauty, creativity, terror, and sustenance. It is essential and redemptive, living even, but it doesn’t exactly seem safe. I’m not sure if it is bad, or good, but I would like to know this water tastes like. Or maybe what was it like being baptized in water like that?
I can’t seem to separate communion with God, or prayer, from baptism. Probably because the only time in all of scripture where Father, Son and the Holy Spirit are presented together and interacting is at the baptism scene. And so if prayer is a way of communing with the members of that divine trinity, then maybe the baptism scene is worth looking into. Luke’s third chapter reports that people were concerned and questioning John the Baptizer. Debbie Blue imagines that watching or maybe experiencing his baptism into water, they apparently thought he might be the Messiah. I think the sprinkling/ immersion debates might be entirely missing the point. I like to imagine him there, John in the water of the river Jordan, baptizing. And his attention is to the multitudes, the text says, who are apparently so enthralled and concerned that they are questioning in their hearts if the Messiah, the savior of the world has arrived. Not to diminish how cute those babies are or dismiss the old baby sprinkle as an occasion to rally the family, but it just seems a bit different from a baptism that results in people getting riled and wondering if the Savior of the World just showed up to roll in some imperial upheaval and cosmic redemption.
Water is beautiful, and also threatening. It is life giving, and also life taking. So I see them there, standing on the riverbank’s edge, knee deep in water. They feel the strong current pulling, and they’re constantly readjusting because where the riverbed isn’t endlessly moving, it’s slippery as hell. There is no dry, firm ground to stand on, and afraid, they struggle to wade in further, knowing that if they do they’ll be swept under. Mothers are clinging to their children, and with his crazy hair and locust breath, John looks wildly. No robes, no lines- John lunges forward, and taking hold plunges someone under, holding them under- longer, maybe for too long. His madman hands press down further and the cold current robs the breath as it runs all over their body pulling, pulling, pulling them toward that undifferentiated, primordial, black void now beginning to surround them, drowning them into the abyss of death. They panic, and beginning to struggle their arms and legs plead and flail about, longer, and then as the very core of their being gasps and clamors for air they are pulled up into the camel skinned arms of this wild Other who holds their confused, soaking wet bodies. Rapid breath and wide- eyed, they went under and without life preservers, if only for a second, they saw the dark light. How do you explain that on an ordination exam?
That’s some metaphor, water. Yet, what if what water washes away isn’t the dirt on our hands, the mean thought, or that time we looked at what we shouldn’t? What if what water washes away are our illusions, the constructs we consider so solid and important and meaningful? What if these are what the living water dissolves into its abyss? Maybe instead of life jacket programs or swimming lesson faith designed to keep us afloat, the living water is meant to wash away all the illusionary constructs we think our lives depend on, what we think keep us afloat: our boats, skills, brains, social groups, race, gender, beliefs, money, careers, fitness routines, grades, our weapons, our power, our empire. Maybe entering into communion with the Ground of Being is far less like shaping up and finding solid, sure theological ground or beliefs to stand on and much more like being stripped naked and plunged unprotected into a mountain stream where without the ability to swim we are held under so that something frightening and beautiful and painful and uncontrollable, really uncontrollable, is for just a moment, glimpsed.
Water doesn’t leave things stable and opposed; it loosens them, undoing their stability and opposition until they begin to bleed into each other. Water doesn’t establish or maintain differences; it breaks them down and dissolves them into each other. Water doesn’t separate; it rather erodes and destabilizes what was once separate and set-apart. Water doesn’t define or classify or categorize, but rather like rain on sure, solid, dry, parched ground, muddies and blurs and moves it until the boundary between dirt and water no longer holds.
Maybe it is just a metaphor. But maybe this metaphor can help us recognize when we’re communing with the Living Water. Maybe communing with this Living Water is the long and frightening experience of learning to let go of the life preservers we cling to for control, the life preservers we endlessly strap on to avoid slowly sinking into the depths of the primordial abyss where the entirely gracious hands of the Nameless One are already there sustaining us. An abyss and an Other in which all the oppositions – Jew/ Greek, Male/ Female, Homo/ Hetero sexual, Democrat/ Republican, literal/ metaphorical, even the opposition between material/ textual no longer hold but erode, dissolve, and wash away.