Some ancient cultures believed that what we inhabit was originally water; even when land came along, there was less land than water. Some cultures worshiped the water; some, the ancient Hebrews among them, feared the water.
Evidently, all the earliest forms of life on our planet began in water. Some life-forms evolved and adapted to life outside the water; many of those remained land-bound creatures, and others evolved back into the seas.
Roughly two-thirds of the Earth’s surface is water. About 75% of the human body is water, and 85% of the brain is water. An average sized-body has about 42 liters of water in it; that’s a little more than 11 gallons. Mercy. Don’t think about that too much at the moment, or we’ll have a rush on the restrooms between the first and second sermon segments. A nutritionist points out that with a loss of as little as half a gallon of our optimum water content, we can experience all sorts of physical and emotional difficulties--some leading to serious disease. Early dehydration can be signaled by our bodies through irritability and nervousness. So, the next time your significant other seems unusually grumpy, before taking the bait and launching into a round of spats, offer her or him a nice glass of cool water. The results could be pleasantly surprising!
Water circulates through the land just as it does through the human body, transporting, dissolving, replenishing nutrients and organic matter, while carrying away waste material. Further in the body, it regulates the activities of fluids, tissues, cells, lymph, blood and glandular secretions (La Leva).
Humans and animals can live without food for several days, but not very long at all without water. Water, therefore, is a central part of all cultures, ancient or modern; scientifically sophisticated or mythologically motivated.
In this sermon series on the elements, I’ve mentioned pollution of parts of our planet several times--polluted air, polluted land, and so on. I won’t neglect to mention the danger of polluted water before we end the series. Seeing sickening scenes of polluted water hasn’t been enough to make us halt our practices that promote pollution. Direct connections between polluted drinking water and certain cancers we ignore, but some research
released in the United Kingdom early this year might be enough of a shocker to jolt us into unpolluting our precious drinking water. And, by the way, some pollutants attack our bodies as we bathe; contamination is caused without our having to ingest the water.
Here’s the news that could change all of this. UK scientists have found a direct link between polluted water and male infertility. Some chemicals polluting their rivers have been described by scientists of hydrology and ecology as “anti-androgens.” They inhibit the functioning of testosterone. Oh my deity!
Not knowing much about fish, I can’t get in my mind what the British scientists mean when they say that the presence of these chemical pollutants in the water feminize male fish. I’ve never been able to tell the difference between a male fish and a female fish by watching how they swim or move. Sounds like a good topic for Forum!
Anyway, with the cost of Viagra what it is--SO I’VE BEEN TOLD!!!--this threat may be just the impetus we need to unpollute our drinking water. We definitely don’t want males in our society acting like feminine fish! If you can get those images out of your mind, I want to ask you to think with me a few minutes about water rituals.
Nun was the ancient Egyptian god who existed before there was form or order to the world. The Nile was thought to flow from Nun, so many regarded its waters as primordial; thus, the very element out of which life originally formed remained a part of life for those in every generation after creation. Some Egyptians believed that immersion in the primeval waters, the waters of the Nile, caused time to run backward; an hour in the Nile reversed time an hour thus gaining an hour of life for the person who stayed in those waters. Ultimately, one could escape death by continuing these water rituals; I’m sure there must have been legends of those who escaped death in this manner, but those who did die, the vast majority of Egyptians, must have died because they didn’t bathe often enough in the Nile.
One of the five pillars of Islam is daily prayer. A devoted Muslim prays five times a day facing Mecca. Before each of those prayers, an adherent is expected to cleanse herself or himself with water--the feet up to the ankles, the hands and arms up to the elbows, ears, nose, mouth, and face. These pre-prayer water cleansing rituals are called Wudu, meaning “ablution.”
Hindus, some of them, also use water to cleanse themselves before prayer. Most Hindu temples have a place where persons entering for prayer may wash their hands and feet before going to the areas where they will pray. Water from the River Ganges is regard as sacred, and though there is no formal ceremony for it the general thought is that one’s sins may be washed away by being in the River.
Buddhists, as there are many kinds of Buddhists, have various water rituals; often water is used as a sign of blessing. For example, in Tibetan Buddhism, when a couple is married, the senior monk conducting the ceremony will, near the end of the wedding ritual, sprinkle holy water on the couple using a leafy branch. When the monk walks away, the couple kneels and holds out their hands open and upward. Family members and friends will come to the couple, one at a time, and pour water over their hands as an expression of personal blessing on them. The water falls over their hands and is caught in a flower-filled basin.
Orthodox Jews have long practiced a ritual bath, a kind of baptism by immersion really, called a mikvah. Remember that Jewish John the Baptist practiced baptism among the Essenes of the Qumran community, and remember also that Jewish Jesus asked to be baptized by John in the Jordan River to symbolize his desire to be pure and wholly devoted to God. John used the baptism when he performed it to emphasize a turning away from the world and a renouncing of personal failures as well. I’ve never been to the Holy Land, but in case I ever need water from the same River in which Jesus himself was baptized, my great friend, Rabbi Cohn, brought me a bottle of water from the Jordan!
In any case, the traditional Jews often used the mikvah to prepare themselves for marriage or for sabbath worship. Non-Jews who converted to Judaism were asked to participate in a mikvah. In order to be considered ritually pure according to the demands of the ancient Jewish law, women, after a menstrual cycle, were expected to have a mikvah before sexual relations resumed. In some more liberal or modern Jewish communities, the mikvah is being practiced because of its potential calm and healing effects. I want to say more about water and healing later.
Though Jesus was baptized, as I’ve said, we have no record whatsoever of Jesus baptizing anyone, not even his closest followers. Until Matthew’s Jesus finally gets a world perspective in challenging those who will carry on his ministry after he is no longer with them, there isn’t even any mention of water baptism except when it is a symbol for human birth. Since Jesus had very little to say about the subject, it’s so odd to me that such an emphasis on baptism ever took hold in Christian practice; it did, though. The book of Acts, which is the earliest record we have of life among the followers of Jesus immediately after Jesus’ Roman execution, has numerous account of baptisms. The most moving of these to me is the story of the Ethiopian eunuch who is baptized by Philip. In that case, not only is baptism a sign of the eunuch’s faith, but also it’s a sign of the community’s affirmation of an outsider. Many individuals and cultures looked down their noses at eunuchs because they were mutilated--though generally against their wills. Even so they were looked down on by the majority of people except, perhaps, by those who made them eunuchs such as kings who wanted a safe corps of guards to protect their queens.
A sexually-excluded eunuch would very much parallel today a gay or lesbian person excluded from society or a faith community because of a sexual issue. And here comes broad-minded Philip using baptismal waters to bless him and include him.
Just when I was beginning to wonder if I wanted to continue keeping up with FACEBOOK, I had confirmation that I did. Late on this past Friday, Jenn Sterling and Dave Forgac announced their engagement to me on FACEBOOK. Congratulations to Dave and Jenn; I am SO happy for them and for me since I get to be the pronouncing preacher at the wedding, which will take place when Dave completes his studies at Wilmington University. NOTE TO CONGREGATION: Don’t push him to finish so that you’ll get to come to a beautiful Silverside wedding sooner than the couple is ready to plan it! Anyway, that news was well worth all my cyber-bumbling and stumbling around to become, not highly competent but, proficient, with the social networking tool. Tomi Morris believes that the proper use of such social networking connections can help us grow our church. So, because of Tomi’s hunch and because of the joyous engagement news as well as a serious theological question raised a couple of weeks earlier, I’ve decided to keep growing with my FACEBOOK learning. The theological question to which I refer, as it turns out, relates to our subject for today.
Carla Walker is a long-time friend of mine. I first knew Carla from my years of being pastor to her parents at the University Baptist Church in Baltimore. Her late parents, Betty and Gordon Walker, were among the dearest friends I’ve ever had in any congregation I’ve served. Dr. Gordon Walker was a pioneer in the field of dialysis and a professor at the Johns Hopkins Medical School. He and Betty had grown up in the Baptist Belt of Louisiana and had, for most of their lives, been as Baptist as their intelligence would allow--which is to say that some Baptists have made some profoundly important and forward thinking pronouncements in their history such as their insistence that there must be separation of synagogue/church/mosque and state along with the vitally important demand for the practice they have called “soul competency,” meaning that each individual not only relates to God on her or his own without the involvement of intermediaries but also is fully responsible for managing that relationship or connection. Naturally, and even those of us who have loved Baptists at their best will admit to this, some Baptists--and, sadly, increasingly all the time--have stood for some boneheaded principles and practices. These are what Gordon and Betty bristled at: a required literal reading of all scripture, the use of the Bible as a science book, the belief that only Baptists or only Christians for that matter have the proper connection to God guaranteeing a heavenly eternity, and the notion that the preacher is closer to God and more informed theologically than any of those who are a part of that preacher’s congregation.
Carla left me a message on FACEBOOK the other day. She’s an early, early childhood specialist presently on assignment and suffering for Jesus in Honolulu. She has found an Episcopalian church there, which she’s been giving serious consideration to joining, and all was going well with that process until one of the rectors mentioned to her that they would love to have her as a member and would be happy to arrange her baptism. Carla was baptized when she was 8 years old in the University Baptist Church, and she thought that was the only baptism she’d ever want to or need to choose. So, on FACEBOOK, I got this message from Carla seeking some guidelines as she pondered the possibilities. She remembered that during one of her father’s, Gordon’s, terms of service on the University Baptist board of deacons, the issue of baptismal theology was raised and led to months-long discussions and ultimately a constitutional change.
The issues were: 1) Is baptism required in order to be a part of God’s family? (None of my deacons believed that, but we in being thorough decided to articulate our negative response to it.) 2) Is baptism required for membership in a Baptist church and in our church in particular? (Some of my deacons thought yes, and some thought no.) 3) If we require baptism for membership, will we accept the baptism of someone who was baptized in another Christian communion before she or he came to University Baptist Church?
I reminded Carla that on the final of these three issues, her brilliant father, a lifelong Baptist, said, “Absolutely!” The deacons decided to continue the long held practice of requiring believer’s baptism by immersion, never infant baptism, for church membership in a Baptist church; exceptions could be made, of course, in cases of age, infirmity, or fear of water. If a prospective member had never been baptized in any tradition, then our church asked the person to be baptized as a part of the membership process. If the prospective member came to us having been baptized in any tradition, including in a tradition that performed infant baptisms only, University Baptist Church, with strong and eloquent leadership from Deacon Gordon Walker, said we respect and affirm the baptismal experience of any other Christian communion.
I wrote back to Carla, on FACEBOOK of course, and reiterated her father’s clear stance on the subject. Baptists never believed, officially anyway, that baptism was required for being in good with God--same position most Baptists have historically taken on the place of communion in the life of a follower of Jesus. Even so, baptism, being a public sign of one’s own free choice to be a follower of Jesus, should be practiced by a Baptist church. Baptists, after all, got their name from critics because of their insistence that baptism of an infant with no knowledge of and no choice in the matter was at best a waste and at worst bad theology; only a baptism freely chosen by an individual could have any impact on the person’s spirituality and connection to God. Thus, mainstream Baptists have said, officially, “You don’t gotta, but you oughtta.”
There certainly have been those renegade Baptist churches--and remember that there are many kinds of Baptists in the world--who have stood at either extreme on the subject of baptism. There have been those Baptists who insisted that baptism by immersion was next to necessary, and there have been those at the other end who have said that baptism doesn’t matter a whole lot one way or another; if someone wants to be baptized there should be provision for it, and if not, forget it.
You can often tell from how a Baptist sanctuary is constructed what that church’s views of baptism and the importance of baptism are. If the baptistry is in a prominent place for all to see every time the congregation gathers, there’s a reason for that; at least there was when the sanctuary was built. If the baptistry is in an out of the way place or if you can’t see it at all, then that says volumes.
I grew up in a tradition and studied in traditions that emphasized the importance and the meaningfulness of believer’s baptism by immersion. Given that emphasis, I’ve never gotten over embarrassing myself and my family when I was baptized. I was 7 years old, and I was so nervous that I took too seriously the important instruction my pastor gave me: “Hold your breath before I dunk you.” The minute I was in position to be immersed, I started holding my breath; that was much too soon because my pastor had a bit to say before the baptism. By the time my face was all the way under the water, then, I couldn’t hold my breath any longer, and when I let the held breath go, big bubbles came up everywhere. Instead of the typical somberness that accompanied a baptism, as I came up out of the water, I heard snickering throughout the Beaver Dam Baptist Church!
The baptistry in most Baptist churches is front, center, and raised. I remember when one of my students got a job as an associate in the church that was known as the most liberal of all Baptist churches, the Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. I was traveling through there, and he asked me to meet him at the church from where we’d go to lunch. While at the beautiful church, though, he gave me a tour. There was no baptistry in the sanctuary. I’d never been in a Baptist church without a baptistry--though they exist and for several reasons. There I was in that gorgeous sanctuary without a baptistry. That church had a separate very small chapel that Jay told me was rarely used where any who chose to be baptized could be.
If you have been a member of Silverside Church for less than five years and can tell me after church where our baptistry is located, I will buy your after-church coffee for the next month. I’m betting that I’m not going to be out much money.
For who knows how long, certain bodies of water have been thought to have curative powers so water has been associated with healing from ancient times into the present. In the United Kingdom there are hosts of wells that have been thought for generations to have curative powers; these beliefs have been held by pagans and by Christians and by those who fall somewhere in between. There are usually rules to be followed by those who expect to have the best chance to benefit from the waters.
For example, St. Euny’s Well is in the parish of Sancreed in Penwith. For hundreds of years, those who knew of it swore by the healing power of its waters provided the ill person went to the well and washed in those waters on one of the first three Wednesdays in May. That sounds like the rule by which many of our doctors schedule appointments with sick folk.
Baglan Well in Glamorgan had waters with very specific curative powers; they healed children with rickets. Again, the powers were only accessible three days out of a year; in this case, the first three Thursdays in May. The children had to bathe or be bathed in the water at the well site.
At Aconbury in Herfordshire there is St. Ann’s Well. St. Ann’s waters were believed to be especially potent in curing eye problems, and someone with eye difficulties had the best chance of a cure if she or he washed the eyes with water fetched after midnight on Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night is the holiday celebrated in the Christian year on the eve of the Epiphany; it’s the last night of the twelve days and nights of Christmas.
The waters from the Holy Pool of St. Fillan in Perthshire, in Scotland, work very well in the cure of insanity. Now, instead of dreaming about which of your relatives and political enemies you’d like to send off to St. Fillan’s Holy Pool, let me tell you how it worked or works, as the case may be. The person believed to be insane was brought to the pool and led around it three times--once in the name of the Father, once in the name of the son; once in the name of the Holy Ghost. Then the person, dizzy perhaps, was dipped into the water in the name of the Holy Trinity.
In this same area of the world, any body of water over which both the living and the dead passed was thought to have waters with curative powers. An example would be a body of water under a bridge on which the living carried the dead for burial.
Today, the waters of the Dead Sea between Israel and Jordan are widely regarded a source of healing for skin disorders such as psoriasis and for allergies. If you can get there without being shot or blown up by someone who thinks you’re an enemy, you have a good chance at coming home free of allergies and skin disease. There’s a fair amount of scientific evidence to confirm that these kinds of results are not unusual.
There are numerous places around the world where natural hot springs are believed to help cure a host of disorders, but the cures least likely to be disputed by the skeptics are those for various joint and muscular problems. I swam in one of these in Switzerland--outdoor hot springs swimming in the dead of winter. It was amazing, and as you can tell I’m perfectly sane. No wait, the insanity cure is somewhere else. Oh well.
Similarly, in West Virginia in a quaint little town called Berkeley Springs where there is a tiny state park built up around natural hot springs that bubble up to the surface of the Earth and remain the same warm temperature year ‘round. European settlers first arrived in Berkeley Springs in 1740 and found the very smart Native Americans bathing in these waters for purification, relaxation, and healing. Years ago, I spent several days there, and I have never been more relaxed. Of course, I didn’t drink, smoke pot, or belong to a fraternity in college.
There are two healing water stories from the Bible that I love; one is from Hebrew scripture, and the other is from Christian scripture. I begin with the story from the Hebrew Bible.
Naaman was a Syrian general, a very powerful man, who had been a part of a raid on Israelite territory during which some Jewish people were nabbed and forced to be the slaves of the Syrians. Naaman himself found one young Jewish woman to be the perfect maid for his wife. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that President Obama is getting ready to send an Ambassador to Syria after a four year period of having no diplomatic presence in that country.
Anyway, the young slave came to Naaman’s rescue when he was diagnosed with leprosy. That diagnosis was one of those things that could go either way; it could be a short-term rash, or it could turn into full-blown Hansen’s Disease, a modern designation of course, and rot so much skin off your bones that you’d die. Poor people had no choice but to wait and see; people who had some means could try available treatments though there were no guaranteed cures.
Naaman pursued all treatments he could find in Syria, and we have to believe that nothing much was happening to stem the spread of the disease. His wife’s maid, the young Jewish woman living there and serving against her will, was magnanimous in her concern, and she told the general about an Israelite prophet with widely known healing powers. The guy’s name was Elisha, and Naaman asked his king to write Elisha’s king and ask for an appointment with the prophet. Since Syria had just beaten up badly on Israel, the King was happy to comply as a diplomatic
The story is told humorously because when Naaman arrived Elisha wouldn’t even come out to acknowledge him. He sent out instructions through his servants, which made General Naaman all the more angry, but, in the hopes of healing, Naaman’s aides encouraged him to follow the instructions; they just might work.
To make matters worse, and they were bad already, the instructions were that Naaman should jump into the Jordan River and dip himself fully into its waters seven times. The thing was, the Jordan was a very dirty river; the mud never settled to the bottom for some reason.
How could the snooty prophet dare to tell the powerful General to bathe seven times in the dirtiest water around? Well, Naaman swallowed his pride, did what he was asked, and was completely healed in those waters. He didn’t know, Elisha didn’t know, and the biblical writer didn’t know that the mud in the Jordan that wouldn’t settle to the bottom was from clay in the river bed jam packed with bacteria-fighting ingredients.
In Christian scripture is the story of Jesus encountering the man who was an invalid waiting at the Pool of Bethzatha for a miraculous cure to the disease that had prevented him from walking for years and years. The legend circulating at the time was that ever so often an invisible angel came and stirred up the waters in the pool near where the sheep were bathed before being taken into the great Jerusalem Temple to be slaughtered as a part of worship rituals. It was widely believed that the first person into the waters, and loads of people waited there every day hoping to be cured, the first one of them into the water after the angel caused the ripples would be cured of whatever disease plagued her or him. The poor guy was an invalid; he was never first into the water.
Jesus came up to the man and didn’t confirm or deny the legend. Interestingly, Jesus implied that nothing in the water would cure him; there was a more fundamental issue for the man to confront, and this by no means applies to all people who are sick. Here it did. Jesus told the man that if he really wanted to be well, he had the power to be well, and he should prove it by standing up and picking up his mat and walking home. That’s exactly what the man did. It may be safe to say that more people in that time and place believed in the power of the rippling waters than in the power of God working through Jesus to bring them any available healing.
Water is our dominant essence, and if there is any natural substance that can promote healing, surely water is that. Thus, counselors may ask you to listen to sound of the ocean to relax and calm your soul. The nurse practitioner reminds you to drink plenty of water every day. The natural thermal springs ease our joint and muscular pains, and your physical therapist may recommend hydrotherapy to ease back pain and to help increase range of motion for arms, legs, and spine. Minerals in many bodies of water effectively help detox the exterior of our bodies.
Whatever that Creative force was that shaped our habitat--some of you would call that force God and others of you would resist referring to it as God--that force used and continues to use water to promote the wellness of humans, animals, and plant life. No wonder ancient and modern religious groups used/use water to initiate and to bless, to promote healing, and to symbolize spiritual birth or rebirth.