All it takes is a few years or even months of dry weather before we realize how dependent all of us are on fresh water for life. When California was hit by drought conditions, the whole nation was affected. Because California grows a huge proportion of the United States’ fruit and vegetables, prices went up and supplies were threatened. In parts of the world where rain is always scarce, water becomes the most precious commodity.
Not only is fresh water necessary for life, but biologists tell us that our bodies are composed of about 60 percent water. Furthermore, more than 70 percent of the world’s surface is covered by water, and water’s miraculous qualities allow the earth to maintain its life-giving balance in ways no other elements can provide. It’s simple: Water is life, and life is water.
The life-giving vitality of water has meant that from the beginning water has been both a symbol and sacrament of spiritual life. Every time we use water in the practice of our Catholic faith, we connect with the deep wells of the water of life down through human history.
Watering the garden
On the second day of the creation story God separates the waters above from the waters below. The ancients clearly understood the concept of a watery atmosphere above the waters on the earth. We read in the Book of Genesis that springs came up from the earth and God planted a garden, and this Garden of Eden itself was watered by a great river that split into four rivers that flowed from the garden to water the whole earth.
This ancient story of man’s beginnings reveals the importance of water for life. The garden is supplied with fresh water, and from this water source all things flourish. By contrast, when Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden, they are thrust into a harsh wilderness where life is hard and work is grueling.
The Garden of Eden is watered by the river provided by God. Paradise is therefore a fresh, lush, and beautiful garden. Fruit trees flourish. Shade trees provide shelter. All is peace, harmony, and abundance, and all is given life by the river flowing from the heart of the garden.
Water of life, water of death
Anybody who was watched the videos of the terrible tsunamis that have swamped Indonesia and Japan knows that water is life-giving, but it can also deal death. The next story in the Bible after the saga of Adam and Eve is the ancient tale of Noah and the ark. The earth had descended into lust and violence, so God decided to wipe the slate clean and start again. With Noah’s flood the vengeful violence of water sweeps across the world.
While the flood was seen as God’s punishment, the New Testament writers also saw it as the force of salvation in the world. The wicked were destroyed by the floodwaters, but Noah and his family were saved by passing through the waters to a have a fresh start for humanity.
The floodwaters therefore became a symbol of both judgment and mercy at the same time. In one of the New Testament letters ascribed to St. Peter we read:
[To those] who had once been disobedient while God patiently waited in the days of Noah during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved through water. This prefigured baptism, which saves you now. It is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:20-21).
St. Peter clearly teaches that the water of death/water of life symbolism connects to Baptism and therefore to the resurrection of Jesus.
Through water to freedom
The theme of salvation through water continues with the story of Moses leading the Hebrew tribes from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. As they fled from Egypt their path took them directly to the Red Sea. Seeing his workforce disappear, the Egyptian pharaoh changed his mind and charged after them with his armies. The Book of Exodus describes how the waters of the Red Sea opened and the Jews passed through on dry land, and when the Egyptian armies followed, the waters fell back and destroyed them all.
Once again the Old Testament stories use water as a symbol for the power that destroys the wicked but saves the people of God. However, in this story there is an added dimension. The people of God are not only saved from evil, they are given freedom through the life-giving water.
The Promised Land was “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 33:3). In other words, it was a lush, abundant paradise. Going to the Promised Land was not only deliverance from slavery; it was also like a return to Eden.
Before they could get there, however, the Hebrew tribes endured a nomadic existence in the desert for 40 years. It was there in the desert that they experienced great thirst and called for Moses to help them. When he struck a rock in the desert with his staff, a fountain of fresh water flowed out for the people. The Fathers of the Church saw in this story a symbol of the waters of Baptism that flowed from the side of Christ on the cross. For them Jesus was the rock that was struck, and it was from him that the healing, refreshing, freedom-giving water flowed.
The river border
When Joshua took the leadership of the people, it was time to cross over into the promised land of Canaan. To enter from the desert to the East, they had to conquer the border fortress of Jericho. Once that was done, the people had to cross the Jordan River. Once again a passage through water was the sign of God’s salvation and provision for his people.
The Jordan River therefore became a boundary symbol. To get to the Promised Land required going through the river. To receive God’s promises, you must pass through the water. This is why so many centuries later, John the Baptist went to that same river crossing to baptize his followers.
The message was clear: Just as their ancestors had to pass through the waters of Jordan to complete their journey from slavery to freedom, from the desert to the abundant promised land, so they had to be plunged into the same river of life through Baptism.
The river was therefore the place where the dust and dirt of the desert of sin was washed away. It was the place where the people stepped out in faith to accept God’s promise. The river was the pathway to paradise and the border crossing to God’s abundant new life.
Baptism into death and new life
The first Christians were Jews, and so it was natural that they adopted the Jewish ceremony of Baptism as the sign and sacrament of the new life of Christ. The Apostles saw Baptism as the way a new believer was plunged into the death and the resurrection of Christ.
What was merely a symbol now became a sacrament. A “sacrament” in Roman times was a kind of solemn covenant promise. It was a sacred commitment and calling that soldiers swore in loyalty to their leader. Baptism gathered up all the symbols from the Old Testament stories and therefore became for the Christians a washing away of sins, deliverance from the wicked, the pathway to freedom, and a passport to paradise.
The use of holy water — crossing ourselves when we enter church and using it in the deliverance and healing ministry — always reminds us of our Baptism and the salvation God has provided through the mystery of faith and water.
The river of eternal life
The story comes full circle from the Book of Genesis at the beginning of the Bible to the Book of Revelation at the end. There we are given a vision of heaven as seen by the apostle John. In Revelation we read:
Then the angel showed me the river of life-giving water, sparkling like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lambdown the middle of its street. On either side of the river grew the tree of life that produces fruit twelve times a year, once each month; the leaves of the trees serve as medicine for the nations (Revelation 22:1-2).
Heaven is an eternal city, but it is a garden city. Paradise has been restored, but it is better than it first was. Eden was a garden imperiled by a potentially disastrous fall. Heaven is a paradise completed — where the evil has been fought and defeated.
All of this is gathered up in the great ceremonies of Easter. In the Easter vigil we celebrate the mystery of Baptism, and the symbol of water is fused with the symbol of light — reminding us of that other part of St. John’s vision of heaven:
Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will look upon his face,and his name will be on their foreheads. Night will be no more, nor will they need light from lamp or sun, for the Lord God shall give them light, and they shall reign forever and ever (Revelation 22:3-5).