“Water, water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” I remember my grandmother quoting those lines from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner more times than I can possibly remember in my youth. Water dominates today’s readings just as it dominates our world. What makes our home, “the third stone from the sun” different from every planet? Water. As any person who has ever been to a memorial service and seen the urn containing their dearly departed’s cremains knows, most of our body is water.
Second only to breath, water is the center of our lives and what we most need to survive. The people are ready to stone Moses for lack of water. Jesus provides water that will forever quench the thirst of the receiver, water that can provide life not just to the body, but to the soul. In Holy Baptism, water touches the body but claims the whole life—the whole psyche—of the person so touched by God.
Water is an image of promise… but it is also a promising image for the prospective preacher. Water blesses and is necessary to life, but as anyone who has been caught by the undertow, seen a wet week erase months of labor in their garden, watched a flash flood wash away part of their town, or watched a family member have to throw away most of their belongings following a hurricane knows, water also wields tremendous power for destruction. As Jesus’ incisive comments to the woman at the well shows, the Font of living water has similarly destructive capacity. In Jesus we encounter the demolition of all our rationalizations, our self-justifications, and our evasions. If we would drink of the water He offers us, it will not only cleanse, but purge us.
But with that cleansing comes also the removal also of the dominion of sin, death, and the devil. Like the world following the ravages of the Great Flood of Genesis, when we truly encounter the water welling up to eternal life, we are left pristine by the ruthless kindness of God. It is a severe compassion that, as it did with the woman at the well, loves us enough to receive us as we are, but too much to let us remain that way. The question for us as we encounter such pitiless mercy is, can we respond to it as John Donne did when he wrote:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
God’s grace, like the water in the Rime is everywhere. Whatever the cost, will we drink?