Living waters

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis —

Once upon a time there were two young fish swimming along together in the ocean. They passed an older fish who called out to them, “How’s the water, boys?” The two young fish kept swimming and looked at each other. “Huh?” said one of them. And the other one replied, “What the heck is WATER?”

Water is all around us every day, it’s all inside of us…it’s easy to become unaware of water. To take it for granted. That’s one reason we celebrate water from so many different places today, gathered together in this big baptismal bowl.

But back when we were little tiny babies inside our mothers, our first sensations were of the floating in the water of her womb. We heard the watery whoosh of her heartbeat. The gurgle of her tummy after she ate her dinner. As we grow, our body continues to be mostly water. Even our brain is 80% water and rests in a watery cushion that protects it from getting jostled around too much inside our skull. Our planet Earth is covered with a lot of water, so much so we should probably call it Planet Water instead of Planet Earth! Astronauts have looked back at Earth from space and told us it looks like a blue marble hanging in the sky. And scientists tell us that a long time ago, our ancestors actually lived and breathed in the water….Only recently, 375 million years ago, did they evolve and grow arms and legs and were able to crawl up on dry land.

When Jesus walked around on Earth, about 2,000 years ago, he showed up in a place that didn’t have a lot of water. It is different than Minnesota; in the Middle East they don’t have 10,000 lakes like we do, and rivers and streams that flow big and wide through every season. The land where Jesus lived is dry and deserty. During his time, water was mostly found in springs that came up out of the ground, wells that people would dig—the water was mostly underground. People would save it in cisterns and big stone jars. But the tastiest, freshest water was water that was moving, flowing, which they all called “living water.” Did you notice in the Bible passage that Jesus talks about “living water?” “Out of the believer’s heart will flow streams of living water.” That sounds kind of strange. What can this mean?

Jesus said this about himself in the middle of a big festival at the Temple in Jerusalem. It was a celebration of the fall harvest of fruits and vegetables, and people came from all around to go to the Temple and thank God. They would remember how God provided for them, both food and water, when they fled slavery in Egypt and wandered for years in the desert before finally arriving at their new home in Israel. Musicians, people singing, processions with flaming torches. Very exciting. The Temple priests, their ministers, would go to a special pool of water in the city and fill big gold pitchers with fresh water. They would bring these back into the Temple and pour them into huge silver bowls, saying prayers thanking God for the water that brought the harvest, and asking that God’s spirit would pour down on them. In the middle of all this worship hoopla and commotion, Jesus cries out: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink!” Huh? What did he say? Isn’t that the preacher guy from Nazareth?” Jesus continued, “And out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water!” The work translated “heart” actually refers to a person’s belly, their gut. “Out of my follower’s gut, the seat of emotions in our Jewish culture,” Jesus is saying, “will flow rivers of living water!” What on earth could this mean?

I’ve been reading a neat book recently written by a marine biologist named Wallace Nicols, and it is all about water. He is famous for helping revive sea turtle populations down in western Mexico. But more recently he has been talking to brain scientists about how being around water affects how our brain works and how we feel. He calls his book “Blue Mind.” The author says that often we run around with our brain all fired up with stress. All these chemicals called hormones get released in us and we are ready to fight or run away. Just like our ancestors long ago when faced with a mountain lion! The author calls this our Red Mind. When our brain acts that way it can help us get out of immediate danger. But let’s face it, most of the time we’re not stressed about a mountain line. We’re stressed about traffic or a church argument or our jobs or difficult homework or our pesky little brother. The problem with being in Red Brain Mode is that it can get pretty exhausting and we often don’t make good decisions about what to do next.

The author says we need a lot of time in Blue Brain mode, and water is just the thing to help us. Jesus spoke of himself as “living water” – what is the connection here? It seems that part of how our brains have developed over the years to solve big problems and be really creative has been because of our contact with water. And that water may be the most important thing in nature that helps us stay connected to the natural world. Water has long been a symbol in many world religions for a source of blessing, for the presence of the divine. Jesus seemed to understand this intuitively, and he uses this festival ritual of pouring water on the altar as an opportunity to talk about God’s presence pouring into us…and pouring out to others.

Water can sometimes be scary—crashing wave knocks you over, pool water goes up your nose. The waters of a flood or storm can be dangerous. But brain scientists are reminding us that we need a number of things from water besides drinking it: Why is the ocean so beautiful to look at on a sunny day? We need to see the color blue of water because they have found looking at blue soothes us and inspires confidence. Why do I sleep better if I hear a river rushing over rocks or the sounds of waves crashing on the shore? We need to hear water as it moves rhythmically, because this moves our brain into a relaxed state. Watching fish swim in an aquarium or fish bowl, watching sunlight dance on top of the water or along the bottom of a pool….Brain scientists say all of these experiences rest us, calm us, bring us an increase in our happiness and sense of well-being. I don’t know about you, but I make much better decisions when I feel rested and calm. If I’m paying attention, I also feel more open to God, not as tight and well defended as I struggle on my own to fix my life and those around me!

Jesus said that “out of the believer’s heart will flow streams of living water.”  He said out of your heart, your gut, the center of your being, will flow positive emotions and sustained attention. Maybe he meant if we lean into our partnership with him and his teachings, amazing things will flow into us and out of us. Love, respect, peacefulness. All the things our world needs more of.

Being near water, touching water, being in water is something most of do every day. How might we be more intentional about these connections? Indians from the Yakima Nation in Washington State live along the Columbia River, and have long known the power of water in their lives. When they wake up they take a sip of water. When they go to sleep at night that is that last thing they do: take another sip of water and say of prayer of thanks for this gift.

I have started to do this simple practice, morning and night. I take a sip of water and thank God for water. I imagine God pouring the spirit of the living Jesus Christ into my own heart center, and I imagine that living water flowing out in love and compassion to others. A small sip here. A small sip there. Maybe you would like to try that as a daily practice with spiritual intent. What other simple water rituals might become part of something you do each day and affirm the presence of this “living water” of God’s spirit in your life? Are there paintings or photographs on your walls at home of water, the ocean, lakes or rivers? Bless yourself with water as you wash in the morning or before bed. Turn on the tap and feel the rush over your hands. Imagine God’s loving spirit pouring living waters into your heart, you pouring living waters of hope and love out to others.

Out of our hearts, out of our very centers, shall flow rivers of living water! May it be so. Amen.