Water: the essential element
By Tim Brown
Blessed be the holy Trinity, one God, the fountain of living water, the rock who gave us birth, our light and our salvation
- “Thanksgiving for Baptism,” Evangelical Lutheran Book of Worship
I am a professional community builder.
I build community, but not around just any old thing. My mothers and fathers in the faith began this walk, building community around the person of Jesus, the God-made-flesh, who is the revelation of God’s mercy for a world in need of divine intervention.
Sure, there are other community builders out there. Organizers get out the vote, building people around a candidate and a process. Bowling enthusiasts dutifully call their bowling team the night before a game, keeping vigil over the potential victory awaiting them the next day.
They do not do what I do, although some of what I do involves getting people out in action and keeping vigil.
Instead, I follow my mothers and fathers of faith in gathering people around the God-made-flesh to find meaning in our being. In their wisdom, these mothers and fathers knew that they could not get people out in action or stand in vigil for hours on end with those expecting life or death without something to touch. Something to hold. Something enfleshing the God-made-flesh again.
So they latched themselves to elements spoken of in the Older and Newer Testaments: fire, bread, festive drink, dust. The fire of Pentecost fills us with the power of God. The bread of God is given to sustain us on the journey of life. Festive drink brings joy to our hearts, filling us with the joy of the Holy Spirit. Dust reminds us of our final resting place, of our true nature, and keeps us humble.
But there is, I think, no more important element that Christians use to enflesh the God-made-flesh than that of water.
We scarcely need to mention how our forebears came to see water as important for the Christian faith and life. Open the Scriptures, blindly land a finger, and you won’t have to travel much with that finger to find a water reference. God hovers over the water in Genesis, parts them in Exodus, instructs how to use water for purity in Leviticus, invites with water’s stillness in the Psalms. Water leads Jesus to ministry in Mark, is transformed into wine in John, provides firm footing for the Savior deep in the foggy night, and flows from his side on the cross.
We need not go on.
When I instruct my students studying the Catechism, I ask them why we use water in the sacrament of baptism instead of soda or whiskey. After initial smirks, they finally arrive at an answer that speaks to the sensibilities of our forebears: we need water to live. We can do without soda or whiskey; water is essential.
Indeed, Martin Luther channels this same spirit when speaking about what happens in baptism. It is not “water alone, but water mixed with the promises of God,” that are active in baptism.
Water is essential to life, and God’s essential promise to those in the water of the font is life.
It is not just that our ancient mothers and fathers of faith lived on the sea. It is not just that they required water for sustenance. They made a direct, real connection between the water which gave them hydration and the God who gives them salvation.
Both are life-givers.
What better element to incorporate in Christian life and practice?
And so when these ancient community builders gathered around bodies of water, they were in fact gathering around a primal symbol of God’s salvation. Long before the cross, our forebears adopted the fish as their sign. The cross speaks God’s absurd word of life even in death; this is true. But the fish spoke that same word in a different fashion: in the waters of baptism we live, not die!
And that’s important to remember, too.
Because just as water gives life, water also gives death. Need we speak of the great flood in Genesis or the waves crashing down on the Egyptians in Exodus? The water-soaked altar being caught up in holy fire in 1 Kings, or the raging storm of the Gospels that was quieted only by the God-made-flesh found asleep at the rudder?
In this way, too, our ancient mothers and fathers knew water is a choice element. It gives life; it takes life. “The Lord giveth; the Lord taketh away,” as the weary Job exclaims.
In some ancient iconography, the baptism of Jesus is depicted as if he is being immersed in a watery grave, the waves making almost a shroud around his body, swirling as if they are strips of cloth. In this way we come to understand that God’s work in Jesus is redeeming even this element of creation as well, making the watery grave the resting place of salvation’s seed.
When we baptize in full immersion we tempt fate in this way. Holding the adult or child under for too long will surely cause death. Yet at the invocation of God’s name they are sprung up gasping for air, blinking newly washed eyes. The waters have now become spiritual amniotic fluid, birthing them into a new life where they find they are not dead, but most truly alive in the God who promises life, even in a dangerous world that surrounds us with the possibility of death.
The poet Hilda Doolittle reminds us of the danger of love, a love that is surely maximized in the largeness of God:
Yet to sing love,
Love must first shatter us.”
Water, as an element enfleshing the embodied God, speaks to God’s dangerous, shattering love. We need it, and yet it can crush us with its weight. Indeed, it must crush us sometimes, as John the Baptizer reminds us. The remission of sin comes when we acknowledge there are parts of us that need to be shattered so that God can flow into the emptiness that sin leaves in us.
This is the understanding of Jesus as being the font we, in fact, long for. Like the woman at the well, we seek living water that will never run out, that will be ultimately sustaining. We long not to have to draw from those things the world identifies as “water,” as sustaining: power, greed, fame, fortune. These do not satisfy.
But those unsatisfying dangers are crushed by the dangerous water of the font. The early Christians knew this. The Christian liturgy’s wisdom is this wisdom. We build community with such wisdom in mind.
I’m a professional community builder, but not around any old thing. We build community around the Word of God, the living font, and the water that holds the miracle of life we find suitable to embody the miracle of salvation as well.
So we pray together,
Pour on us, O Lord, the spirit of love and kindness; so that, sprinkled with the dew of thy benediction, we may be made glad by thy glory and grace; through Christ our Lord. 
The Reverend Tim Brown is the pastor of Luther Memorial Church of Chicago, a growing congregation in the Lincoln Square neighborhood. He is a graduate of Valparaiso University (B.A. Theology, M.Ed), and the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. His interests include ancient mysticism, metaphysics, the interface between belief and doubt, and storytelling. He is a firm believer that the church needs to rediscover the ancient spirituality of the first church if it is going to survive this era. You can read sermons at endlessfalling.wordpress.com, and other musings on the interface between belief and doubt at reluctantxtian.wordpress.com.
 Luther, Martin. Luther’s Small Catechism. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2008)
 Doolitte, Hilda, H.D.: Collected Poems 1912-1944. (New York: New Direction Publishing 1982)
 The Hodder Book of Christian Prayers, ed. Tony Castle. (London: Hodder and Stoughton Limited 1986)
Covalence, February 2013