Cross-posted from Rougher Places …
Reading today’s texts — Psalm 42 with its imagery of a deer longing for flowing streams, and then Ezekiel’s vision of healing waters flowing from the temple, growing from a trickle to a flood — I can’t help but think about water. What else would a desert people choose as the symbol of their need for God’s abundance and love?
At which point the DJ in my head readily supplied Mark Knopfler’s soulful moan, “Yes I need a little water of love ….”
High and dry in the long hot day
Lost and lonely in every way
Got the flats all around me sky up above
I need a little water of love
I’ve been too long lonely and my heart feels pain
Crying out for some soothing rain
I believe I have taken enough
I need a little water of love
Water of love deep in the ground
No water here to be found
Some day baby when the river runs free
It’ll carry that water of love to me ….
Ezekiel could’ve rocked that tune … the psalmist, too, if she’d only had a Stratocaster.
Ezekiel’s vision comes at the end of the book by his name in the Hebrew Bible; led by a holy guide, Ezekiel sees a thin stream of water trickling out from under the threshold of the temple, as if from a spring. It continues to flow away to the east, eventually becoming a mighty river pouring into the Dead Sea, enlivening the desert along the way. The fresh, healing water from the temple brings the Dead Sea to life, although marshy edges are allowed to remain salty, since salt, too, is necessary for life. The banks of the river are lined with trees that bear fruit every month, and even their leaves have healing power. The water is alive with fish, and people gather on the eastern and western shores with their nets.
Ezekiel’s vision of an abundant future seems encompassing, but this river only flows through Israel. Ezekiel can only see as far as the making-whole of his own people, although this is challenge enough. Israel has been defeated by the Babylonians, and he is among those carried off into exile. Accustomed to a hilly homeland and Jerusalem’s mild climate, the exiles are stuck in Babylonia’s hot, flat bottomlands. No wonder Ezekiel dreams of an abundant river.
Just as Ezekiel’s visions of the future are full of the waters of life, so too are the psalmist’s recollections of life before exile, when she went with the crowd to the house of God, a shouting, singing festival on foot. Entering into the presence of God fed her soul, in ways she cannot forget. The sense of being lost in God is like being awash in a waterfall.
In the Tanakh, the psalm reads “I think of You in this land of Jordan and Hermon, in Mount Mizar ….” This give us some clues; the author might be in Aram (Syria), near the Hermon mountain range (whose snow-melt creates the headwaters of the Jordan river), within sight of a peak named Mt. Mizar. Perhaps it is someone taken captive from Israel in the Israel-Aramean conflicts, longing for home, for the presence of God she experienced in that place.
The depth of the poetry in the psalm becomes more clear in the Hebrew; the word used for “soul” is nephesh, which can refer to the human throat — where we consume what sustains us, and where we speak and sing — and which also refers to that aspect of a human being that seeks and yearns spiritually. In this word, we see an understanding of a human as being an inextricably embodied soul, not having a soul. And all of that holistic being is thirsty to be awash again in the waters of love.
The imagery she chooses to portray her longing is so clear it has been drawn upon repeatedly through the centuries, and reflected in Jewish and Christian traditions: water = God’s presence and love = necessities for life.
The Jewish mikveh, a bath for ritual cleanliness or conversion, requires flowing — or living — water. Christian baptism, too, calls for either full immersion or generous amounts of water poured over the one baptized into new life in Christ. Traditionally, the newly baptized were dressed in clean, never-worn garments, symbolizing their new lives.
Water is important even in death; a recent story in the New York Times spoke of a return to traditional burial practices among Jews; the article quotes Rabbi Sandler-Phillips, who says, “What we do with the body at the end of life is very much like what we do with a child when it is born,” she said. “We wash it carefully, we wrap it in clean swaddling, and we watch it around the clock.”
Clean swaddling. The words ring a bell. Here we are again, days away from the birth of a child who will be washed clean, swaddled, and watched, by his mother and father, by rough shepherds, by angels seen and unseen, and by a God who gave of Godself to create this life, as with all life.
Remembering the salty ocean of my childhood, washing up on the beaches of South Padre Island. Remembering the white robe of my baptism, with weights sewn in the hem to keep it from floating up around my face when I went under. Remembering skinny dipping in a lake outside Austin, warm waters of midnight creeping into every crevice of my body, holding me as I floated under moonlight. Remembering a cold November lake outside Dallas, Texas, where my co-pastor and I baptized a young man, taller and bigger than the two of us, wild mane of black hair dripping as we pulled him out of the cold waves, the three of us staggering back up to dry land, singing. Remembering this spring, when I stepped out of my clothes into a spring rain, letting the steady fall of drops — living water — wash clean the grief of my mother’s passing.
Water has become easy, for some of us. It flows out of a spigot. I don’t remember often enough how hard it is to come by, for many. How can something so necessary be scarce? Because we let it be so. And that makes it still an apt sign of God. Let us be more imaginative than Ezekiel — let us imagine and ensure water enough for everyone, in all places: the clean water our bodies need, the living water our souls need.
Living water. That water of love is always available to us … and we will die of thirst if we forget to drink.
In the long flat road of Advent, let’s remember to ask for the living water, and to drink deeply.