A COMMUNITY OF RADICAL HOSPITALITY
The Plasticity of Water
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. Robert D. Flanagan for the
Baptism of Our Lord, Year C, Luke 3:15-17; 21-22, at St Thomas Church Amenia, NY.
“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”
Whenever I am about to baptize a baby, I invite the children in the congregation forward to witness it better. If the font is tall and made of stone, they invariably grab hold of its edge and pull themselves up to peer in it. If they can, they will dangle their fingers over the edge to touch the water gently. They will often look to me for approval. Who couldn’t meet such faces with a smile? Children have a natural curiosity about baptism. Why is that?
Do the children perhaps remember their infant baptism vaguely and want to fill in the details? Not likely, given the cognitive abilities of an infant. They may instead be wondering about this person in the fancy, white clothing who is holding the baby. They might think that this old guy can’t possibly pull off pouring water on a baby’s head without something going wrong, and maybe they want a front row seat. (Again, that’s not likely. I’m a trained professional with dozens of successful baptisms under my belt.)
Perhaps, instead, they’re drawn forward because of the mystery of the sacrament. In baptism, we recall our theological and mystical relationship with water. We hear of the Holy Spirit’s movement over water before anything else existed, the freedom it brought to the Israelites, and, as we heard this morning, Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan River. We recall the Pauline theology of death and rebirth to a new life in Christ by the Holy Spirit. When they hear these words and watch the priest sanctify the water, children may seek to catch a glimpse of the mystical moment of cleansing from sin and of birth into the household of God.
While their curiosity may reside in the mysterium sacramentum of baptism, more likely they come forward to witness the mystery of water. Water may seem magical—but it is much more. Water is essential, and is also sacred. We know this from our very conception.
We began in our mothers’ wombs surrounded by water, as the fetus grew in a mixture of nutrients and water. When her water breaks, a mother knows it is the sign of her baby’s imminent arrival. Some women these days give birth in baths filled with warm water. Throughout our lives, water continues to matter. Scientists report that children’s bodies are 75 percent water, adults’ are 60 percent, and the elderly’s are 50 percent. Without drinking water, we can live only three days.
In biblical story after story, water is central. It is the flood that destroys the sinful world and its vapor that makes the rainbow of promise possible. Rivers separate people from freedom, and crossing them herald their arrival into new lands. Jonah flees from God across the water, only to dwell in the bowels of a whale in the deep. In the Song of Songs, the living waters of the garden’s fountain help describe a lover’s beauty, and in the Revelation of John’s last chapter an angel witnesses “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb.”
In the first sentence of the Bible, we discover water’s true sacredness and realize that the universe’s beginning may not have been creatio ex nihilo. In the opening sentences of Genesis, we read, “A wind from God swept the face of the waters.” Many scholars understand the “formless void,” “the
face of the deep,” and “the waters” to be synonymous with chaos. In the beginning, therefore, God’s acts of creation overcame chaos, overcame the water, and created order throughout all of creation.
But we can go further. God spoke to the waters of chaos, and goodness emerged. God created the universe out of the formless void of the waters that were so deep that they were measureless. From the boundless chaos, the universe and world emerged.
But water can return to chaos—not just in the tempest but in the spring. Water comes forth as it wants. We can channel it for our purposes, hoping it will not leap its banks and destroy our lives. In Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology, Gordon Lathrop writes, “Since ancient times, a spring or well has been regarded as a sacred place, a mysterious source of life beyond our supplying.” I’m reminded of a large lake near my home that is mostly fed by two giant springs that cause disruptions to the lake’s surface, boiling and bubbling all year from an unseen source. Lathrop concludes, “All water is sacred, flowing from beyond here.” Perhaps the children come to the font because they recognize the water’s mystery. Look and see how the priest, working on God’s behalf, can control the waters of chaos and harness it for good. Without controlling water, we cannot baptize.
And yet much of our water today is full of plastic. After its creation in the nineteenth century, plastic has today invaded our lives just as the frogs, flies, and locusts plagued the Egyptians. Plastics pile upon our shores like modern flotsam, jetsam, and lagan. Those bottles, bags, and bits don’t decay. The tumult of waves does not destroy the plastics, but they continue to bob about the water. A WebMD article reports that “microplastics or tiny pieces of plastic” have been found in 93 percent of water bottles. Worse, “tiny polymer fibers” have “turned up in more than 80 percent of tap water samples collected worldwide.”
The plastic found in so much of our water begs two questions. What effect does it have on us? The answer will come from science. But we must also ask ourselves, how does plastic impact the sacredness of water? We cannot deny the benefits of plastic, but we also have to recognize its costs. The purity of water matters both to our bodies and to our souls.
In the Book of Her Life, Teresa of Avila writes:
The soul is like water in a glass. The water looks very clear if the sun doesn’t shine on it, but when the sun shines on it, it seems to be full of dust particles....But once [the soul] is brought into prayer, which this Sun of justice bestows on it and opens its eyes, it sees so many dust particles that it would want to close its eyes again.
Our eyes are being opened to the plasticity of water. It can, indeed, be molded through symbols and story to represent the sacredness of God. Water can also make God’s presence real. After Jesus received his baptism in the Jordan River, he was in a sacred place of divine connection. The Holy Spirit descended, and God spoke to him, becoming both real and present. Through our baptism we were brought into God’s presence, and each time we witness one that sacred connection is reaffirmed. The sacredness of water, however, may be diminished by the presence of plastic, which may become the dust particles that spoil the purity of our soul.
We must not close our eyes to the costs of plastic. We must not sit idly and allow us to have our baptismal rite to be fouled by plastic. How cleansed from sin are we if the water we sanctify is full of plastic? We must therefore hold those who manufacture plastic to a higher standard. We must expect our communities to do the same and hold that same bar and demand proper recycling. We must also hold ourselves accountable and make sure that we ourselves handle plastics with care.
Achtemeier, Paul J., gen. ed. The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996.
Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church. New York: Seabury Press, 1979.
Kavanaugh, Kieran and Otilio Rodriguez, trans. The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila. Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1987.
Lathrop, Gordon W. Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998.
Mitchell, H. H., T. S. Hamilton, F. R. Steggerda, and H. W. Bean. “The Chemical Composition of the Adult Human Body and Its Bearing on the Biochemistry of Growth.” Journal of Biological Chemistry 158 (1945):625–637.
Smith, Matt. “Expert: Tiny Pieces of Plastic Are in Everything, Including, Maybe, You.” WebMD Interviews (September 2017), https://blogs.webmd.com/webmd-interviews/2017/09/expert-tiny-pieces- of-plastic-are-in-everything-including-maybe-you.html (accessed June 14, 2018).