John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
A visitor from outer space would no doubt identify the distinguishing feature of the third rock from the Sun—in contrast to its planetary neighbors—as the presence of water. The iconic picture of Apollo 8, which orbited the moon fifty years ago last Christmas Eve (and movingly read from Genesis that night) was “Earthrise,” which showed a blue earth enveloped in water clouds shining over the barren, rocky, arid surface of the moon. Those who continue the mission of outer space exploration today work from the postulate that the places to look for extraterrestrial life would be the places water can be found.
What is true of the macrocosm is true of the microcosm. The human body is 50-75% water, with infants in the higher range. We know that a person can survive much longer without food than without water.
The most common element in the universe is hydrogen. The name’s etymology bespeaks its relationship to water: “hydro” (water) and “gen” (making, producing). Two hydrogen atoms exposed to oxygen make H²0, i.e., water.
Water also figures prominently in the Bible. The universe God first creates, according to Hebrew cosmology, is waterlogged and chaotic. God the Creator introduces order by “separating the waters above from the waters below” and causing dry land to appear.
When sin makes a mess of the world God created, God makes a new start through the waters of the Flood. It’s not accidental that virtually all cultures have a primordial flood story.
When the Hebrews flee Egyptian slavery, their journey to freedom leads them through the parted waters of the Red Sea. And when, slaked with thirst, the Israelites begin to distrust God and grumble against Him, it is “at the waters of Meribah that your fathers tempted me and tried me” – and where Moses gave them to drink from the rock which followed them. Finally, when the Exodus comes to an end, it concludes by crossing a river—Jordan—the boundary that marks the arrival in the Promised Land.
In Jordan the Syrian Naaman washes and is cleansed of leprosy, a Biblical image of sin. The account of Naaman also reminds us that it is God who chooses to associate His Power with certain waters: when Naaman objects that he should go to some rivulet in Israel when Syria had its own rivers and is prepared to abandon the whole project, those around him remind him that, if he was prepared to the extraordinary if the prophet commanded it, why disdain the ordinary? It’s not just the water, but Him whose Spirit gives that water power.
God’s cutting water off—as when the heavens are closed in consequence of David’s adultery/murder—is a threat to life itself. The same is true of the drought in the time of Elijah. On the other hand, the sign of Messianic glory and fruitfulness is Ezekiel’s vision of water flowing from the right side of the temple.
Against this Old Testament perspective, it is no surprise that Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding feast of Cana involves water turned into wine, wine and water being the “fountain of sacramental life in the Church,” the same combination that flows from the pierced Side of Christ.
And Jesus calls Himself the “living water,” the drinking of which he assures the Samaritan woman assuages thirst forever, alluding to the Old Testament’s image of “water springing up unto eternal life.”
So common, so ordinary and yet – as we saw on the recent Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord – so foundational to the sacramental life. Kind of like bread. The Lord likes to traffic in the ordinary and commonplace.
Yet water alone cannot do what Baptism is called to do. Only water and the Holy Spirit can do that. Which is why the whole Trinity is apparent in the theophany of Jesus’ Baptism: the Father’s Voice, the Son, and the Spirit in the form of a dove. And why Jesus commands His disciples to “baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
The celebration of the Baptism of the Lord (which, in the current Roman Calendar, brings the Christmas season to a close) reminds us of the sacramental life of the Church. God touches man in the ordinary: bread, wine, oil, water. It should be, then, no surprise, that the day after this feast relaunches “ordinary time.” Because it is in the ordinary warp and woof of living that God encounters us, and we encounter God.
Jesus’ Baptism differs from ours in that “He who was without sin” needed neither baptism nor conversion but, rather as the liturgy reminds us, instead makes the waters poured upon Him holy and life-giving by sending us His Spirit.
The Baptism of Our Lord should remind us that, while we sometimes look for bells and whistles in our relationship with God, we should not forget that our lives are reborn in the element most common both in this universe as well as in our own bodies. It is common, but it is precious. As any land that struggles to have adequate potable water knows. Or as the recording angel observes when noting that a glass of water given in His name will not be forgotten on the Day of Judgment, when we pray to be washed clean. Asperges me, Domine!