Root from Dry Ground – Kiara Jorgenson reflects on the themes of water in the Holy Week texts.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Years A, B, and C
Exodus 12:1-4 [5-10], 11-14
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
In, with, and under—those are the prepositions we Lutherans use to describe the sacramental. God’s presence is in, with, and under the elements—the Lamb of Exodus 12, the wine and bread of 1 Corinthians 11, and the water of John 13. The presence of God is sacred, of course, but per the Greek concept itself, μυστήριον, the sacraments are also a mystery.
When teaching and preaching on the Sacraments we often focus on the mystery of Christ’s presence, the historical, ever-relevant theological debate surrounding finitum non capax infiniti, namely, whether the finite is capable of bearing the infinite. Indeed, those of us preparing students to take their first communion on Maundy Thursday have likely addressed this in some way or another. What, we may rhetorically ask as of such 8-year olds, is actually happening when you take the bread and drink of the juice?
However, in our efforts to understand how God shows Godself vis à vis finite means, we pay little attention to how the earthly, elemental things of life prove necessary in any and all quests to encounter God. Knowledge of God, limited though it may be, is always obtained through the embodied, the sensorial—the stuff of creation. In this sense, it isn’t so much that we Christians have respective theological doctrines such as creation and redemption (or to use the Apostle’s Creed as a model: 1st Article/2nd Article distinctions), but more so that all Christian theology is fundamentally earthbound and creaturely.
In Exodus 12 the Israelites require a lamb to participate in the enactment of God’s protection, just as they require the lamb in the perpetual observance of the Passover. The lamb is not merely a symbol, it is the means through which God is known. Likewise, the water of John 13 is integral to Christ’s model of sacrificial love for its clear symbolic connection to baptism and for its palpable role in preparing one to be spiritually washed. The necessity of water is emphasized in Christ’s own anointing in John 12, wherein He like all monarchs of the day must be cleaned by the elements prior to assuming his reign as King.
The lamb, the water, the bread, and the wine have an integrity of their own. They exist not for theological reasons, but in spite of them. And yet, human encounter of the Divine is dependent upon one’s relationship with earth, water, creature, fruit, and grain. Our very bodies are indeed porous; we breathe in the air around us, we drink the water available to us. The world inscribes itself in us. We hyper-dependent humans are therefore called to relationships of integrity, a matter that brings new light to the penitential nature of Maundy Thursday.
Elemental themes loom large in the Good Friday texts as well. As is well known, the Isaiah text explicitly links Christ to the lamb—the One afflicted by our infirmity and hence cut off from life. Harkening to the root of Jesse, Christ is also compared to a young plant that with utter resilience grows mightily in a dry and barren land. Lacking in majesty, this plant reveals life in hidden ways. Here again, the power of or powerful absence of water begs our attention.
The famous messianic psalm underscores this theme. The oppressed one is “poured out like water” its “mouth dried up like a potsherd,” tongue sticking to the jaws (Psalm 2214-15). And yet, as our present-day anthropocenic circumstances demonstrate, human bodies number a mere fraction of today’s oppressed bodies. To this end, what might it look like to read the subject of this psalm as Earth itself? Who then are the “dogs,” the gloating ones dividing and taking for one’s own?
The presence of water carries forth in the Hebrews text and Gospel reading, although in John its presence in these chapters seems to take on a different meaning. In his thirst Christ is not offered the pure water so mentioned by the author of Hebrews. Instead, he is offered sour wine, a far cry from the fine wine Jesus created of water at the wedding in Cana wherein his ministry commenced. And we are told that when pierced in the side water flowed with the blood, a sign that according to ancient physiology would have indicated imminent death. So, whereas earlier in the Gospel water flowing from the Christ’s belly indicated life (John 7:37-39), here it assures death. Had water alone flowed from Jesus’ abdomen, ancients would have perceived Christ to be “a blessed immortal,” not unlike the God’s of Alexander’s day (see Plutarch, Moralia 180E; 341B). But the presence of water with the blood paradoxically presents divine power through human death. Again, the elemental proves necessary in a true encounter with creaturely Christ.
And yet, the reality is that communities from high-consuming contexts like the U.S. continue to crucify the Earth, as well as many already-vulnerable human populations, with our insatiable greed, ignorance, and complacency. When it comes to water, we’ve been warned:
“By 2020, 180 million people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could be under water stressed conditions.” UN Water Fact Sheet
What might this reality mean for persons’ ongoing experience of God? We preachers must remember that well water and living water, matter and spirit (to use a less-than-helpful longstanding binary), are all part of the same flow. Water for living and living waters depend on one another inextricably. Hence, to lift high the themes of water in these Holy Week texts requires honest discussion on (or at least reference to) contemporary environmental realities and an opportunity to revisit the baptismal promises spoken over us, a willingness to reject sin and choose life.
Originally written by Kiara Jorgenson in 2018.