Watersheds and Salvation

Third Sunday in Advent



Exodus 17:1-7

Psalm 95

Romans 5:1-11

John 4:5-32


The river is as far as I can move

from the world of numbers…

            –Jim Harrison,“The Theory and Practice of Rivers”


In the introduction to Watershed Discipleship (Cascade, 2016), Ched Myers asserts that “Since the time of Constantine, a functional docetism has numbed Christians to the escalating horrors of both social and ecological violence, because spiritual or doctrinal matters always trump terrestrial or somatic ones. If it is assumed that salvation happens outside or beyond creation, it will be pillaged accordingly.” It’s abundantly clear that the pillaging Myers writes about has inflicted extensive, irreparable damage to the earth, and equally clear that we Christians have been as culpable as anyone in this inflicting, and not incidentally because of the pervasive bad theology to which Myers alludes.

A careful consideration of three of this week’s lectionary texts—each of which has something to say about water—offers us a bit of perspective with regard to these matters, for each has to do with God’s and our respective—and quite different—relationships to material Creation in the economy of salvation. If we grant, as I believe we must, that material Creation is the theater, the medium, and the object of God’s saving work—which is to say that salvation transpires in and through Creation, and that all Creation is being saved, restored by God to its original Shalōm—then we must acknowledge God’s sovereignty in the economy of that salvation. More to the point, we must confront our failures to trust the sufficiency of that sovereignty, and the ways those failures of trust have led us both actively to participate in the pillaging of Creation and to be indifferent to the pillaging wrought by others because we can’t imagine it has much to do with God.

The first reading, from Exodus, recounts a familiar story from Israel’s wilderness sojourn from Egypt to Canaan. A biblical scholar with a sense of humor might refer to these stories as the “complaining cycle.” No sooner had the Israelites stopped celebrating God’s victory of pharaoh’s army and turned their backs on the corpse-strewn shore of the Red Sea than they began to complain, ostensibly to and about Moses, but in fact, as Moses points out, against the LORD, whom Moses represents. Their complaining invariably focused on sustenance—whether this strange, wild, God who parted the sea could be trusted to sustain them through such an arduous journey. Less than two months into the sojourn, even after having seen bitter water sweetened, the ground of their camp covered with quail, and bread rained down from above, the Israelites continued their nervous grouching, still unable or unwilling to rest in gratitude for what they had received, or wonder expectantly what new gifts the LORD might have for them in days to come.

The grouching came to yet another head when the Israelites camped at Rephidim, where there was no potable water. Their refrain was familiar: “Why,” they demanded of Moses, “did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst? Fearing an uprising, Moses consulted God, who instructed him to take his staff and walk with the elders of Israel up the trail until they reached a rock at Horeb, where God would be waiting. “Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did as he was told, the people and their livestock drank their fill, and the complaining abated, at least for the time being.

The near-ebullient praise at the beginning of Psalm 95 represents a sharp contrast to the Israelites’ wilderness muttering. The Psalmist’s praise of God is framed by a declaration of God’s sovereignty over Creation: “In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also/The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed/O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!” The Psalm’s punch, though, comes from the subsequent lines, which contrast the grateful worship of God as maker of heaven and earth with the Israelites’ behavior at Massah and Meribah, the setting of our story from Exodus. The Psalmist rightly identifies that incident as an example of the unbelief that is so frequently a prelude to our taking things into our own hands, an idolization of the self that tends to see and treat everyone and everything as raw material for the gratification of our desire.

The third movement of the lectionary, from the Gospel according to John, is even more familiar than the one from Exodus—the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well at Sychar. The fourth gospel has long been “spiritualized” in ways that place it in service to the “functional docetism” Ched Myers says is at the root of Christian complicity in the ecological crisis; material Creation is of at best secondary importance, for it is transient, destined for destruction. In the meantime, why shouldn’t we take from it whatever we can to make our lives less unpleasant?

But such sentiments are rooted in terrible misreadings of scripture, with the Johannine literature being a case in point. To be sure, the spirituality of John’s gospel is rich and deep, but it and the rest of the Johannine corpus is far from docetic or otherworldly. From the declaration in the prologue of the gospel that “the word became flesh and dwelt among us,” to the assurance by the author of 1 John that he or she was among those who had not just seen and heard, but physically handled the incarnate word, the Johannine writings affirm the essential goodness and the unfolding holiness of Creation.

As numerous scholars have shown, John’s spirituality is deeply sacramental. So when Jesus tells the Samaritan woman about a different kind of water, one that “will become… a spring of water gushing up to eternal life,” he is not speaking of water as mere metaphor, some ethereal stuff of private mystical experience, but rather alluding to the water of baptism, the sacrament of the new birth. While this water is certainly different, and by God’s grace more than the water in Jacob’s well, it is still water, drawn from particular wells and streams in particular watersheds, all of which are part of the beloved Creation God is at work saving.

Just so, these texts suggest that if the ekklesίa of God is to fulfill its vocation of being a partial and imperfect embodiment of God’s coming peaceable kingdom, we must live peaceably as members of Creation, using the earth and its gifts well, trusting that the God of all Creation will, in the words of Saint Paul, “fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” Such trust is the basis for our living gently, generously, and gratefully. Thanks be to God. 

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