Sunday, 11 January 2015

The Ordinariness of Water

It's boring enough, is water. A simple molecules - one Oxygen, two Hydrogen. Not one of those complex long organic molecules I used to have to try and work out the structures of, when I was an undergraduate in the Dyson Perrins or Inorganic Chemistry labs.

And those of us on a lush green island in the path of the Gulf Stream on the edge of the Atlantic take water - even safe drinking water - for granted. It literally falls out of the sky, half the time. If you were in the Somerset Levels last winter, it lay across farmland as if it owned the place. Which, in a way, it does. Because the Levels have been brought into their current state by engineering and a need for dry land. The Isle of Glastonbury - like its holy Eastern cousin, the Isle of Ely - gets its longer name from the fact that it was just that - an isle - in the middle of shallow waters and swamps. And when, after two years of drought, our water companies tell us that the water's running out, we have learnt to assume that they're scare mongering. That it won't be ten minutes till the stuff is falling out the sky in bucket loads again. It's dead ordinary, is water.

And yet. It's powerful stuff. Although the molecule is simple, when it's in ice or even liquid form there's an immense power in the bonding between nearby molecules. When you freeze water, it expands - it takes up more space. We tested this, long and merry enough now, during a school performance of "War of the Worlds". We needed dry ice for the special effects and, having some beer handy and fancying a cold one after the show - for we weren't a very well-behaved bunch of six formers - we put our cans of beer into a bucket of dry ice.

For those backstage, attention was taken off the performance by the sound of what could best be described as screaming. When the backstage hands peered into the bucket of dry ice - looking through the Dr Who-special-effect clouds of mist that were hovering about - they discovered that the cans of beer were bigger than when they'd put them in. And the quiet screaming we'd heard was the metal stretching as the water - for beer, even our local beer made by Mr Wells is nearly all water - expanded as it froze into ice. This is unusual behaviour - most liquids contract when they freeze - made possible because the great polarity of water means it hydrogen-bonds into a rigid, open lattice structure with more space in it than the liquid version. And cooling your beer in it is also unusual behaviour, seen mostly by sixth formers, and should not be attempted at home. Or during productions of rock musicals.

Water is a fantastic solvent of ionic chemicals. Especially salts. Which makes it a brilliant component of - for example - plants, as the water taken up by the roots contains the essential elements needed for the plants' operation. It also means that the sea is a pond of floating nutrients - which, given the right starting point of, for example, a load of lightning, it was the perfect medium for life on Earth to kick off. Which is why one of the big questions that astronomers trying to justify their usefulness will ask, when discovering an exoplanet, is "what state will water be on it?" 

Water in bulk is a moody thing. A still sea or lake is beautiful. Reflections off the sky can be wonderful. But a storm at sea is terrifying - water is heavy, and can be fast-moving.

In a hot country far from the sea, its value is really above diamonds. Because you can't live on diamonds. In an increasingly crowded world, it's already a flashpoint and a point of argument between countries. Its use is a sign of discrepancies in wealth and power. The Dead Sea is dropping by 3 feet a year due to extraction of water by the countries upstream. And the need for water from the Jordan is a source of friction as Israel's irrigated land has increased tenfold since the 2nd World War.

And so maybe it's not so commonplace, so boring. It's the life-giver - the womb of life. No wonder our ancestors venerated those places where water literally sprang out of the earth - saw spirits in fountains, springs, wells and rivers. 

And so Jesus, at the start of a long ministry in a dry and dusty land, goes down to the Jordan. And down there is a man who is returning Israel to its roots. Calling the people of Judah out from their day jobs, from their everyday lives of dealing with Roman bureaucracy and trying to earn enough to eat, and join him - like Moses and Noah before them - in celebrating the cleansing and life-giving and sacred powers of water. 

John doesn't like it - "I need to be baptised by you, and yet you're here to be baptised by me? You've got no sin plastered on you with the dust from the road and the river bank. You don't need to repent. You don't need washing."

But Jesus tells him - get on with it. It's the right thing to do.

And so the Word that was spoken over the water in creation, enters the water. The one in whom is the life of men, goes into the medium through which he created it. The thing that was meant to make all the other people down there on that riverbank holy - it has its holiness affirmed and is brought to the holiness it's always possessed, by the presence of the one that made it.

The one who made everything - who sustains everything, the one in whom we live and move and have our being - is made of ordinary flesh, is washed with ordinary water, eats ordinary bread and ordinary wine. And in doing that, he reminds us and lifts our heads up to look and sea - this whole creation, the light of the stars and the solidity of the earth and the sparkle of water - they all shine with the glory of the Creator. And if we can't see it now, in a place that is fallen and grubby and where nothing - human bodies, machines, political systems - work quite right, yet when the creator enters the world, it's on its  way up.

In the meantime, we have to take it for granted, and use the ordinary/holy things around us in the service of the God who came into our ordinary world to show how special it is. We can use the ordinary gifts we have - bread and water and our time - to serve the ordinary people, who are made in God's image, with whom we share the world. Nobody is beyond our help - nobody deserves our contempt. Because God came to share the image God had created in us. God is in the ordinary - The Word became flesh, was made of ordinary stuff like us.


  1. Splendid Archdruid, splendid.

  2. Beautifully refreshing....and so clear.....feel washed by this .! Thank you .

  3. "Nobody is beyond our help - nobody deserves our contempt." A demanding principle to live by, especially just now.


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