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Water as a sacrament

Water as Sacrament:
The Samaritan Woman reflects on Liturgy and Justice
Nordisk klimat- og kvinnokonferens, Uppsala, Sverige
Jan. 30-31 2009

Sigríður Guðmarsdóttir

There are at least two hours until sunrise and I try to shake the chill off my bones. On this dark winter morning I am going to start writing my lecture for an Uppsala conference on Water as Sacrament. I walk to the church as fast as I can, and while I try to collect my thoughts on water into intelligent patterns of words, water is trickling down my neck and making me shiver. The constant oscillations of heat and frost have transformed water from a cozy, white mass into transparent, lubricious layers of ice. I am cold and am greatly relieved when I manage to open the door and squeeze myself into the church.
My church was dedicated only a month ago. After years of waiting, preparing and working in a parish without housing, it gives me a special pleasure to open the doors in the morning to a beautiful sanctuary. My church is a church of water. It is framed by two secluded gardens east and west of the navis, and each garden is endowed with a pool of clear, running water. The garden to the west is a place to walk into, to hear the quiet sound of flowing water, to touch its cool and elusive formlessness, to smell and see sacred nature. The other garden is situated to east of the altar and serves as a three-dimensional dynamic altarpiece, a place of seeing but not touching, tasting or smelling. The garden gives the altarspace an increased sense of depth. A large cross is situated in the midst of a pool, which water flows from into an even larger pool. The wind is fierce today and when I look to the east I see the pool constantly moving in its liquid choreography. Its powerful surge pushes and pulls the water as it were icy flames licking the surface. The waves fill me with strange exhilaration and peaceful tranquility, where paradoxically stillness and movement flow together. I remember an ancient Icelandic rhyme which my mother-in-law, Helga Svana Ólafsdóttir once recited to me.

Whenever your soul is sad and wee,
when trust and peace is broken:
Sit by the fire, walk by the sea.
The wise woman has spoken.

The wise woman in the rhyme argues that contemplating fire and water is good for the soul. Fire and water are constantly moving, yet their movements consist of endless repetition, of recognition, of familiar patterns of waves, rising --- falling--- over and over again.
While I watch the waves whirling in the garden I remember another wise woman, the Samaritan who came to the well, where Jesus was sitting according to John 4.

The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)
Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” (John. 4:9-15)

I remember the first time I read this story, how funny it felt and how stupid the Samaritan woman sounded. Jesus promises to give her living water, but the woman misunderstands, she is occupied with physicality, wells, thirst, buckets and the daily labor of drawing water instead of thinking about eternity. However, lately I have begun to wonder if the Samaritan woman does not show a rare sense of wisdom, earth and water wisdom, which comes from hard labor and being attentive to the elements, from sitting by the fire and walking by the sea. I wonder if she listened to the well and if the constant movement of water was important to her.
During the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, Jesus speaks about spiritual thirst which the woman takes to mean literal thirst. Biblical theologian Stephen D. Moore observes: „Two kinds of water, literal, and figurative, slosh around in the Samaritan woman´s head, it would seem, mingling where they should not.“
Why is it important to emphasize the watery aspect of the sacrament, to “slosh around” the literal and the figurative? What has plain water to do with the holy? Why is it important for a Christian practice to worship in houses with water present, to walk by the sea, whenever our souls are sad and wee? In this paper I want to exlore in four steps the theological implications of viewing water as sacrament, from my standpoint as a ecofeminist theologian. First, I want to explore the relationship between religious words and the elements of nature, by pondering the theology of systematic theologian Paul Tillich as demonstrated in his early article „Nature and Sacrament“ from 1929, where Tillich reflects on the importance of affirming the actual relationship between water and word in the sacrament of baptism. Tillich´s approach leads me to thinking about the overabundance and scarcity of water in the ecological struggles of contemporary life. And finally I want to examine about the gender implications of emphasizing the sacramentality of water in its literal as well as figurative form.

Tillich and the Sacrament of Water

Eighty years ago, Tillich looked at different Protestant attitudes to the sacraments in his article „Nature and Sacrament“. Martin Luther had asserted in his Catechism that baptism is „not just simply water, but it is water used by God's command and connected with God's Word.” Luther asks the question how plain water can be the vehicle of salvation and answers his own question: “It is certainly not the water that does such things, but God's Word which is in and with the water, and faith which trusts this Word used with the water. For without God's Word the water is just simply water and not baptism. But with this Word it is baptism, that is, a gracious water of life and a washing of rebirth by the Holy Spirit.” Having cited Luther on the Word of God and “simply water” as the ingredients of baptism, Tillich then asks whether water is necessary to the sacrament of baptism or accidental. Tillich distinguishes between three kinds of Protestant responses to the relationship between nature and the sacred as expressed in the sacraments.

The first one is an interpretation of baptism which is “symbolic-metaphorical”. According to Tillich, the metaphorical attitude towards baptism views water as helpful picturing of purification and initiation, “a visible representation of the idea of baptism”. However, water in this sense would not be a necessary element to baptism. The relationship is analogical, there are resemblances, but other images and elements could serve as helpful means of expressing the sacrament as well. Tillich points to other practices of initiation in world religions that do not require water, such as walking through fire or entering a cave.

The second approach to the relationship between water and the sacrament of baptism is what Tillich calls “the ritualistic approach.” The ritualistic approach to water as sacrament views the relationship between water and baptism as arbitrary; there is no obvious relationship between water and the sacrament. Rather it is the baptismal formula read during the ritual, which makes water sacral: “Go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit...”

The third approach is what Tillich calls “the realistic approach.” By realistic he is not meaning, “reasonable” or “sensible.” Rather the terminology comes from medieval philosophy, where realism had to do with the relationship between things and the real, the world of universal ideas, which Christianity inherited from Platonism. The antonym to “realistic” in this medieval sense is not “irrational” or “unrealistic”, but rather “nominalistic.” Nominalism claimed meaning that things are just what they are named, hence the Latin nomen which means “name”. The nominalistic approach to water would therefore be that water is just water, that there is no universal “waterness” inherent to water. Tillich´s third way, the realistic way, is therefore claiming that there is something about water, some waterness, some aspect of liquidity, which is absolutely indispensable to the sacrament of baptism. If Luther argued that the water in baptism was only “simply water”, Tillich wants to probe this plainness further. Tillich maintains that the sacrament of water recaptures an ancient view of nature, in which nature is neither objectified nor abjected. Tillich argues that when the natural element of water is brought into a relation with historical salvation in Christ, it becomes the bearer of sacral power, the symbol of divine presence bubbling in water.

Instead of discussing nature as fallen and the opposite of the supernatural, Tillich contrasts nature with spirit, history and freedom. Following Tillich´s argument of water as sacrament, one might say that water stands in the same connection to the sacramental as nature in relation to the sacred. Tillich argues that if water is not indispensable as an element of a sacrament, nature would be bereft of its power. Thus instead of viewing the sacred and nature as opposites, nature for Tillich has the possibility of being infused by the sacred. The waterness of water helps to emphasize that the natural and the supernatural are not two entities standing in metaphysical opposition. As feminist theologian Sallie McFague claims in her witty titular pun, the supernatural should be seen as the super, natural, or the superbly natural. The supernatural, which is super,natural does live far away in its detached transcendental reality, but is embedded in nature.

Tillich writes:
If nature is interpreted in this realistic, and, at the same time, historical way, natural objects can become bearers of transcendent power and meaning, they can become sacramental elements…Nature is not the enemy of salvation; it does not have to be controlled in scientific, technical and moral terms or to be deprived of any inherent power, in order to serve the “Kingdom of God,” as Calvinistic thinking is inclined to believe; rather, nature is a bearer and an object of salvation. This is the basis for a Protestant rediscovery of the sacramental sphere.

Why would it be important to view water as a sacred element? Would viewing water as sacrament assist us in emphasizing the preciousness of water and, indeed nature?

Liturgies of justice

A new day has risen and I am once again in the church writing my paper on water as sacrament. The weather is cool and quiet and when I walk into the sanctuary I see the birds sitting on the garden wall. I halt near the entrance of the navis where the baptismal font is situated. It took me a while to negotiate the location of the font. People felt that I was downgrading baptism by pushing it away from the altar and into the sphere of the assembly, into the everyday life. But the unusual location of the font has been accepted, the font has become a focal point in its own right for the assembly to gather around and receive. The children like to do the sign of the cross by invisible, watery ink on their foreheads, as they walk into the church and the youngest ones like to drink from it as well.
I stick my hand into the cool, clear liquid, which refreshes my skin and meditate on the need for water, “simply water” as a rite for initiation and daily conversion. With Tillich, I want to affirm the necessary relationship between water and sacrament for a praxis which is friendly to the environment. What Tillich names as the possibility “for a Protestant rediscovery of the sacramental sphere,” has indeed taken place in the liturgical movement, where baptismal liturgies have become central in the past decades. Liturgical theologian Gordon Lathrop points out this importance of water:

Water is our first need as living animals; it is our first need in the church as well. But for all its ordinary abundance on this blue planet, it comes from beyond our circle, from oceans, sky, winds, and mountains in common action. It comes “from God” as even our secular cultue can sometimes say in naming the uncontrollable.

Like Lathrop, liturgical theologian Richard Giles stresses the importance of the baptismal font in the church, which for him should be filled with flowing water. For Giles, the assembly that comes to worship needs to “get wet” and he encourages pastors to emphasize baptism by sprinkling baptismal water on people during the penitential rite. As Giles reminds us, “The first journey of the assembly should be the journey to the river, to the waters of the well without which no settlement on planet earth is possible.” For Giles, the water in the baptismal well becomes symbolic and central in the liturgy, nature infused with sacral power. Assembly becomes wet, and this wetness signals rupture, surprise, joy and the touch of the eternal which is also an event, a performed practice. However, having asserted the tremendous importance natural elements such as water have for all life on earth and liturgical practice in particular, Giles continues, “The water in our well, the baptismal font, has waters welling up to eternal life, and so is more precious even than the town water supply.”

If I have now become happily wet by Giles´ baptismal waters, this sentence blows me completely dry in an instance. If water is indispensable as a sacrament, as the bearer of sacral power, as the river from which all life drive its nourishment, how can baptismal water be “more precious” than the town water supply? How can some water be more precious than other water? Has the water in the baptismal font somehow changed its substance because of the blessings, words and prayers recited? Is there nothing sacred about the town water supply that cleans us and feeds us? Perhaps it is time to listen to the Samaritan woman at the well again, who insisted on speaking about literal thirst instead of the figurative thirst.

I think that Tillich would agree with me here in trying to hold together the literal and figurative. The point of the realistic approach is not that certain water in a certain font has become sacred through the prayers and recitals of baptismal formulas by an ordained minister. The point is that baptism by water needs water as sacrament. When the simple element of water is connected to daily conversion and forgiveness in the words and visions of the reign of God, all water becomes the possible bearer of sacred meanings. The ancient Icelandic rhyme that I recited in the beginning of my talk encourages the listener to sit by the fire and walk by the sea, not a particular fire or a particular sea, but a fire, a sea, which holds together fireness and waterness in its impersonal, universal and dynamic multiplicity. The realistic approach underscores the universal preciousness of water, in the font and in the town water supply. When water as sacrament is interpreted in this realistic fashion, conversion, forgiveness and initiation of water is a political issue as well as a private one. Water as sacrament becomes an issue of justice.

Liberation theologian Marcelo Barros writes:
All religions and spiritual traditions believe that water is the sacrament of the divine presence. We are called to live together with water- not only as a practical and useful tool but as a sign of love, which is to be endured, to be respected and even to be revered… Here it is about personal, internal conversion, by virtue of which we defend the divine presence in the beauty of water and protect the water sources and the nature close to the rivers. But that inner conversion possibly remains ineffective if it is not immediately accompanied by the effort to start a social and socio-structural conversion.

Sit by the fire, walk by the sea. While I dip my fingers into the cool water in the baptismal font, I think about how desperately the church needs to pay attention to water. The Christian community should have access baptismal fonts that are more spacious than the shallow fountains, which Giles quips as mere “bird-baths”. Our baptismal fonts should be vessels that bring forth gushing water. One of the greatest gifts of living in a Nordic country is the easy availability of water, and our liturgies should celebrate this abundance. However, the rediscovery of water, simple water as sacrament needs to reflect the scarcity of water, bringing about conversion in the way in which water is wasted and distributed unfairly. Richard Giles aptly suggests that while the Sundays after Epiphany should draw our attention to baptismal waters, we should drain the baptismal pool during the penitential season of advent, to express the thirst for God. I would add that it is also important to drain the pool during the seasons of penance to remember those who not only suffer from figurative thirst but literal as well. If water as sacrament is taken out of the context of any water, I would argue that ecological and socio-structural conversion for the sake of justice is not possible.
The ninth assembly of the World Council of Churches in Porto Allegre, Brazil approved the statement “Water for Life” in February 2006. The statement proclaims that “Access to water is indeed a basic human right,” and calls out to churches to protect this basic right in seven steps, according which the Assembly “promotes awareness and takes all necessary measures for preservation and protection of water resources, “ “undertakes advocacy” for the rights to water by legal means, exhorts churches to take part in the Ecumenical Water Network, supports communities on a local scale to sustain water resources and “prevent exploitation,” puts political pressure on governments to fund projects which enable access to water, and gathers worldwide information about arguments and agreements on conflicts pertaining to water resources. The last step of the resolution from Porto Allegre proposes to contribute “to the International Decade for Action, Water for Life, 2005 – 2015, by exploring and highlighting the ethical and spiritual dimension of water crisis.” For me, in the fashion of the Samaritan woman such spiritual dimensions are most radically explored by “sloshing around” drinking water and spiritual water, literal thirst and figurative thirst. What is it that makes such a slosh so hard and so theologically suspicious?

Return of the repressed

Tillich points out that from the standpoint of depth psychology, “water, on the one hand, is a symbol for the origin of life in the womb of the mother, which is a symbol for the creative source of all things, and that, on the other hand, it is a symbol of death---the return to the origin of things.” It is worth noting Tillich´s observation of the symbolic connection of water to life and death, and the way in which he relates this attraction and fear to women and their watery wombs. Body theologians such as Lisa Isherwood has emphasized the symbolic associations of the female to the chaotic and embodied, and psychoanalyst semiotician Julia Kristeva has formulated Freud’s return of the repressed as the abjected attitude of the maternal body, simultaneously fluid, fascinating and frightening. Feminist theologian Catherine Keller defines this womblike horror of death and drowning in the Western imagery as “tehomophobia.” Tehom means depth in the first verses of Genesis. For Keller, this fear of the feminine “oceanic immensity and its monstrous bodies” signifies phobia for the maternal bodies of women, as symbols of materiality, fluidity and instability.
So, following Tillich and Keller´s train of thought, does Christian theology shy away from thinking about drinking water?
Does it look for shelter in spiritual water, because the former is too reminiscent of bodies and the body´s associations to deterioration and death? If so, water as sacrament has not only political implications but gender aspects as well. Water figures as a border of our existence, of the dangers and glories of water, of the abjection of bodies and material existence, of the unfair distribution of water to the inhabitants of the blue planet.
If Tillich´s realistic approach to water as sacrament has brought us into awareness of universal waterness and simple water as a bearer of sacred power the ancient, mystical Plotinian metaphysics underlying this method may shove us into trouble at this point. Serving as the underground source of Tillich´s method, metaphysics of flow are extremely helpful in expressing a divinely infused universe, where everything lives in connection to everything else and the supernatural does not reside outside the natural order, but in it. However, the residue of the mystical thought that makes Tillich´s realistic approach possible is the traditional Greek tendency of preferring the spiritual to the physical and embodied, choosing the stable over the fluid, and deeming the baptismal waters as more precious than the town water supply.
Which brings me back to the persistent refusal of the Samaritan woman to let go of the drinking water in her well. Jesus opens up their noon conversation: “Give me a drink.” Stephen Moore observes that Jesus first exchange of words with the Samaritan woman is reiterated later in the Gospel on the cross. At noon Jesus, “the source of living water” speaks from the cross and asks for a drink, for simple water, for the town water supply. Moore writes:

In the dialogue at the Samaritan well, the earthly, material, literal level, represented by the thirst for spring water, was declared superseded by a heavenly, spiritual reality, represented by the living water, and thrust into the background. But this material, literal domain is curiously reinstated at the hour of Jesus glorification, again it the form of physical thirst, now decreed by Scripture, and coupled with physical death. The repressed has made a forceful return.

Tillich´s realistic method brought us in close proximity to the universal waterness of water as sacrament and bearer of sacred meanings. However Moore´s deconstructive and hydraulic readings brings us back into the physical thirst and need of human beings. The realistic approach has linked physical water with the spiritual, but the hydraulic reading brings us back from the cross to the well, where a woman is waiting,where buckets are drawn, and repressions faced, and from which our spiritual interpretations of water as sacrament can draw new physical life.

Liquid symbols

Evening has come and I am finishing up my paper for the Uppsala conference. I turn off the lights in the church and take a walk into the garden to the west of the church. A large basalt column is situated in the middle of the pool from which water quietly flows. I hope that one, warm summer day someone will ask for baptism in this pool. And our feet and head and bodies will get wet, because of the water which is sacrament and tastes and feels good. I squat and splash a bit while the snow falls. Some of the flakes melt on my hands and my nose and I reflect on the wondrous transformative powers of water. Water can be frozen into philosophical and liturgical concepts to look at and examine. But water can also vapor and vanish before one’s eyes and our frozen and stable symbols can melt down at an instant, pointing us back to fluidity and to actual thirst and need. As such water embodies form and formlessness, stable entities and liquid curves, the aqueous in-betweenness that makes the loving encounter and procreation of mammal bodies possible and water the bearer of infinite sacrality. And I envision a wise woman by the well who might as well be reciting an old Icelandic tune:
Whenever your soul is sad and wee,
when trust and peace is broken:
Sit by the fire, walk by the sea.
The wise woman has spoken.


Moore, Stephen D., Poststructuralism and the New Testament: Derrida and Foucault at the Foot of the Cross, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994, p. 52

Luther´s Small Catechism, p.

Luther´s catechism, p.

Paul Tillich, „Nature as Sacrament,“ The Protestant Era (1948), p.

Tillich, „Nature and Sacrament,“ p. XXX

McFague, Sallie, Super-Natural Christians: How We Should Love Nature, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1997

Tillich, „Nature and Sacrament“, p. XXX

Lathrop, Gordon W., Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1993, 94

Giles, Richard, Creating Uncommon Worship, Transforming the Liturgy of the Eucharist, Norwich, Canterbury Press, 2004, p. 101

M. Barros in Kürschner-Pelkmann, Frank, „Wasser-Erde-Theologie“, Stimmen der Zeit, 1/2009, p. 27

Giles, Creating Uncommon Worship, p. 29

Giles, Richard, Times and Seasons: Creating Transformative Worship Throughout the Year, Norwich, Canterbury Press, 2008

World Council of Churches, Resolution of the Ninth assembly in Porto Allegre, Brazil, 14-23 February 2006, Document PIC 03-5, cf., accessed Jan 28 2009

World Council of Churches, Resolution of the Ninth assembly in Porto Allegre, Brazil, 14-23 February 2006, Document PIC 03-5, cf., accessed Jan 28 2009

Tillich, „Nature as Sacrament“, p. XXX

Cf. Isherwood, Lisa, and Elizabeth Stuart, Introducing Body Theology, Pilgrim Press, 2000

Keller, Catherine, Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming, London, Routledge, 2002, 26

Moore, Poststructruralism and the New Testament, 54

Moore, Poststructuralism and the New Testament, p. 56