There is an odd remark at the beginning of the Gospel of John. A man named Nicodemus asks Jesus how a person might enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus answers, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit,” (3:5). Some Christians have interpreted “water” in this story as baptism, certainly a legitimate reading of Jesus’s response. In the history of preaching on this verse, however, it is a rare sermon or commentary that emphasizes the water as literal rather than as symbol. Most interpreters jump quickly to the Spirit, relegating water to theological runner-up. Jesus did not do that. He twinned water with Spirit (often depicted as “wind” or “breath”), seemingly placing the two on equal footing. I have often wondered: Is Jesus speaking of God as water? As a gospel writer, John uses many metaphors for God – Word, light, vine, door, bread, shepherd, love. Just a few pages later, Jesus declares, “God is Spirit,” (4:24). Why not water? Water need not be important only as an element in ecclesiastical ritual. Water might just be water. And perhaps God is water as well as spirit. It is easy to imagine John’s Jesus saying, “We enter into the sacred presence through water and wind.”
Water covers 71 percent of the Earth’s surface and is vital for life on this planet. Our bodies are nearly 70 percent water as well (depending on our size), and we cannot survive without it. Evolutionary biology reminds us that life on Earth originated in the waters, that the first ground-dwelling creatures crawled out of the surf onto the land. Plants, and therefore all our food, depend on both the water cycle and an appropriate supply of water. Water is the continuing source of life for this planet. This tiny blue marble, as the first astronauts called it from space, so fragile from afar, is a planet of azure-endued life. “How inappropriate to call this planet ‘Earth,’” noted science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, “when it is clearly ‘Ocean.’” If the Earth is God’s body, as Sallie McFague noted, then water is its lifeblood.
Despite the fact that there is so much water on the planet, very little of it can be used directly by us. About 96 percent of the Earth’s water is saline, in the oceans and seas. Although the salty oceans are the source of evaporation in the water cycle and their water supports marine life and necessary ocean plankton, we can neither drink it nor farm with it. A little less than two percent of the Earth’s water is ice. And that leaves about two percent as freshwater, the usable sort of water for us humans, but most of it is trapped underground. Only a very tiny fraction of the world’s water, less than 0.3 percent, is readily available freshwater – our rivers, lakes, and streams – which we drink, wash in, and use to raise our food.
Water is plentiful and necessary, but rare in usable forms. Yet we often take water for granted, especially those of us who live in developed countries, where clean and safe water flows through taps and hoses. In his book, Blue Mind, author Wallace Nichols quotes a story from David Foster Wallace about three fish:
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
Before I started walking the Potomac, I did not know much about water despite the fact that I had previously lived in drought-prone states like Arizona and California, where water is precious and a daily topic of conversation. For much of my life, I have been like one of the young fish: water was generally invisible to me. I assume its existence, failing to grasp the miracle and complexity of it, especially the freshwater on which our lives depend. That raises a question: If the water is invisible to the fish, is God, as the One in whom we swim, also invisible? As we pay attention to rivers and seas, we might also discover God’s fluid presence with the water.