The waves of death or the water of life?

Water, vital and mortal
returning to the great ocean not by choice

Water must be one of the most two-edged thing that exists.  It can kill you; but you cannot live without it.  It is dangerous; it is essential.  We take it completely for granted until it is absent.  We fear it viscerally (this is why people are so fascinated by the Titanic), but we know how precious it is.  We grow and take shape in the waters of the womb, and in many versions of a life-and-death myth, we return as drops into the Great Ocean when we die.  This two-sidedness is a crucial element in its use as metaphor or symbol.

An index of God’s power and scope
God creating earth
God presiding over Creation, outside the water and in control

The psalms talk about water (as a real thing) in two diametrically opposed ways.  There is bad water (the sea, floods), and good water (rain in the desert, the gentle stream supplying water for sheep and the hunted deer), wild water and tame water, you might almost say deadly water and living water because the contrast is so extreme.  God’s power and might are indicated by his control over water in its entirety.  His house is above the rains, and some pictures of Creation show him outside and above the circle of waters which the earth floats within, so he is even above the ‘waters above the heavens’ (Ps 148).  The waters are God’s tool : he can use them to help or to destroy utterly.  Man is frightened of the mightiness of water, but it belongs to God and does his bidding.  Even when the waters are not actively hostile, they are mysterious and potentially dangerous.  This is a very sensible attitude for any person to have.  Water should be taken seriously.  This is another fear that begets wisdom, like the fear of the Lord.  The very power of water shows how great God must be to rule it (Ps 64/65).

Fishermen, but not ocean-going

The Israelites were not a sea-going nation, despite having a coast.  The Red Sea is an idea full of menace, regularly cited as the example of how God can weaponise water (Pss 65/66, 76/77, 77/78, 105/106), but mostly their experience of water is on a smaller scale : lakes, rivers, springs.  They go out to fish on lakes, but the ‘men who go to the seas in ships’ are only referred to once in the Psalms, and then in a sort of head-shaking way, as the psalmist prays for their safe return or arrival at a harbour. This is in Psalm 106/107, where these sailors are the third category of people who need God to rescue them, for no one else will be able to do so.  And the sea is full of monsters, remember, which God made to play with (Ps 103/104).  Leviathan as God’s rubber duck.  How mighty are your works, O Lord.  What God is great as our God? (Ps 76/77)

drowning people underwater
the perils of the deep
Water, water everywhere
safe amid perils

Water’s presence in real life (or, conversely, its absence in time of need) is another reason why it occurs so often in the Bible.   Our need for God is similarly elemental,  but can be similarly complicated.  The Old Testament God can be fierce and terrible.  He can be destructive; indeed, the psalmist prays for God to destroy God’s own enemies and the psalmist’s as well (sometimes, the other way around),  just to keep things tidy;  positive collateral damage.  The great flood means death to almost everyone; but Noah and his family are saved by God.

Generous rain (Ps 67/68) : moving towards metaphor

Another aspect of water which makes it a good image for God is its potential to create growth.  This comes up repeatedly in the psalms with a variety of adjectives (dry, weary, parched, thirsty, shrivelled, scorched) applied to not just the land, but men’s hearts, even their bodies (Ps 62/63).  God provides the water, and everything bursts into growth; You provide for the earth:/ you drench its furrows; /you level it, soften it with showers (Ps 64/65 ).  Water is always dynamic in the psalms; it makes things happen, starts life, makes trees grow and flourish.  Death is a return to dust (Ps 103/104), the removal of water.

Seascape at night, storm
God is never far away
God +water = life

This is one reason why it is seen as God’s own element.   From the beginning of creation in Genesis 1,  God plus water equals life.  Water is the source and also the means of creation (you can’t mould dry clay; when Jesus needs to make dry earth potent for healing, he spits on it, John 9).  In the early days of salvation history, God is often encountered near a water source.    Hagar meets him at a well when she is thrown out by Sarah (Gen. 16) and then again when she and Ishmael are cast out definitively (Gen. 21).  She and Ishmael have run out of food and water and have lain down to die, when ‘God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water; and she went and filled the skin bottle with water and gave the boy a drink’ (v.19, out of the New World Translation, because it’s the most literal and prosaic version that I have).  God, water, salvation, and a woman’s agency : a grouping we will see again.

Real water in the Psalms is a positive thing….

God’s total control over the (real) waters means that they are usually described either in a neutral or positive way.  To be negative about the Great River, or the seas, or the waves, would be disrespectful to God as their Creator.  Water in this sense can be dark and mysterious, and the scale is huge, but it’s not ever actually hostile itself in the Psalms.  God keeps the waves of the sea in a flask (Ps 33), he rules its raging (Ps 88/89).  To him belongs the sea, for he made it (Pss 94/95, 145/146), he does wonders in the deep (Ps 106/107), he can turn a rock into a pool, a flint into a spring (Pss 106/107, 113/114), and the sea into dry land (Ps 65/66, 73/74, 76/77, 77/78, 135/136).

Pharoah's horses in the Red Sea
Very easy to get bogged down
..but be careful if it’s figurative

The negative aspect is much stronger with the figurative waters.  The underworld of the Old Testament tends to be cold and watery rather than the fiery hot hell of the New Testament.

Sea monster in waves
Darkness, billows and monsters

The psalmist sees obliteration in terms of hostile waters : the waves of death (Ps 17/18), the torrents of destruction (Pss 17/18, 41/42), and a recurring image, like a bad dream, is of being in a muddy pit (or well?) with no way out, nothing to set foot on, and with the waters rising (Ps 68/69, 87/88, 123/124, and 129/130, ‘Out of the depths’).  He calls to God to draw him ‘out from the mighty waters’ (Ps 143/144),  and then sings him a song of praise when he does so.  There are many references to (figurative) sinking, to drying up, to being parched, drinking one’s own tears.  There are a couple of particularly arresting images, one where the psalmist describes himself as ‘like a wineskin shrivelled by smoke’ (Ps 118/119), and another where the wicked man is described thus : He put on cursing like his coat;/ let it soak into his body like water (Ps 108/109).   I’m not sure whether that second line is a curse upon the man or a description of what he did, but either way it’s like something from a horror film.

Some positive images

Of course there are positive images as well (Your justice is like the deep, Ps 35/36), particularly for rain, which you might expect in a hot country where water can go short.  Rain is life-giving and crop-giving, called ‘generous’ (Ps 67/68), and an image of gentle beauty in Ps 71/72, where the king’s son is described as descending ‘like rain on the meadow,/ like raindrops on the earth’, welcome as only rain in a desert country can be.  The food provided for the starving escaped Israelites, manna and quails, is described as ‘raining’ down (Ps 77/78).  Mostly, the positive images of water tend to be linked to the sheer size of God. The sea can thunder praise, the rivers clap their hands (Pss 95/96, 97/98), or it can flee from God’s actions and the river reverse its course (Ps 113/114), but the point is that these huge natural things, powerful as they are compared to a human, have no power comparable to God’s.  Moab is merely his washbowl (Pss 59/60 and 106/107);  water is under his control for his own use.

New Testament water slightly different

In the New Testament, water is again one of the most significant images, but I cannot think of a single instance where Jesus uses it negatively (someone will e-mail me, I’m quite sure!).  For him, it is living water, the water of life, welling up to eternity.

plenty of peril, but a serene Jesus (Peter Hackett)

He is baptised by immersion in the Jordan; he turns water into wine at the wedding in Cana; he washes his disciples’ feet (and has his own washed with tears earlier).  He accompanies the fishing apostles in their boat, he hitches lifts across the Sea of Galilee, he walks on the water.  He shows no sign of fear at any point.  When he is in the apostles’ boat and a storm blows up, he is fast asleep on a cushion (Mk 4), but when the frightened apostles wake him, he quells the storm with a word.  This is what God can do.

Still or sparkling

One of the things I particularly like about the water in the psalms is how carefully the psalmists distinguish between different sorts : seas, lakes, rivers and springs.  They all have separate characteristics.  When I set the words to a tune, I try to remember which sort of water we are talking about.  The past master at this is Handel, and some of his best work here is in the oratorio Israel in Egypt, which gives him wonderful opportunities.  He sets music to represent hail as one of the Plagues.  The waters of the Red Sea stand upright as an heap;  and Pharaoh’s horses and soldiers sink and perish under the torrents of its return.  Obviously I can’t do anything like this, but I do like to try and make the water show either in the melody or accompaniment.  It’s not just the psalms, either; we are lucky to have the Isaiah 12 Canticle among the Easter music, with its wells of salvation, and I have tried (according to the Response translation) to emphasize either hauling the water from the wells or hearing it ripple up freely from the springs.

Peaceful holy well
St Brannoc’s holy well/spring
Welling up to eternal life

Springs are always special, because they are mysterious but unthreatening.  Holy wells are often little springs that have been turned into places of pilgrimage, from Bible times (Abraham’s wanderings are marked by wells and springs), through early history (St Non’s in Pembrokeshire, near St Davids) until quite recently (Lourdes).  Springs are places of hope.  The water in the spring quenches thirst but is itself unquenchable.  This is Jesus’ great image for his message, the Good News he came to give.  Instead of the hard work of hauling up the water, a spring just ripples out.   As [God’s people] go through the Bitter Valley [or place of weeping], they make it a place of springs. The autumn rain covers it with blessings (Ps. 83/84).

Deja vu
Baptism : water and new life

This week’s readings are all about water.   (These are the readings we use for the First Scrutiny of those planning to be baptised at Easter, so they can be used even in other years of the liturgical cycle.)  The Old Testament reading is from Exodus, and shows the escaped Israelites desperate for water, which Moses supplies when God tells him where to strike the rock.  The psalm commemorates this event.  St Paul explains how God’s love has been ‘poured’ into our hearts.  And the Gospel is Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, a fascinating encounter that I have written about before, as she is a rare female voice in the Gospels.

Jesus talking with woman at the well
Sir, give me some of that water

God arrives at a watering place.  He speaks to a woman.  She believes him, and her life takes a new direction.  We have indeed seen this before.  She also spreads the blessing she has received; once a spring starts to well up, it is hard to stop it.  This unnamed woman turns out to be one of the most effective evangelists.

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Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe composes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines. She writes about what comes up in the process, and blogs for The Tablet.