I live by the sea. Every time I walk on its shore or drive past it by car, I have to admit: Water is fascinating.
Sometimes still, sometimes stormy. Hundreds of different shades of blue, green and grey.
Sometimes reflecting the golden shimmering sun, sometimes the threatening dark clouds, sometimes the nearby towering green pine trees, sometimes the lights of the city on its coast.
Always different. Always dynamic. And when you have patience to listen to the water, it speaks to you.
Yet water is not only a source of an aesthetic or even a spiritual experience for nature lovers. Water brings life.
Dry fields don’t grow crops. Thirsty people and animals lose strength and pass away. Fish perish on the shore. A baby in mother’s womb cannot develop without water.
All life on earth utterly depends on water.
But water can also cause suffering and pain. How many fishermen have lost their lives in the cold waves? And how many villages have been swept away by extreme floods?
Perhaps it is this ambiguity of water that has made it a symbol for several aspects of spiritual life. Most religions have ceremonies or rites connected to water.
Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes reflects on the significance of water in the Judeo-Christian tradition and connects it with birth, cleansing, conflict, refreshment and journey (see P.S. Fiddes, “Baptism and Creation” in “Reflections on the Water,” 1996).
The symbolism of all these water motifs carry connotations for the practice of Christian baptism.
Baby’s birth through water from the mother’s womb first associates water with new birth. Water’s naturally purifying effect becomes a symbol of spiritual cleansing.
The threatening forces of water evoke the connotations of death and the grave. Yet the revitalizing power of water elevates it as a symbol of the renewal of life.
And crossing the Red Sea and later the River Jordan signify the journey as the people of Israel left behind their past in slavery and in the desert and looked forward to the Promised Land.
Fiddes explains these primordial images, which are born from the experiences of God’s people and now echo in the practice of Christian baptism, are deeply embedded in the natural context.
It is exactly from this natural context that they understood God’s saving deeds for them and this formed their faith in God the Redeemer.
These events could not have happened without water. Creation and redemption are bound together.
But we can take a step further and say creation is a redemptive act of God.
Fiddes notes that “creation is redemption in the sense of overcoming the waters of chaos” in the beginning of times, and utterly in Jesus Christ who became human flesh – a part of created reality.
His life, death and bodily resurrection seal the togetherness of creation and redemption.
Yet, when we look at the practice of baptism among Baptists and among evangelicals in general, we have to admit it often carries only a narrow meaning of human “witness” for God’s saving act, “obedience” to the example of Jesus, or, as in my own tradition at the time when I was baptized, a “promise” to keep a clear conscience before God.
No doubt these are all good things to do, but how do they connect contemporary Christians to the experience and convictions of God’s people in biblical times?
Although water is used especially among Baptists in rather large quantities for practicing baptism, it seems to have lost its meaning as a natural element signifying God’s redeeming acts as it did for the people of Israel.
The symbolism of “witness,” “obedience” and “promise” are detached from creation.
And even if we say together with Apostle Paul that “we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4), then Christ’s death and resurrection, and the new life that come from them, are often understood as spiritual reality with no necessary connection to physical creation.
In the light of today’s ecological crisis, when so much of water is polluted and a growing number of countries suffer from water shortage, we need to ask how we view water and nature in general.
Is it a mere symbol to point toward something bigger and more important? Or do we value it as an actual element of God’s grace and redemption?
And if we agree with the latter, how do we participate in God’s redeeming work through creation and for creation (Romans 8:19)?
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series this week for World Water Day (March 22).
Helle Liht is the assistant general secretary at the European Baptist Federation.