Polluting our baptismal waters
The biblical and theological importance of caring for the world’s waters
At my church each Sunday, after the confession is read, there is silence as a child of the congregation walks forward, lifts the baptismal pitcher, and splashes the waters into the font. Hearing and seeing this water reminds us of God’s grace sealed in the sacrament of baptism. In this water, God’s Spirit lives and seeps into our human selves, like water through cracks in the ground, restoring us for the work of building up the body of Christ.
The sound and sight of the font also evoke the elemental nature of water: without water, we could not physically live.
The waters in the font and the waters of the earth (fresh and salt) are connected. We daily need spiritual and physical thirst quenched, and God—who creates, redeems, and sustains all of life—offers both. The waters of the world—its rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans—and the waters of baptism are each a gift from God and have a powerful daily impact on our lives.
While the impact of the water we drink and use to cook and bathe may be more apparent most days, the waters of baptism are more than mere symbols: they change us. They are a sign and seal of God’s abundant grace. Baptism represents but also carries the transformation, cleansing, and liberation made real by Christ. Through baptismal waters, we are claimed, called, and challenged by God. We are welcomed as part of the faith community by the church. In the waters of baptism, we tactile humans feel God’s grace through the Holy Spirit and offer a thankful response back to our Maker.
God’s love did not become incarnate in Jesus Christ in order to condemn the world but rather to save the world (John 3:16–17). We are called to respond in gratitude to God’s amazing grace by caring for the earth and all creatures. We are called to protect that which has signified and sealed our union with Christ.
How can we invite people to understand God’s abundant grace and power—known in the waters of baptism—if we do not respond to the groans of creation over the scarcity of water available for communities to feel empowered and for ecosystems to be fully functional?
Can we imagine polluted waters being poured into the font? What if there were no water to pour and the font were empty? How can we share an embodied message of “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10) for all the world, and how can people comprehend it, if we do not also work to protect, restore, and care for water as part of God’s desire for all God’s creation?
Presbyterian polity says that the water we use for baptism should be local in its source. And yet many people around the world lack local access to unpolluted and healthy water. In my own congregation in Louisville, Kentucky, very few families would feel good about sprinkling their infants with the waters of our local creek or the mighty Ohio River. Fortunately, my church resides in a place where we still have a good public utility, and we can use our treated public water safely. Our nicely potable tap water can be poured into our font and be understood as a sign and symbol of God’s grace. Yet this kind of access is a privilege. It is not one that most of the world’s peoples have.
To begin our work as caretakers of the gospel and of God’s creation, we first admit and then grieve the state of the world’s waters. They are being polluted, depleted, and privatized. Glaciers are melting. There are huge dead zones in the ocean where low oxygen levels caused by human pollution and other factors inhibit most marine life. As ocean levels rise, whole island peoples, soon to be refugees, are facing the prospect of displacement. Aquifers are shrinking, meaning fewer and fewer people can draw water from the ground using wells. People are dying from lack of water, contaminated water, and natural disasters related to water.
If the power of baptism is rendered unclear because of the lack of health or availability of one of the basic elements of life, we have work to do as people of faith. If the invitation to the font can be questioned because water is no longer dependable in right proportion in different parts of the world, it is time for the church to get busy.
In grief, we are called back to our human vocation of tending creation by the God who loves us. God created the human and put that human in the garden to serve and to keep it (Gen. 2:15). Instead of serving the earth, we have dominated it and harmed natural resources. We have not postured ourselves in reverence to God or clothed ourselves with humility in relation to the rest of creation. We have forgotten our place.
As we begin our return to that rightful relationship with God, we do well also to remember what our ancestors of faith, who lived by the sea, knew: water offers life and healing and grace, but it also has an equally creative and destructive force that must be attended with humility and wisdom. Water should not be romanticized.
Water is wild and sometimes unsettling in its power (perhaps not unlike God’s grace). While we need water to live, it is not something we can control. The Bible is sure to name the dangers of water just as it lauds water’s capacity to give life. Think of the stories of the flood, the Nile turned to blood, the thirst in the wilderness, and the fouling of waters by human action (Ezek. 34:18). Now, as then, we must approach water with respect.
Though water may be a thing beyond our absolute control, we as humans can and do influence the world’s waters—by polluting, damming, or otherwise interrupting the hydrological cycle. However, we do not know all the risks or results that our harmful influence might cause or set in motion. Nor are we truly ready to weather the natural consequences of our actions.
Climate change, which has drastically influenced the water cycle and led to more intense, frequent, and devastating natural disasters related to water, is one example of how humans have intervened without wisdom. Alarming in both their frequency and their severity, droughts, floods, and fires are natural disasters that are marking many communities around the globe and taking lives. These traumatic occurrences, in their strength and timing, are unprecedented. Forgetting our original, humble vocation to tend God’s garden, we have entered dangerous territory—physically and spiritually.
If we can assess the state of the world’s waters, grieve the mistakes we have made, remember our human vocation to care for the earth, and then truly turn away from practices that cause harm, we might be able to hear again the splashing of water in the font. We might be able also to help others hear it.
We come before our Creator and repent of the responsibility that we so carelessly tossed aside for roles and tasks of our own making. In repentance, we turn toward the careful tending of creation and working for the protection of the world’s waters.
We can go many places with our turning. Our actions will align with the gifts, abilities, and passions God has given each of us.
We might clean up our local waterways, curb our consumption of bottled water, or write letters of opposition to the corporations that are taking ownership of local water sources. We might advocate with our local and national government for public access to clean water or participate in the United Nations World Water Day. We might preach, teach, and organize in our own watershed.
That splashing in the font, once we have confessed and truly repented, is a reminder of God’s grace. We remember that in the beginning God’s creative spirit hovered over the waters. We remember that the infant Moses, born to be a great leader, was drawn out of the water—and that the ancient Israelites wandering in the desert were given water from rock. We read words of invitation by the prophet Isaiah—“Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters” (55:1)—and hear with gladness a promise that dry lands will rejoice (35:1) and that God will satisfy us in parched places (58:11). We remember that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and offered real, and living, water to the woman at the well. We remember Jesus’ own baptism and Philip’s baptizing of an Ethiopian eunuch as part of the formation of the early church. Just as water symbolizes God’s grace in the beginning and throughout our biblical heritage, so at the end we read that the city of God will have a healing river of the water of life flowing right through its middle (Rev. 22:1–2).
God daily offers the world amazing grace: the physical and spiritual gift of water. The life-giving water—known by Jesus, provided by God, infused by the Spirit—is intended for all the world. May we go to the ends of the world, sharing this good news.
Rebecca Barnes is the associate for Environmental Ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency and a graduate of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Find her short book, 50 Ways to Help Save the Earth: How You and Your Church Can Make a Difference, at wjkbooks.com.
Thanks, Becca, for this articulate and helpful article. I took a workshop with Joanna Macy a few years back and learned how deeply my personal sorrow is connected to the sorrow of the earth. Please God help us not to destroy the miraculous gift of water.