When the first drops of the summer-long rainy season fall on parched Nigerian soil, Hausa-speaking farmers and herders give thanks by saying “Ruwa ya yi gyara” — “the rain, it is repairing.” It is understood in this prayer of thanksgiving that God’s gift of rain not only repairs the soil but renews the soul as well.
Within the world’s Western and Eastern religious traditions, water not only points symbolically to aspects of the world beyond, it offers clues to longstanding mysteries of this world and the presence of the divine within it.
In the biblical traditions in which the enduring Western religions are rooted, water at times is a device that God uses to accomplish action in this world, either directly or indirectly. At other times, water symbolically signals the presence of the holy or marks off the domain of the divine.
Examples of the former are legion, including the story of Noah, his ark and the flood. In this story, we recall that God, displeased with the near-complete wickedness of man, sent rain for 40 days and 40 nights, flooding the then-known world. Because of his righteousness before God, only Noah, his family and the animals they took on the ark were spared. Whether one understands this cataclysmic event as historic or symbolic, we see God using water to affect the desired end — a renewed world ready for a fresh start.
In the Book of Exodus, water plays a dramatic part in God’s determination to have Moses lead his chosen people out of their Egyptian captivity and into a land “flowing with milk and honey.” The Pharaoh was unwilling to let such a prized source of cheap labor go free, but God sent down 10 plagues against Egypt. Two of the plagues were related to water: the first was turning the river’s water into blood, killing all the fish and making it undrinkable; another was grievous hail and thunder.
Finally, these plagues convinced Pharaoh that it was futile to keep the Israelites in bondage. Shortly after the Israelites left, however, Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his vast army to retrieve them. On the verge of being overtaken by the soldiers, the Israelites found their escape blocked by the Red Sea (or more properly “Reed Sea” or “Sea of Reeds”). The Lord directed Moses to lift his staff and stretch out his hand over the sea to split it in two so the Israelites can escape. The Egyptian army pursued them, but after the Israelites safely crossed, Moses again stretched out his hand over the sea and the waters crashed together, drowning the soldiers and guaranteeing the Israelites’ freedom.
Whether the deep waters of the sea actually rolled back at Moses’ command or the shallow and muddy seasonal waters of a reed marsh merely trapped chariot wheels and horses’ hooves, water played a significant role in accomplishing God’s will.
A mysterious presence
Not only does God affect change through water, but God’s mysterious presence is somehow revealed in relation to water — water as symbol of the divine. In the Gospels, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, and tells her that he is the “living water” and that “whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
At a wedding feast at Cana, Mary tells Jesus that the wine had run out, and after objecting that his time had not yet come, he turned jugs of water into wine; wine that was better than what had already been poured.
In one of the best-known Gospel stories, Jesus walks on water to his disciples in a boat being tossed about by a storm. In biblical texts, water is in very real ways used to signal God’s domain.
In other cases, many people believe that God’s presence moves through water not merely symbolically but actually, as is the case with holy water. Whether drawn from an auspicious source, blessed by a priest, or both, holy water is often thought to be alive with God’s healing power and restorative grace. In the Sacrament of Christian Baptism — whether one is immersed in, sprinkled or anointed with such waters — God’s spirit is thought to move through the water producing new life, one born from above.
Revealing the sacred
As important as water is in Western religious traditions, it holds an equally important place in Eastern thought and practice. Within traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism, water appears in a variety of contexts embodying or revealing the sacred in a host of ways.
Perhaps in Taoism, more than anywhere else, water plays a central, symbolic role in conceptions of the sacred. The Tao (or “way”) is the all-pervading force that lies behind all reality, underwriting the physical universe and animating all life within it. When Taoist practitioners sought to understand this force in both its transcendent and its imminent forms, they looked to nature for clues. Though they found the Tao in all of nature, in water they found what they believed to be the best expression of the balance and harmony that characterizes both the ever-changing ebb and flow of the Tao as it courses through nature and the unchanging nature of the Tao itself.
The Tao is the source of all that exists and yet is itself without form. It is likened to an infinite reservoir of formless potentiality from which all actuality issues forth. As the source of all things, the ultimate Tao is transpersonal and does not express a will with respect to the manifest world except insomuch as it tends toward balance and harmony. When the ultimate Tao gets pressed into service, this limitless pool of potentiality underwrites particular forms within the universe, each expressing a balance of the two primary energies associated with the Tao — yin and yang, two halves of a whole.
Filling a void
Just as the Tao is inexhaustible, the number of ways in which water is seen as revealing the mysteries of the Tao is too, or so it seems. Water, without form itself, can take on any form, conforming to the shape of that which it fills. Like the Tao, it effortlessly flows into every crack, crevice and nuance of the terrain it encounters, respecting the contours while filling the void.
On other occasions, however, the apparent placidity of water (and of the Tao) is revealed for what it is, simply one of its many modes. A swollen river sweeping away whatever lies in its path reminds us that, in the end, the force of nature — the force of the Tao — cannot be stopped. It moves along its course paying little heed to what otherwise might obstruct its flow.
When Taoists ponder rain, they see it reflecting the Tao in at least two ways: the effortlessness with which it falls and the indiscriminate way in which it nourishes all things — both flowers and weeds are beneficiaries of it.
Two other examples round out our sense of how, for some people, water is an apt symbol for ultimate reality. The Tao te Ching (“The Book of the Way and Its Power”) suggests that it is in its “humility” that the force of the Tao is realized. The Tao, like water, begins from the lowest position and rises from there — it fills from the bottom up. The import of this strikingly simple observation is perhaps better seen in a verse from chapter sixty-six of the Tao te Ching:
The reason why the River and the Sea are able to be king of the hundred valleys is that they excel in taking the lower position.
Greatness is a result of placing one’s self below others; the Tao exceeds all others by receding from prominence.
A central role
Many other examples of how water reveals sacred dimensions of reality are available, each one addressing the concerns of the tradition — Eastern or Western — within which they arise. Whether used symbolically to help us better understand aspects of the “there and then” or seen as a vehicle through which the holy acts in the “here and now,” water plays a central role. While it seems certain that the deepest mysteries of the divine reality remain well beyond reach, the Taoists remind us that “muddied water, let stand, will clear.” Perhaps, if we are still enough, additional revelations will occur.
Norris W. Palmer is chairperson of the Theology & Religious Studies Department.