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24 September 2011

Water as Metaphor for God

Water. Its power is always both, life-giving and life-threatening. 

Niagara Falls, August 2011. Even though I had been there before, I loved the mighty Niagara Falls when on vacation this past summer: I was intrigued with their hypnotic power, taken by their grandeur and humbled by the fact that they put us human beings in perspective like nothing much else can. Yet just a week after my experience a young foreign student fell into the Falls' floods, as she was trying to take a few photographs, and drowned.

New York City, September 2011.  My neighbors and I were rudely awakened by acrid smoke and by firemen knocking on our doors around 3:30 AM this past Saturday, when an apartment down the hall went up in flames. We all longed to leave, and as we were told to stay put, we all wished for water ... gallons of water to still the flames and to get us out of the smoke. Yet the folks living underneath the burning apartment experienced the water as a catastrophe, as it came gushing down their walls.

Exodus Chapter 17, one of Sunday's alternate Old Testament readings, puts in front of us the image of the Israelites in the desert. They are quarreling with Moses because they are thirsty.  As we read on, we realize this is no simple customer service complaint directed at Moses, but a challenge toward God. Exasperated, Moses says to God, "What shall I do this people?", perhaps hoping to be given a mighty hammer with which to hit the angry men around him over their heads!

Nobody could blame God for getting angry with these ungrateful people; nobody could begrudge God if he were to obliterate the angry crowd right then and there.  After all, even Moses has had his violent thoughts toward them. Yet even when challenged ("Is the Lord among us or not?”), this God sticks to the People of God and remains a giving God. The picture by Marc Chagall (whose blues are always wonderful) shows us a mighty river springing from the rock; simply looking at those blue floods makes me a bit thirsty!   

A common spiritual metaphor describes each individual as a drop of water within the Ocean of God. Mystics report an almost physical sensation of floating, a state of being immersed in that living Ocean, an ocean that is "warm, embracing, vitalizing, made of pure love", and that feels like "your true home". This is by Kabir, the 15th century poet:
I went looking for Him
And lost myself;
The drop merged with the Sea --
Who can find it now?

Looking and looking for Him
I lost myself;
The Sea merged with the drop --
Who can find it now?

Exodus 17:1-7


  1. Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength. See the link below for more info.