Water of life
In Christian circles, people often make statements about being like an empty glass, needing Jesus to be poured in to fill us up. Or sometimes the image is that we’re designed with a God-sized hole in our hearts. I’ve always found this image to imply that we were created defective or lacking something – as if our good gift of life came without the batteries included. It seems like a strange way to discuss our relationship with a loving Creator.
But then one day, [probably as I was studying for my pharmacy licensing exam], I started thinking about hydration. When we drink water, we are not filling up a water storage tank in our abdomen that is waiting to be topped up periodically. Rather, our bodies are actually made up of about 60 percent water, and it is distributed not only in the blood running through our veins, but also throughout the cells and spaces that make up every part of our body. We have an entire organ system (kidneys) devoted to making sure we have the right balance of water in our bodies at all times, as well as a complex network of hormones interacting in feedback loops to manage it all. My job as a hospital pharmacist requires me to understand the way the body distributes water, drugs and nutrients. I regularly monitor kidney function to ensure my patients will benefit from the treatments we offer and to prevent the harm that comes from the buildup of toxic levels of drugs when the kidneys are operating at a reduced capacity. Replacing fluids without considering the electrolytes (i.e. sodium, potassium) that are essential to the function of every system in the body can be deadly, and removing excess fluid with diuretics can provide swift relief from breathing difficulties and painful swelling.
Without our knowing
What does this have to do with God, though? Stay with me, my metaphor is about to go way too far. God is the water. (Yes, it sounds like I’m talking about H20, but as every Sunday School child knows, God or Jesus is always the answer.) In my image, the presence of God-water in our lives is infinitely more complicated than some water filling up a glass. The good thing about water is that we don’t need to understand how osmotic pressure moves water molecules across cell membranes or how too much salt can make our bodies reabsorb water instead of peeing it out. The cup of coffee we drink doesn’t require us to understand diuretics in order to know that if we drink an extra large, we’re going to need a bathroom STAT! Water, like the presence of God in our lives, works without our specific expertise on fluid balance and body water distribution. But when you start to study it, it is absolutely fascinating.
When our bodies use water, the characteristics of the H2O molecule, including its electric charge, its size relative to the other molecules in our cells and membranes and its properties of attraction and repulsion, enable the intricately engineered processes of moving substances in and out of cells, organs and through the circulation. The properties of God, likewise, work on our lives often without our knowledge or understanding. Can I explain how grace squeezed through the layers of my membranes to work on my innermost being? I have multiple barriers (impatience, avoidance, a hot temper, procrastination) that I would expect to keep the insidious molecules of grace from ever reaching inside. However, somehow grace possesses all the properties necessary to navigate that journey, bringing the water of life exactly where it needs to go.
Water does not have to be the boring, clear and flavourless stuff that comes out of a tap (for an entire article on how bottled water is like Christianity commercialized, email me directly). It comes in an infinite array of delicious beverage – sweet or tart, bubbly or flat, hot or cold or even frozen. The ways we ingest the divine also include infinite variety. The most basic of categories include corporate and individual contact with God. Whether it is a work-place coffee break, pop or beer with pizza, a tea-party with your toddler, a wedding toast or sports-drinks during the intermission of the big game, sharing beverages with a group builds community and enriches us with more than mere water. Individually, we may savour a quiet coffee alone in the morning, sip from a water bottle gradually throughout the day, a glass of water to wash down our medications, indulge in a smoothie loaded with delicious nutrients or have a glass of milk with our bedtime snack. Likewise, our interactions with God come in a variety of corporate and individual activities. Communal worship in a church service may be the most visible religious activity, but we engage with God in joyous and solemn flavours, liturgical and free-form textures, together and alone, and in ways that not only hydrate, but also energize and nourish us.
Although there are many options for water (God) that nourish, there are also messages about God that are tainted with poison or infection. Like a lead-poisoned water system or an E. coli-contamination water crisis, some sources of religious teaching breed spiritual sickness and death, robbing the people who desperately need spiritual hydration of the benefits of the water of life. Tainted messages of the Gospel may include religious leaders supporting unjust political policies or politicians, people using scripture to manipulate their relatives or friends, or plain old hypocrisy that prevents others from wanting anything to do with the Gospel message.
There are also physiological processes that affect how our bodies make use of water. Edema is a condition in which water builds up in areas of the body where it does not belong. It can cause swelling of the legs and arms; it can put pressure on the heart or lungs and compromise their function. Cystic fibrosis is a disease which affects water’s movement across membranes, resulting in thick mucous in the lungs, blocking small passageways and inhibiting the removal of infection-causing bacteria. Kidney diseases cause a build-up of toxic substances in the body as urine is not being produced efficiently to carry away these toxins. These diseases that affect the way our body uses water can often be managed, but for some, they remain a life-long barrier to health. Similarly, many people develop conditions that obstruct their ability to fully benefit from the water of life. Some examples may include a history of abuse by a religious leader, an addiction that drowns out the message of hope, or a toxic build-up of negativity or self-righteousness. In order for these people (and we all have obstructions to varying degrees) to stay alive and active in God’s kingdom, both ongoing management as well as identifying and fixing (if possible) the underlying cause are essential for life.
A cup of cold water in his name
The life-giving nature of water is a common theme in Christianity – let us not forget to follow our saviour’s lead in both giving and receiving the refreshing water of life. In health care, we have ethical codes which require practitioners to treat anyone in need, and in our life of faith there is a similar mission requirement: Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned. In other words: offering a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name truly is the water of life.