In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1: 1-2)
Water is central in this beautiful, poetic creation story in Genesis 1. Among the many things that God does is to separate the waters from the waters. Listen to this (v. 20-23)
And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
The second creation story in Genesis begins with:
A stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground—then the Lord God formed the human from the dust of the ground, and breathed into the nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living being.
God then plants a garden, and puts a river in it to water the garden, and then the river becomes the source of all the rivers, and divides into 4 branches:
A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where are is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
In the earliest Biblical accounts, water is associated with creation, and with goodness, with productivity and with life.
Water is life.
A year and a half ago, this was the rallying cry of the water protectors who gathered at Standing Rock, in western North Dakota. People, especially indigenous people, gathered from around the world.
I am writing from the point of view of creation theology. Let me be clear. Creation theology is not the same as creationist theology. Creationist theology is all about a literalist understanding of the creation stories in Genesis, and an accompanying claim that the earth is only 4000 years old. That is not what I want to propose. Rather, creation theology, sometimes called ecotheology or environmental theology, is a worldview that celebrates the goodness of nature (we would call it creation), and advocates for relationships among people and between human being and the natural world that support justice and sustainability.
There is a long tradition in Christianity that supports care for the earth, and for water and air. Rivers play an important role in the stories in the Hebrew Bible, as do lakes and seas. Moses, as a baby, was set adrift in the River Nile. What could have been his death was instead his opportunity for new life. And most significant is the Jordan River, the boundary between the wilderness and the promised land.
The Jordan’s significance continues in the New Testament, with John the Baptist baptizing people in it, including Jesus. We count that baptism in Jordan to be the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. When Jesus met a woman sitting at a well they had a conversation about water. He asked her for a drink of water, and talked with her about “living water.”
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4: 13-14)
Water in the Bible is not always beneficent. Most notable in the category of water’s destructiveness is the story of Noah.
Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon earth.”
And that’s when we get the story of the flood that destroyed everything except that which was on the ark. Great flood stories are not unique to the Hebrew Bible, and were in fact a type in ancient middle eastern mythology, with the story in Gilgamesh being the best known. In the Hebrew Bible, the story ends with God promising never again to destroy the earth by flood.
In 2000, the US and Canadian Catholic Bishops in the Columbia River Basin, including the Bishop of the Helena Diocese, undertook to write a Pastoral letter on the Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good. In Montana, we affirmed it at the Montana Association of Churches, even though many of us were in the Missouri River Watershed, not the Columbia. We affirmed it because it witnesses that the watershed is a religious issue, not just a secular one.
The themes include:
Caring for Creation
Caring for Community
Caring for our Common Home
Commitment to Creation and the Common Good
These are not new inventions. They are there in the Bible. And they are there in many indigenous communities, in North America and elsewhere.
Our church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, adopted a statement in 1993—25 years ago—called Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope and Justice In it we affirm 4 principles of justice.
+ Justice through participation. The principle of participation means that all living things are entitled to be heard , and to have their interests considered when decisions are made.
+Justice through solidarity: The principle of solidarity means that we stand together as God’s creation. Interdependent.
+Justice through sufficiency: The principle of sufficiency means meeting the basic needs of all humanity and all creation.
+Justice through sustainability: The principle of sustainability means providing an acceptable quality of life for present generations without compromising that of future generations.
In the beginning, was water.
And water is life.
Jessica Crist, Bishop