In the beginning

Column: Scriptures use water as a metaphor for life

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

Is water the new oil? Some predict that the scarcity of water will eventually supplant the dwindling supply of petroleum in the Middle East as the driving factor in that region’s politics.

At present, control over oil fields in Iraq fuels much of the fighting among the various ethnic groups in that country. Similarly, the unrest in the Arab world has received the attention of many countries in Europe, primarily because they depend upon the oil that flows from that part of the globe. But that focus may shift as the supply of usable water decreases.

Water has always been a valuable commodity in the Middle East. It can make the desert bloom. It sustains life for human beings and livestock. That is why it has always played such an important role in the culture and imagination of the people who live there. More than anything else, it symbolizes life.

Sunday’s readings focus their attention upon water. The Gospel reading, Jn 4:5-42, offers us Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well. The first reading, Ex 17:3-7, tells how Moses struck the rock to provide water for the people of Israel as they journeyed in the desert. And what about the second reading?

While the second reading does not present us with any direct image of water, it alludes to water in this sentence: “The love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” God’s love is described as a liquid. Our hearts similarly are described as receptacles to hold that love. This figure of speech links the second reading to the others.

What are the characteristics of a liquid? It is not rigid, but instead takes the shape of the container that holds it. Similarly, God’s love adapts itself to the needs and circumstances of the human heart. Furthermore, a liquid tends to permeate any material, as anyone who has had to deal with a leaky roof knows. It is hard to keep out the rain. Similarly, when we come into contact with God’s love, it is hard to resist. We can soak it up, as a sponge soaks up water.

The phrase “the love of God” is ambiguous. It can mean the love that we have for God or, conversely, the love that God has for us. I take it to mean the love that God has for us, because of the prepositional phrase which modifies it — “through the Holy Spirit” — which indicates that God’s Holy Spirit is acting as the agent. This fits in with the rest of the reading, which emphasizes God’s initiative toward us: “It is precisely in this that God proves his love for us: that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

God’s love has been poured out into our hearts, because Christ’s blood was poured out for us by his death. A witness of the crucifixion might have described Christ’s blood as dripping from the cross rather than pouring, but the verb “drip” would lessen the event’s meaning. The verb “pour” accurately reflects the abundance of grace flowing from Christ’s sacrifice. That is why it appears in the account of the institution of the Eucharist: “This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, to be poured out in behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:28).

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Fr. Mike Stubbs

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