An hour or so after a sudden afternoon thunderstorm, the creek was at full flow. Marooned on the little curved concrete span below the theater were tree branches: the water had been that high. Portions of the path beyond were mud-covered; much of the park grass had washed-up styrofoam, plastic, and odd paper. Under a car-bridge, one of the homeless was tucked into his dry niche, singing as I walked past. Ahead, I found the creek so high that it covered the path, so that gentleman had to see me twice.
There is an old concrete dam—this is not much of a creek, so the dams are helpful in creating ponds. This one is, I guess, 15 feet high and 20 across. The last few feet of its width are lower, and it’s down that edge that one normally sees the water trickle over. But this evening water was pouring over the dam entire: the spray, the sound, the white splash, all spoke of a power that is normally unseen.
It’s a little creek, named for a little hard-shelled creature, but my, what hidden energy was revealed. Eliot speaks of the river which is tamed by civilization and becomes only a problem for “the builder of bridges.” Nonetheless, the river remains “ever, however, implacable” with “seasons, and rages.” Its implacable power is a “reminder of what men choose to forget.”
We may choose to forget it, but water is, in its first biblical instance, not our friend. Water is chaos; it has no form. God creates the firmament (the sky) to hold it up, and down below he pulls water back so that the dry land can emerge. But the water above can tear through the firmament and flood the land. And destructive tsunamis can bring ocean water back from its exile. We may choose to forget it, but the restraint of water is a work of divine providence, and a work ever provisional.
These things are signs. Water symbolizes the destructive chaos that never goes away. This chaos is around us. It is around Israel throughout the Old Testament, the enemies, the Philistines and others, who are ever at Israel’s borders.
But worse, water is the chaos that is within us. Waters of chaos are inside the human being, from which hidden place they break out from time to time in violence. The Bible shows us this with signs and with plain speech. Consider sacrifice of animals: it is just there in the Bible, not asked for by God (until Genesis 15), but done. Subsequently we find that the worship of God, laid out in such detail in (for instance) the book of Numbers, calls for a continual sacrifice of burning animals every day.
I have learned from Robert Sacks to think of the sacrificial system as a concession that God makes to this violence in the human heart. Since this chaos exists within us, we need law to tame it, to regulate it, to limit it to particular places and times and means.
The chaos breaks out in other ways: from one person being cruel to another, to violence in the streets, to ritualized combat. These are the waters with power that we try to forget, yet they are there, just like the power hidden in a little creek, waiting.
On the other hand, Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit. He tells the woman at the well that he has a water that could be within her and, there within her, spring up to eternal life. Jesus, that is, has a different kind of water. His water is the Spirit who will change our hearts, who will expunge the old chaotic waters and replace them with eternal life.
Think of it. At the beginning, in Genesis, the Spirit hovered over the waters.
In Jesus, God gives us the Spirit who is living water.