Water moves both powerfully and very subtly through our bodies, through our minds, through our lives, in our poetry, in our understanding of the ways in which we all have to be both strong and supple as we live, if we’re going to thread the needle and continue. That’s probably no less vague than the song itself might’ve hit you, but you know, I do think that water is a really powerful image and helps us understand both the magnitude of life and the absolute essence of it.
The Gospel According to Water
e live on a planet whose surface is mostly water. Land, air and water provide the raw materials for our poetic imaginations and our spirituality. Land is our firmament. Air our spirit. But water is life itself. We, too, are mostly water. Without it, we die. Too much and we are destroyed. Enough and we flourish.
No surprise then that water is a central metaphor in our meaning mosaic. You can find it running like a river through literature, theater, poetry and music. Poets are the masters of metaphor. But so are the great religious figures of history. Buddha taught enlightenment using the lotus blossom. Jesus used figurative language in almost all of the teachings attributed to him. You can’t understand the message without understanding how metaphor works.
The Bible is called the “Good Book,” but I think of it as the “Dormant Book.” It sleeps until something or someone awakens it for us — an image, a word, a line, a story. The Bible’s freeze-dried wisdom remains inert until a catalyst brings it to life.
Like “living water.”
“I will give you living water” echoes in the well of consciousness, a well so deep we forget there is life-giving water within. Still waters run deep.
A good book finds us when we need it, coming alive sometimes after sitting for decades on a shelf. Words are seeds that, under the right conditions germinate, then flower. Our wisdom figures speak in metaphor as if it were the only language they knew, or the only language we can understand — and remember. The kingdom of heaven is like … so many things. Like seed scattered on ground of varying receptivity. Some seed bears fruit, depending on the soil. You will know true prophets from false prophets by their fruit. I will give you living water. Not holy water. Not pure water. Not spring water, but water that springs — from deep underground, from the ineffable, the undefinable.
The mystery before which we bow, not knowing to what, as poet W.S. Merwin wrote. Poets mine meaning like jewels born of great compression in our depths, gems of comprehension. Poets scatter metaphors like bread crumbs, showing the way.
Seed-scatterer Leonard Cohen wrote, “Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water. He spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower. And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him, he said, ‘All men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them.'”
The Great Flood, Joseph cast down the well, the parting of the waters to escape Egypt, Moses hesitant with doubt before striking the rock from which life-sustaining water flowed, Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding feast, John the Baptist in the River Jordan, storms on the Sea of Galilee, fishing on the Sea of Galilee then fishing for men, walking on the water, flowing from the Nazarene’s pierced side on the cross.
Jesus sits down at the well Jacob gave to his son, Joseph, centuries before, maybe the well Joseph was thrown down by his jealous brothers. Jesus asks a woman for a drink of water. Startled, she says, “Why are you, a Jew, asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” Jesus says, “If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you living water. … The water I give will be a spring within that gushes endlessly.”
In the north of Israel at the end of the rainy season, water gushes out of the mountainside and forms the Jordan River, a life-giving spine running down the length of the country, through the Sea of Galilee, past Jerusalem, to the Dead Sea, in effect mapping Jesus’ journey and the journey of life itself.
The stream of consciousness. A river runs through us. Joseph Campbell, master of mythology, writes (in Thou Art That), “Water always represents the realm below … the place of the new energy, the new dynamism. It refers to the unconscious, going down into that realm and coming back out of it [renewed or reborn].”
Metaphor, according to Campbell, is “the native tongue of myth.”
“The life of a mythology,” he writes, “springs from and depends on the metaphoric vigor of its symbols. … Metaphors perform their function of speaking to these deep levels of human beings,” i.e. “the complex psychosomatic unity we call the human person.” When metaphors and mythology are “misread as facts,” he says, “they lose their vitality and become concretized.” Which is to say, rendered inert. The “Good Book” becomes the “Dormant Book” for many. Metaphors are, if you will, the water that makes stories spring to life.
If we don’t recognize and respect metaphors and allow them to work within us — like yeast, a catalyst — the book is meaningless, or at least tasteless. Like unleavened bread.
Or as Campbell puts it, “Metaphors only seem to describe the outer world of time and place. Their real universe is the spiritual realm of the inner life. The Kingdom of God is within you.”
A lot of people think “living water” means living forever, but I think it means being fully alive, feeling the life force within, here and now.
It is about the real value of a real education, which has nothing to do with grades or degrees and everything to do with simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: This is water. This is water.
David Foster Wallace
This is Water