The other day while at the grocery store, I realized that I had been standing in the hand soap section for quite a while. I was contemplating whether to buy liquid or bar soap; soap with or without antibacterial qualities; what fragrance; what size – the possibilities seemed to be endless.
When I got home, I looked at the shelf in the shower and was taken aback at the variety of soap on display. There were two bars of soap, one known for its antibacterial strength and the other for the sea salt embedded in the bar. There was liquid soap for the face; oil to foam soap; lemony gel soap; soap with luffa fruit and jojoba butter.
Of course, in the past year, we have been concerned with cleanliness and rightly so as we have attempted to tamp down the covid-19 pandemic. For months, there were shortages of hand sanitizers that led to rationing at grocery and drug stores. People would text each other with information about where a gel or spray was available. Plain old soap did not seem to be enough.
When I was growing up, my parents owned a summer cottage north of Milwaukee. As I think about how we kept ourselves clean, it was all rather simple. We had running water, but only cold. Washing dishes meant putting several huge kettles on the stove and waiting until the water was hot. We did not have a shower or bathtub. If you needed to take a bath or wash your hair, you were given a towel and literally told to go jump in the lake; or, if there was a good rain without lightning, you could get a cleansing shower just by standing outside with all your clothes on. Soap meant Ivory Snow.
Keeping clean has gotten rather complicated these days. Yet, even with all of these many products to keep us smelling like flowers or pine trees or exotic plants, there is one basic thing that is needed – water. Water is a simple elemental compound – two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, two gasses that combine to form an essential liquid.
Not surprisingly, water took on a great deal of importance for our spiritual forebears who lived in a dry and often barren land. They understood that water could be good, as it flowed quietly in streams, or something to be feared during times of flood or wild storms. In the Book of Ezekiel, however, the prophet looks at water as lifegiving – something given by God to God’s people to cleanse them of sin and guilt. In Chapter 36, the prophet speaks of God gathering God’s children and cleansing them of their sin through the gift of water:
(Ezek. 36: 25-29)
In the New Testament, water is seen as cleansing not only the body but the soul. In John 5:1-9, we read of a pool named Beth-za’tha near one of the gates of Jerusalem. The lame would gather there, hoping that someone would put them in the pool when “the water is troubled.” These troubled waters were life giving, healing the sick of their illnesses. But to Jesus, the water was more than a miracle substance to alleviate physical disease – it would cure those who believed of their sin and guilt.
To the author of the Book of Revelation, water not only cleans dirt from the body and soul, it is essentially eternal life itself. In Revelation 22, the “river of the water of life, bright as crystal” will flow through the holy city. The tree of life will be on the bank of the river, giving fruit for the healing of the nations. “There shall no more be anything accursed . . . [A]nd night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun” for Christ will be their all. In a wonderful conflation of metaphors, of water and lamps and suns and trees, we are cleansed of our sins and made ready for eternal life.
Perhaps living in a more arid climate has made me more aware of the importance of water. Living on the extremely humid and wet East Coast for more than 31 years may have numbed me to the significance of water (other than during hurricanes.) But here, where it’s possible to watch the storms roll in and where I’ve been introduced to the strange new world of irrigation, water has taken on a new meaning. I no longer take it for granted that I can hose away the dirt that’s settled on outdoor furniture. I have to water my garden in order for it to grow. Going to the car wash has become a ritual.
I’ve realized that all of those soaps, in their various iterations, are really not at the heart of the matter. It’s the water, the water that pours from God’s heavens, that makes me clean.
Let us pray...
Dear God, we thank you for the gift of water that cleanses our bodies and nourishes our plants. But help us to be ever more mindful of the living water that washes away our sins and heals our souls. In your name we pray, Amen.