Last year, I started reading Lauren Winner’s newest book, Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God, without really knowing what to expect. I had a feeling that she would broaden my perspective on scripture, as she did with her last book Still, in which she practices “dislocated exegesis,” reading certain passages in unexpected places (such as 1 Corinthians 13 in the parking lot of a detention center, or reading about God’s eagle wings on an airplane), something she continues in this book, considering God as clothing in a department store. The point of this practice, but also of Wearing God, seems to be to shed assumptions about God and the neat packages that we bring to the words we use to talk about God.
It’s easy to get into a rut in our prayers and our faith communities, she reminds us. It’s easy to use the same words when we address and describe God until we don’t think about them anymore, even though they are bursting with meaning. In the first chapter, Lauren says: “The final aim of this book is not to persuade you to stop thinking about God as your shepherd and start thinking about God as a cardigan sweater or One who weeps. The aim, rather, is to provoke your curiosity, and to inspire your imagination, and to invite you farther into your friendship with God.”
I walked through Lauren’s deep, multi-faceted explorations of seven different metaphors and I didn’t want them to end. Suddenly, I was thinking about God differently than I ever had before.
The Sunday after I finished the book, I went to church and watched my pastor dig her hands deeply into our baptismal font (which is essentially a large bowl, with small, flat-sided marbles in the bottom, like you might find in a fish tank). Every Sunday, she gives thanks for water: for the rivers and lakes and oceans, for Hagar’s well, and for the waters of baptism. She splashes around in the water and then lifts her dripping hands high. That week, I couldn’t help thinking about water as a metaphor for God. My mind was running through all of the things that I knew about water and how it interacted with my everyday life. Lauren had engaged my curiosity.
First, I went looking for biblical references to God as water. I was surprised to find that though Jesus talks a lot about living water in John 4 and 7, He doesn’t call Himself water. My search took me to Jeremiah 2 and 17, which both exhort repentance and call God “the fountain of living water.” Jeremiah 2:13 notes that the people haven’t just turned their back on God, the fountain, but have “dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”
I began to really think about water. Surprisingly, my first thoughts are filled with fear. I grew up near the ocean, and I remember being afraid of the sea and all it contained. I remember the caution “never turn your back on the ocean,” I remember being tired and still far from shore, having swum out too far alone and making very slow progress. It’s uncomfortable to think of God as water in this way, but it isn’t off track. There are many times that I’ve felt afraid of God’s power, bigness, and what a life with God might contain.
I wonder if I’m on the right track, so I look up the Hebrew for this instance of “fountain” in my concordance. It’s transliterated as “maqor” and the definition is “a spring of water.” The word is used 18 times in the Old Testament. It can refer to actual water, a source of life and vigor, or, interestingly, to menstrual blood or the flow of blood after childbirth. I like to do things the right way, but I remind myself that this is an exercise, and if it causes me to think differently about God, it has been successful.
I began to think about the way that water is always accessible to me. I am almost never in a room without a glass or my reusable bottle close at hand. No matter where I am, I am almost always somewhere with water available, whether it’s a drinking fountain, the water cooler in the waiting room at the place I get my oil changed, or a friend’s house, where I can turn on the tap and fill a glass. I do not worry about whether I will run out of water, and I take for granted that it will flow when I turn on the shower, or when I need to fill my kettle in the morning, for tea. These things are true of God, too. God is also with me in the waiting room, and the friend’s house, always accessible and close at hand. I take God’s presence for granted just like I do the water in the tap. I only seem to notice when it feels like God has stepped back, just as I noticed the lack of water during my parents’ remodel, trying to turn on the tap multiple times, even though I knew the water was off.
I don’t always like the taste of water. Sometimes I add sliced cucumber, lime, or lemon. I know that water is good for me, and that my body is composed of a great deal of it. I know that it is an ingredient in many of my favorite beverages, like wine, and tea. I know that sometimes it hides in other things, like vegetables, and fruits. I know that I need it to live, and without it I will die in less than a week. I know that it is hard to overdose on water, but that it is possible.
Water can be a place of activity. You can swim in it, or boat on it. (Some can walk on it). Water can be fun. Water can house things that are nourishing, like fish and seaweed. Water makes my baked salmon filet possible, and my shrimp scampi. How often do I think of God as fun? Someone to be enjoyed and delighted in? How much more often do I think of God as a provider of my needs?
I have often said that one of my favorite outdoor activities is looking at water. This is meant to convey the idea that I am not much of an outdoorsy person, but it’s also true. I like nothing better than watching the water sparkle as it catches the light. I love to walk along it, or sit on a dock or a friend’s boat. I love to listen to the lapping of waves of any size and breathe along with their rhythm.
It’s easy to dissolve things in water. It can be polluted by tiny organisms you can’t see, which aren’t part of water, but go down easy right along with it. Water can deliver things that make you sick, or additives that are supposed to be good for you. Water can be polluted or too salty to drink.
Water flows from our eyes when we’re sad, and sometimes when we’re happy. It oozes from our pores when we are hot, exerting ourselves, or nervous. Sometimes we soak in water to relax, and we frequently use it to cleanse our bodies, our food, our cars. Sometimes it falls from the sky. Often, it freezes or morphs into steam, seeming to disappear. It is both beautiful and hard to think about a God who might be like steam.
Lauren reminds us that no one image can fully encompass God, which is why the Bible is so full of them. “Each image invites a different response from us, a different way we might be with and for God.”
I have barely scratched the surface of water as a metaphor for God. Still, I’m left with many questions, many new ways of relating to God. I will continue to ponder this as I pour a glass of water out of my Brita pitcher, and as I dip my fingers into the font on Sundays to remember that I am beloved. I will think about it when I read about our contaminated local river, and the harmful things in the water supply around the country and the world. I will turn it over in my mind as I add water to a recipe, or step into a steaming shower. Suddenly, this isn’t just a verse or two in Jeremiah, but a phrase laden with meaning, deeply relating to something I see and experience every day. Now, as I sip, I’m not just hydrating, I’m drinking God.