Water is on our mind, on the east coast of Australia, at the moment. Widespread flooding has occurred. Houses and businesses in many seaside locations, as well as in inland flood plains beside rivers, have been inundated by rising waters. People have been evacuated, some were stuck away from home, some now have no home to return to amd live in.
The power of water has been on display all around us. Constant sheets of wind-driven rain have fallen across hundreds of kilometres on the eastern coast of Australia. Surges of creek and river waters created currents that moved vehicles—even houses—and spread across flood plains, invading domestic and industrial spaces in towns and suburbs. Crashing ocean waves menaced beaches and cliff-faces, and currents swirled fiercely in the ocean.
We stand in awe and trepidation before the power of water—just as, a little over a year ago, we stood in awe and trepidation as roaring fires swept through bushland, invaded towns and suburbs, and wrought widespread and long-lasting damage. Then, we pondered, as now, we reflect on what this manifestation of “Nature, red in tooth and claw” means for us, as people of faith. (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/12/reflecting-on-faith-amidst-the-firestorms/)
Is this a demonstration of divine power in the pouring rain and rising floodwaters? Is this, somehow (as some would maintain), God declaring judgement on human beings, for our sinful state and rebellious nature?
I have been looking at a range of public commentary on the floods. One church website (not Uniting Church) includes these statements: “[These] devastating floods are not to be considered as an act of judgement upon our world, but instead, a warning to repent. Whether it’s drought, bushfire, flood or pandemic, these disasters are an important time for us all to consider Christ in the crisis. As we pray for the recovery of our land from these devastating floods, let us also pray that through this disaster might be a fresh opportunity for people to find eternal comfort and security in Christ Jesus.”
This appears to understand the floods as God seeking to make human beings respond with an act of faith in Jesus. Whilst ancient understandings may have made this kind of immediate connection between an event in nature and the intentions of God, we cannot make such a simple link. It’s much more than just “flood—warning—repentance—faith”. We need to reflect more deeply.
Water, of course, is an essential of life. It covers 70% of the surface of planet Earth. We need water. Without access to water, humans and other creatures will dehydrate, weaken, and die. Scientific analysis indicates that 60% of the human adult body is water; the brain and heart are composed of 73% water, muscles are 79% water, and the lungs are about 83% water. (See https://www.usgs.gov/special-topic/water-science-school/science/water-you-water-and-human-body?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects)
Water in our bodies helps us to form saliva, regulate body temperature through sweating, contribute to the brain’s manufacturing of hormones and neurotransmitters, lubricate our joints, and enable oxygen to be distributed throughout the body. Water facilitates the digestion of food, and the waste that is produced in our bodily systems is regularly flushed out as we pass urine. And we use water every day, to wash away solid bodily waste, to clean our hair and skin, to wash our clothes and keep our kitchen utensils clean.
Water is also a source of enjoyment: sitting on the beach, watching the powerful rhythmic surge of wave after wave; sitting beside the babbling brook, appreciating the gentle murmuring of running water; sitting beside the pool, listening the the squeals of delight as children jump into the water, splashing and playing with unrestrained glee.
The power of the ocean, of course, has often drawn the attention of human beings. We are reminded of this when swimmers are caught in rips and transported rapidly out into the ocean, or towards the jagged rocks at the edge of the beach. Sadly, the son of a friend was caught in a rip one day a few years ago. His two companions were rescued; the body of our friend’s son has never been found. The power of the ocean, whipped up by the wind, can be intense and unforgiving.
Water makes regular appearances in the Bible. It is a key symbol throughout scripture. It appears in the very first scene, when the priestly writer tells how, “in the beginning … the earth was without form and void … and a wind from God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:1-2).
It also appears near the very end of the last book of scripture, where the exiled prophet reports that “the Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift” (Rev 22:17).
Water flows throughout the scripture as a central image, appearing another 720 times in the intervening pages of scripture. Water enables healings to occur, for instance (Namaan, commander of the army of the king of Aram, in 2 Kings 5; the man by the pool at the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem, in John 5).
To the people of Israel, as they retold their foundational myth of the Exodus and the subsequent forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the gift of water was a sustaining grace. Parched by desert thirst, the Israelites cried out for water, Moses struck the rock, and water flowed (Exod 17:1–7; Num 20:2-13). Rivers flowing with water then provided food for the people living in the land—the fish of the waters (Deut 14:9; Lev 11:9), alongside the beasts of the land and the birds of the air (Ezek 29:3-5; Deut 14:3–20; Lev 11:1–45).
Flowing water—“living water”—is one of the images adopted in John’s account of Jesus, to explain his role within the society of his day: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37–38).
The precise scriptural quote is unclear—commentators suggest that the reference may be to Prov 18:4 (“the fountain of wisdom is a bubbling brook”), or Zech 14:8 (“living waters shall flow out of Jerusalem”), or Psalm 78:16 (“[God] made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers”), or Rev 22:1–2 (“the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city”). The uncertainty as to the precise reference alerts us, however, to the many instances where “living water” is mentioned.
The imagery of water was used, in addition, in earlier stories in this Gospel. To the request of the woman of Samaria at the well, “give me some water”, Jesus replies, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:7–10).
To the crowd beside the Sea of Galilee, who asked, “Sir, give us this bread always”, Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:34–35). Water is powerfully creative, restorative, empowering.
Water also threatens destruction: witness the paradigmatic stories of the Flood (Gen 6:1–9:17) and the Exodus from Egypt (Exod 14:1–15:21, retold in Psalms 78 and 105). The destructive power of massive flows of water is evident in both of these stories: water falling from the heavens (Gen 7:4, 12) in one version of The Flood story, water rising from The Deep in an alternate version (Gen 7:11, 8:2).
Although (as we noted above), the gift of water was a sustaining grace to the people of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness, from the time of settlement in the land of Canaan, the Great Sea to the west of their lands (what we know as the Mediterranean Sea) was seen as a threat. In the sea, Leviathan and other monsters dwelt (Ps 74:13-14; 104:25–26; Isa 27:1).
The Exodus was made possible because the waters of the Red Sea had caught and drowned the Egyptian army (Exod 14:23–28); this unleashing of destructive divine power was celebrated by the escaping Israelites in victory songs (Exod 15:2–10, 19–21), in credal remembrance (Deut 11:2–4; Josh 24:6–7), and in poetic allusions in psalms (Ps 18:13–18; 66:6; 77:18–20; 78:13, 53; 106:8–12; 136:10–16).
In like manner, the waters in The Flood caused almost compete annihilation of living creatures on the earth (Gen 6:12–13, 17); only the family of Noah and the animals they put onto the Ark were saved from the destructive waters (Gen 6:19–21 indicates “two of every sort”, whilst Gen 7:2–3 refers to “seven pairs of all clean animals … and a pair of the animals that are not clean”).
Both the creative power of water, and destructive capabilities of water, led the people of Israel to ascribe power to God over the seas and the rivers. The Psalmist affirms of God that “the sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed” (Ps 95:5).
Accordingly, the Lord God, who “made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them (Ps 146:6), was seen as able to “rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them” (Ps 89:9). God’s power over creation is also expressed through flooding: “The floods have lifted up, O LORD, the floods have lifted up their voice; the floods lift up their roaring. More majestic than the thunders of mighty waters, more majestic than the waves of the sea, majestic on high is the LORD!” (Ps 93:4).
In our current context, such words are deeply troubling. Can it be that God is exercising divine judgement through the increased rainfall and rising floodwaters currently being experienced? There are two problems with this point of view, both with an inherently theological note to be sounded.
The first relates to the nature of God, and how God interacts with the created world. The ancients had a view that God was an interventionist God, directly engaging with the created world. When something happened “in nature” (like a birth, a death, a flood, a fire, and earthquake, etc), it was seen to be directly attributable to God. It simply happened “to” human beings.
Contemporary scientific and sociological views, however, would provide much more room for human agency. When things happen, what contribution does the human being (or an animal of some kind) have in the process? We would want to say that events that take place do not “just happen”; they are shaped by the actions of human beings in history, by our intention and interaction.
So, the second element I see as integral to understanding the current situation, theologically, is the contribution that human beings have made to the current environmental situation. Why are floods occurring more regularly, and with more intensity, in recent times? The answer is, simply, that we are seeing the effects of climate change right around the earth.
And the human contribution to climate change cannot be argued away. Climate change is real. (See this excellent website from NASA, at https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/)
The rate of change to various climatic elements has increased noticeably in the last two and a half centuries, since the Industrial Revolution, and at an exponential rate since the 1960s, when we expanded the use of fossil fuel right across the globe. (See this article on the so-called “hockey stick graph”, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/05/the-hockey-stick-the-most-controversial-chart-in-science-explained/275753/)
We human beings know this. We have known it for some decades, now. Yet policy makers bow to the pressures and enticements they receive from vested interests in business, pressing and bribing to ensure that their businesses can continue—even though it contributes the greatest proportion to the rise in temperature.
For every one degree Celsius that temperature rises, the atmosphere holds 7% more water. Given the right atmospheric conditions (such as we have seen develop in the last week), that water will get dumped somewhere—in recent times, that has been over much of the east coast of Australia, in massive amounts.
And it is obvious to thinking human beings, that how we have lived, how we have developed industries, how we have expanded international travel, how we have expanded the transportation of food and other goods around the globe, how we have mined deeper and wider to find fossil fuels to sustain this incessant development, has all contributed to that rise in temperature.
Certainly, a fundamental human response to the tragedies we have seen unfolding around us through the rainfall and flooding, is one of compassion. Compassion for the individuals who have borne the brunt of the damage that has occurred.
Compassion and thankfulness for the emergency services personnel and others who have spent countless hours in assisting those caught by the floods. Compassion and careful listening provided by Disaster Recovery Chaplains in many evacuation centres.
Compassion, practical support, and prayerful support for all who have been affected by these events, is fundamental.
Yet whilst the massive rainfall and the high floods are the processes of nature at work around us, we know that we have intensified and exacerbated them. And we see tragic results in the rivers that have surged and flooded in recent days—just as the same instability in the earth’s system has generated more intense and more frequent cyclones, created more intense and more frequent fires, warmed the oceans and melted the edges of the polar caps, and caused other observable events around the world.
This past week, there have been two opportunities for us to remember what we are doing to the planet—opportunities to commit to a different way of living in the future. The first was Australia’s Overshoot Day, on 22 March. This is the day that Australia has used up its yearly allocation of the earth’s resources. What should have taken 365 days has taken Australians 81 days. You can read about this at https://www.insights.uca.org.au/overshoot-day-and-a-theology-of-creation/
The second opportunity was Earth Hour 2021, on 27 March. This hour was an invitation to turn off electricity and rely on natural sources of energy, for just one hour— and then to use this as the basis for living more sustainably in the future. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/27/switchfornature-earth-hour-2021/
So, in the midst of the increased and more intense cyclones, and more regular meltings, and bleachings of coral, and eruptions of fire storms, and flooding of plains, God is communicating with us: the world cannot go on like this, the planet can not sustain our incessant disregard for its natural ways.
So let’s not blame God for dumping all that water and flooding all those homes and businesses. Let’s look closer to home, and consider how, in the years ahead, we can adjust our lifestyle, reduce our carbon footprint, live more sustainably, and treat God’s creation with respect and care.
For my other blogs on the environment, see
My wife Elizabeth Raine has written some helpful reflections on environmental theology at
and a series of blogs on living a life with low environmental impact, at
and a lot more at https://elementcityblog.com (follow the links on the right of the page)