Just Add Water


Water as Sacred
Jewish and Christian traditions

Mary Elizabeth Moore, Director of the Program for Women in Theology and Ministry, Professor of Religion and Education

Vol. 8 No. 5
April/May 2006

Return to Contents

Just Add Water
An interdisciplinary experiment

Reading and Resources

"Why do Atlantans not know that there are massive river
systems throughout the state, that a major river runs through the city, that the city dumps all these effluents into it?"

"When the impervious [surface] area rises to 30 percent,
the stream habitat becomes completely degraded. On campus,
we have greater than 50 percent impervious area."

Safe Access
A social watershed

Water as Sacred
Jewish and Christian traditions

The Rarest Element
Despite centuries of research, mysteries of water remain



Picture a Tongan Christian congregation in Hawaii, worshipping in an outdoor arbor and maintaining a garden behind the neighboring church building. In their garden, the congregation grows everything organically, capturing rainwater for irrigation during dry seasons and harvesting vegetables for themselves and local homeless folk.

Now picture Sabah Theological Seminary (STS) in Sabah, Malaysia, sitting atop a lush hill that is eroding under the influence of urban development. More than half of sts students are tribal people who will later serve rural churches and supplement their incomes with farming. Other students will serve in urban areas that have grown faster than their infrastructures, degrading the water and land. Sabah Theological Seminary has therefore employed an ecologist-agronomist to teach courses in ecology and agriculture. He also teaches students as they work, many farming the school’s large vegetable garden and others replanting sections of the hill threatened by erosion.

Another theological school in Matanzas, Cuba, has a similar garden, which students farm with the local community as a demonstration plot and food source. A congregation nearby has also created a farm. This congregation employs local people in need of work, supplies social service agencies with food, and they can excess vegetables for off-seasons. Further, they experiment with bio-gas technology, powering their kitchen with gas produced from pig dung, and they sponsor an educational program of environmental experiments and conferences with others across Cuba. The result is a large network of Cubans collaborating on local ecological projects.

A final story is more explicitly water related and less explicitly religious. An interdisciplinary group of faculty at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, California, initiated an ecological learning community. After more than twenty years, the Center for Regenerative Studies now has energy-efficient living and teaching facilities, photoelectric energy generation, water catchments, large vegetable gardens, and ongoing experiments. The site sits atop an old city dump, bordered by the new city dump and main campus. In semi-arid Los Angeles County, the faculty leaders gave early attention to water conservation but discovered high pollution in collected rainfall and ground water. Experimenting, they created three water-collecting ponds, terraced to promote water purification. They discovered that water lilies thrived in the polluted waters of the first two ponds, cleansing water that flowed into the third, where tilapia thrived. The water then flowed into a dry gully, restoring the original wetland and its inhabitants. The faculty collaborators who created this center were not explicitly motivated by religion, but their shared sense of sacrality inspired and sustained their work.

These several stories stir imagination and invite deeper exploration into the sacredness of water in Jewish and Christian traditions. As in most religious traditions, creation themes permeate Judaism and Christianity, yielding promise for ecological theology. They also illumine the brief cases of earth care that I have introduced. The themes below are not exhaustive, but they do reveal aspects of a larger whole.


The first theme—sacrality of creation—includes the sacrality of water. Consider Genesis 1: “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. . . . And God saw that it was good.” In this text, God pronounces the creation good before people are created, suggesting that creation is not designed solely for human benefit. In other texts, water is a primary actor in redemptive dramas: the Red Sea helps deliver Hebrew people from Egyptian slavery (Ex. 14); the River Kishon helps the Hebrew people in battle (Judg. 5:19-21); and the River Jordan is the site of Jesus’s baptism (Mt. 3:13-17; Mk. 1:9-11).

Ambiguities persist, however, as in “dominion” descriptions of the human relationship with creation. In her work Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing, theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether also notes that the primal Mother—an important part of Babylonian creation stories—has been mostly eliminated from Hebrew creation stories. I would add that Jewish and Christian efforts to avoid worshipping nature (to distinguish from other ancient and modern traditions) have encouraged people to deny the Holy within creation. Further, the common accent on creation’s role in serving humanity invites anthropocentric interpretations.

One less obvious ambiguity is the way that the Christian church has raised the sacredness of baptismal waters above the sacredness of a mother’s birthing waters, seeing baptism as a truer birth than the human birthing of an infant. This can be seen as early as Pseudo-Dionysius (fifth century) and has persisted through time. Such sacralization of certain waters over others leads to the diminishment of women and natural processes. Further, it obscures the sacredness of all water and all creation.

Covenantal interdependence

Emerging from the first two creation stories (Gen. 1-2:4a and 2:4b-24) is God’s covenantal relationship with creation. God gives life and creates each part purposefully and interdependently with others. God gives plants to people and animals for food (1:29-30); a river flows through Eden to water the garden (2:10); human beings are asked to tend the garden (2:15). Further, God sets limits, commanding the first people not to eat the fruit of one particular tree (2:17). Both creation stories attest to the creative power of God and the interconnectedness of creation. The latter is often overlooked in favor of hierarchical interpretations of God’s instructions to subdue the earth (1:28).
The picture of creation in Hebrew scriptures is cyclical, depicting an ecological system in which cycles of interdependence, circles of day and night, and changing seasons all play their part. Dominant interpretations of Jewish and Christian history have been more linear than cyclical, thus emphasizing the movement of history toward a teleological end. Subsequent Christian distortions perpetuate visions of Armageddon or a future Kingdom that obscure the urgent tending of creation’s cycles in the present.


The sacrality of God’s world naturally calls forth praise. Creation evokes praise: “For the Lord is a great God. . . . The sea is [God’s], for [God] made it” (Ps. 95:3-5). Creation is also expected to give praise: “Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it” (96:11-13). Further, Jewish and Christian traditions are seasoned with creation rituals. Though many have been lost, ecologically oriented religionists are recovering many rituals to celebrate and appreciate the moon and harvest, the rivers and seas.


The final theme is humility—the strongest antidote to anthropomorphism. This includes humility before God, the Creator and Sustainer, as well as humility before creation. Many Christian monastic traditions—Franciscan and Benedictine for example—attribute central value to humility, embodied in prayer, simple living, and reverence for creation. Christian anthropomorphism has mediated against this practice of humility, however, as has the dangerous marriage between Christianity and the politics of empire, especially since the fourth century Constantinian era. Humility remains a prominent challenge in the current era.

Water itself can inspire humility, given its power to nourish and destroy. This is boldly represented in hurricanes, tsunamis, and the flood narrative of Genesis 6-9:17. Here God judges the people for their wickedness and causes a flood to destroy the earth, saving only a remnant—Noah’s family and two of every creature. The text begins with God’s regret in creating humankind (6:6). Though Noah is identified as “a righteous man, blameless in his generation” (6:9), his righteousness earns him huge responsibility at God’s behest. God is portrayed as a powerful judge, and water is the instrument of judgment. The narrative forecloses any temptation to romanticize water, but it does more. The story ends with God’s promise never again to destroy the earth and all of its creatures. Then God places a rainbow as “sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations” (9:12). Here we see humility mediated through water, first by God’s judgment, then by God’s promise of “never again,” and finally by God’s covenantal promise to all of creation, not just to humanity.

These four theological accents bear far more promise for ecological theology than has been developed to date. As we have seen, however, religious traditions can nourish or distort human relations with earth and water. The cases with which I began represent efforts to highlight and intensify the sacrality of creation, and they embody covenantal interdependence and humility as well. They actually extend the biblical accounts, especially by attending simultaneously to human and ecological well-being, recognizing the complexity of these relationships to which scriptures only point. The church cases reveal qualities of praise in the very act of care. In so doing, they point beyond modernist separations of work and worship, play and praise. Further, the case of the Center for Regen-erative Studies highlights the importance of not only protecting the earth and its resources, but also contributing to regeneration.

These living communities enact, extend, intensify, and complicate traditional creation themes, suggesting the need for a dialogic relationship between sacred texts and religious practices in contemporary communities. The challenge for our generation is to engage in this dialogue and to engage the world with our lives—to reclaim, critique, reinterpret, and embody life-nurturing traditions for the sake of a hurting creation.