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institute Sesquiotic




Sermon, Church of the Holy Trinity, Toronto, December 7, 2008

Isaiah 40:1–11; 2 Peter 3:8–15a (readings from the Tao Te Ching below substituted); Mark 1:1–8


Naturally, when preparing a sermon, I turn to the literature that is most sacred to me. So when I was given the topic of water, I turned to the latest issue of National Geographic.

For water, any issue would do, actually. Every story in National Geographic has some connection to water, and it’s a major player in many of them.

This issue there’s a story on a river, the Klamath River in Washington and Oregon. The lower reaches of it host spawning salmon. The upper reaches of it are dammed to provide electricity and irrigation. Some of the lakes that once fed into it have been drained and are now fertile growing land. The damming appears to be leading to loss of the salmon. Everyone and everything around needs it. They can’t all have it entirely simultaneously, so compromises are being worked on.

There’s also a story on Mars. Mars, which has great gulleys carved by massive flows of water long ago. Mars, on which now all the available water is locked up as ice. And which as a result looks in many ways the same as it did thousands, even millions, of years ago. I’m put in mind of Death Valley. I haven’t been there, but a friend who was recently there told me of an abandoned mining town a century old – and the machines and buildings look nearly new. They don’t rot; there’s no water.

The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi manuscripts were found, two millennia later, so neatly preserved, in a desert climate. In wet India, on the other hand, the oral tradition has always been held the more reliable; books can decompose (or be vermiculated) between one time the average Canadian might actually open their family Bible and the next.

Also in this issue there’s a story on community health care workers in India. What is one of the greatest things these workers have done to improve the health of people in the communities they serve? Give them access to water. To clean water.

Water. Everything needs it. Lack of it can make the grass wither and the flower fade. When new life springs forth after a brush fire, it needs water to do so. But water is not like food. When I feed my plants, they turn it into leaves and stems and shoots and roots. When I water them, they pass it through them and it transpires from the leaves. But it has carried nutrients. It has allowed cells to move things between them and within them. It has filled the cells and the inner channels of the plants – healthy, water-filled leaves are firmer.

The salmon swim in the water, and it carries oxygen and food to them. The farmers’ crops use the water likewise to transport nutrients – nutrients from the rich soil that accumulated over millennia underneath a lake, which took these things and deposited them and held them safe beneath it. Everything that moves inside your body needs water. The air comes up to the walls of the alveoli in the lungs, touches, and goes back out; the blood picks up the oxygen and takes it where it needs to be. No water, no blood, no oxygen.

But water brings bad as well as good. The villagers of India need clean water, because unclean water carries disease. The public water system in Harare, Zimbabwe, has been cut off because of a cholera outbreak.

Water takes away. The deep valleys in Mars were carved by water when it was running free. The Laurentians don’t look like the Rockies anymore because of erosion – and water plays a most important part in that. When every valley is lifted up and every mountain made low, it’s because the water ran down the mountain into the valley and took the soil with it.

And water keeps people from getting to things. Boats can cross water, but horses could cross faster if it weren’t there. Water endangers Venice, which had five feet of flooding this week, but Venice wouldn’t even be Venice without water.

Water keeps things from getting to people, too. Like air, if it’s in your trachea or lungs. Sailors sail on water. Sailors drown in water.

brings life
because it moves
and carries
and is there.

brings death
because it moves
and carries
and is there.

is change.

remains water.

I added to today’s scripture readings with three selections from the Tao Te Ching.



The highest good is like water.
Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.


The great Tao flows everywhere, both to the left and to the right.
The ten thousand things depend upon it; it holds nothing back.
It fulfills its purpose silently and makes no claim.

It nourishes the ten thousand things,
And yet is not their lord.
It has no aim; it is very small.

The ten thousand things return to it,
Yet it is not their lord.
It is very great.

It does not show greatness,
And is therefore truly great.


Under heaven nothing is more soft and yielding than water.
Yet for attacking the solid and strong nothing is better;
It has no equal.
The weak can overcome the strong;
The supple can overcome the stiff.
Under heaven everyone knows this,
Yet no one puts it into practice.
Therefore the sage says:
     He who takes upon himself the humiliation of the people is fit to rule them.
      He who takes upon himself the country’s disasters deserves to be king of the universe.
The truth often sounds paradoxical.


What do we get from these readings? Water is like the tao. It acts without exerting effort. This is true: water simply flows in the course available to it and follows gravity. Gravity: the attraction of a large body acting on it. When it does otherwise, it is because it is acted on by something else. And in all that it does, it moves, and carries, and is there.

And what is the tao?

What makes straight in the desert a highway? Water, for one thing. And for whom?

John baptized with water. What did he say the one who was to come would baptize with? The Holy Spirit. Did Jesus baptize with water?

When you learn to meditate in the Buddhist tradition, you learn that the mind is like the sky, and that thoughts are like clouds: the mind carries them, but they are not the mind. For sky, think water. For clouds, think anything. Water carries, but it is not what it carries. Mind: water: tao. The tao is the way of the mind. Which means the way of the spirit. Your spirit. My spirit. The Holy Spirit.

The baptism of water. The baptism of the spirit. Water for the physical. Spirit for the real. It moves, and carries, and is there. And it is up to you how your spirit moves, and what it carries, and where it is. If it freezes, it can melt. If it evaporates, it can condense. It is change. But it is always what it is, coming and going, filling and draining, carrying and depositing, and still it is what it is. A current of water. In the ocean of God.



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