Fluid dynamics; or, water as a symbol of the spirit and the church

Water is frequently used in Scripture as a metaphor for religious things.
In water systems, there are many elements:

  • standing water: pools, ponds, lakes
  • moving water: streams, rivers
  • water that moves in vast quantities from one region to another: waterfalls
  • water transferred by other systems and powers: rain
  • enormous bodies of water, whole other eco systems: oceans

There are many metaphors that can be found here:

  • churches as pools, ponds, and lakes. Standing bodies of water are incredibly important to the surrounding eco-systems: they are reserves of life-giving water, they house fish, they feed nearby plants, they bring water into the earth underneath (underground streams), etc. Lakes can also become stagnant swamps (which are important ecosystems on their own, I grant you, but not very nice to look at, live in, or smell). To avoid becoming stagnant, they need movement: feeding into streams, and having streams feeding into them (also, wind). Lakes in drought will evaporate; they need streams feeding in and rain to refill.
  • moving water (streams, rivers) are an important symbol in prophecy: ‘streams in the desert’ is the most common one. Moving water comes into new places, and fills up new lakes. This is a tremendous metaphor, obviously, for the missionary task of the church, and also our interconnectedness.
  • vast moving water (waterfalls): one of the symbols we use in cascading church planting movements is the massively reproducing movement that scales up until it fills the whole of an area, and then spills over into surrounding areas. Waterfalls are powerful images of this “filling up, spilling over” idea. They move water from one place where it is vastly impactful, into another (possibly entirely different) nearby system.
  • water transferred (rain): one of the greatest forces for water transfer is of course rain, and this is often the image of the spirit: it picks up water from one place and puts it in another. (Yes, that’s a simplification–we’re going for imagery here, not scientific precision). No local lake can do anything about rain, but it’s vital to the whole process. The biggest form of rain is a hurricane that forms over an ocean and then dumps enormous amounts of water inland.
  • enormous bodies of water (oceans): oceans are often an analogy of heaven, especially in quasi-Buddhist thinking. While not going for the whole Nirvana thing, think about the qualitative difference between an ocean and a desert. You can tell a desert that the hurricane bringing life-giving water comes from the ocean, but the desert creatures likely won’t understand what an ‘ocean’ is. The ocean – Heaven – is near to us, and impacting us daily – a huge factor in our environment – but for many of us, the ocean is very far away and hardly understood. Even those living in port cities right on the edge of the ocean often benefit from it, but don’t understand it.

Here’s a thought: how are churches ‘on the edge of heaven’ like cities on the edge of oceans–and how are they connected to far-inland deserts? What does it take to etch a new stream, a new river, a new path for water? What’s the role of dams, and trucking water inland, and pipes – and how are these metaphors for the work of missions, of the church, of the spirit? What does it take for our church not to be a stagnant pool, and what is the role of feeding into streams that migrate to distant lands?