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Home Who's who Bishops The Right Reverend Nicholas Holtam. Sermons, articles, and speeches Sermon at the 2017 JustWater Service at St Paul’s Cathedral

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Sermon at the 2017 JustWater Service at St Paul’s Cathedral

by glynch — last modified 10 Apr, 2017 04:03 PM

Bishop Nicholas preached this sermon at the ‘JustWater: God in Ordinary’ service at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, on Sunday 9 April 2017

Texts: Genesis 1.1-13 (not 9); John 2.1-11.


When the Archbishop of Cape Town launched the JustWater initiative in February he spoke movingly about the preciousness of water, particularly in those parts of the world where water is scarce. He encouraged us to think of water as holy, as we should think of all the gifts of creation. 

His words caused me to think of one of my favourite paintings in the National Gallery, a still life of ‘A Cup of Water and a Rose’ by the seventeenth century Spanish artist, Zurbaran. A delicate white ceramic cup is filled almost to the brim with water. A pink rose rests on the rim of the plate and is delicately reflected in it. The wooden shelf on which they sit and dark background coupled with the soft light display life-size objects of exquisite beauty, almost sacramental in the way they convey the holiness of the ordinary.  

In the first of the creation stories at the beginning of the Book of Genesis as God made everything and after each day there is the refrain, “And God saw that it was good”. 


Only water, ordinary water. 

70% of the planet is covered by water - 326 million trillion gallons of it: 97% is salty and 2% ice, which means 1% is fresh water for all humanity’s needs. Water is a precious commodity, a scarce resource, increasingly contested and a focus for disputes. Under control it is a means of good health, well-being, safety and power. Out of control it can bring floods, death and destruction. The biblical image from the first creation story in the book of Genesis is of God’s spirit moving over the face of the waters creating life out of chaos.  

Water connects us. Environmental issues do not know national boundaries. Walls do not stop them. The plastic rubbish that collected in the Pacific Ocean belongs to us all. Water has the potential us help to live together in one world because there is a risk that if we do not do so we have the destructive power or the careless laziness for there to be no world. The care of the earth is the care of our common home. 

In slogan:

“There is no planet B.” 

JustWater and the care of creation seems a strange theme for Palm Sunday at the start of Holy Week, as we set out to re-enact the way of the cross. The connection might be made through the water of baptism by which Christians die and rise again in water and Spirit to become disciples walking in the way of the cross.  

Water of Baptism

In Salisbury cathedral there is a huge font. Designed by William Pye, it was installed in 2008 to mark the 750th anniversary of the consecration of the cathedral. It sits in the centre of the nave as you enter from the great west door, a great brimming bowl of water made of green patinated bronze in a cruciform shape 3 metres wide, it holds1300 litres of water which on the surface looks still as glass but overflows at the four lips of the cross. Around its edge is a text from Isaiah 42.1,2:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.

At the preparation for the baptism of adults, I often ask candidates about the significance of water:

What percentage of us is water? About 78% for a baby, 60% for an adult man, average about 65%.

We were carried by our mother in a sack of amniotic fluid and were born when her waters broke and we were pushed out into the world.

And so on. 

Through the water of baptism we who are wonderfully and fearfully made in God’s image are reborn through the waters of baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection. The Spirit of God is breathed into us. We become members of the Christian church; we physically enter the body of the church and through the font are brought into a place in which the community gather in worship at an altar where we take bread and wine as the Lord Jesus Christ told his disciples to do in his memory.  

The second reading was the story of the wedding at Cana in John 2.1-11. It is an “on the third day story”, a resurrection story, the first of the signs in John’s Gospel when water is turned into wine. Here the ‘ordinary’ extraordinary gifts of creation are transformed as the water of the rites of purification in the old covenant become wine.  

Through baptism Christians enter a community of faith, a school for disciples who seek to follow in the way of Jesus Christ. The church a laboratory of the Spirit in which the love of God is what makes us fully human. In George Herbert’s memorable phrase here is “Heaven in ordinary, man well drest”. 

The goodness and beauty of holiness that we meet in worship is very compelling as we find ourselves transformed and transfigured through the love of God. Our relationships with one another and the great wide earth are put right. 

I love the words of Thomas Traherne:

Your enjoyment of the world is never right, till every morning you awake in
Heaven; see yourself in your Father's Palace; and look upon the skies, the 
earth, and air as Celestial Joys.                        Thomas Traherne Meditation 28

He might have added water.

And this week we might also make the connection with the action through which Christ taught his disciples to serve by washing one another’s feet. It is this community that we learn to act peacefully, be about the truth, act justly and grow in love, all values under threat in the present world.  

JustWater Water Justice

When Archbishop Thabo spoke at the launch of JustWater of the precious holiness of water he went on to make something very basic but important and practical. “Water is life”, he said. “Sanitation is dignity.” 

More than half of households worldwide have access to clean water in their homes.  That means something like 40% do not. The number of people without a safe toilet is increasing as people move into more crowded cities. Diseases caused by contaminated water kill more people every year than all forms of violence, including war. By prioritising clean water we can improve the health and livelihoods of millions of people. 

More people have a mobile phone than have a toilet.   

1 in 10 people are living without safe drinking water. 

Loretta Minghella, the Chief Executive of Christian Aid, the British churches aid agency, said at the launch of JustWater that the best way of tackling climate change and environmental degradation is to tackle poverty.  Providing water empowers people.  That is why sixth of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

The vision of the Sustainable Development Goals is that by 2030 everyone will have safe drinking water.  This is a political choice.  We can do it but we need to want to do it.   

The difference between the SDGs and the Millennium Development Goals is that the SDGs require something of everyone, including the so called developed world. In this, the UK and Europe are falling behind. The world Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet report highlights, for example, that in the UK fresh water bio-diversity has decreased by 81% since 1970.   

To tackle this requires strong partnerships. Church is local everywhere and can work with charities, NGO’s, governments and business. This is all our responsibility and it is why the JustWater initiative has also been taking place at St George’s Cathedral Cape Town, St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne and Trinity Wall Street in New York as well as here at St Paul’s Cathedral. 

One of my responsibilities is to be the Church of England’s lead bishop on the environment my main concern is not the technical issues of economics, politics and science but the spiritual gap between what we say we believe and what we do. This is not a new problem. St Paul in the Epistle to the Romans says, “the good that I would I do not and that which I do I would not”. The churches and other faith communities have some experience of addressing this. There is nothing more important or pressing in our world than the spiritual gap between what we say we believe and what we do. Our commitment to doing good is undoubted, to providing safe drinking water and clean sanitation for all. “Water is life. Sanitation is dignity.” How to achieve it is more pressing. 

This Holy Week, as we walk with Christ on the way of the cross, we make a choice. We see that life is a precious and holy gift, and we are called to love God and love our neighbours as ourselves, to walk in the way of Jesus Christ and live lives of service. Just water, ordinary, precious, holy water, used justly will quench thirst, wash feet, give life to the glory of God in ordinary.


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