Water is a Sacrament of Salvation

I felt the Holy Spirit move me Thursday morning at Manna House. I had to say a few things about water as I invited all of us to wash our hands before entering the backyard.

“Come and wash your hands!

Wash this death-dealing virus away!

Soap up and let the water flow over your hands.

Water is liberation. Water is life.

The Israelites passed through water on their way out of slavery into freedom.

Jesus passed through water on his way into his liberating work as the Son of God.

In baptism we pass through water on our way to liberation from sin and death.

I got a few “Amens,” and “Alleluias,” from guests as they went to the handwashing stations. I believe the hand washing took on a holy significance. 

Hand washing, especially in this time of pandemic, is a way to promote life, the fullness of life for which Jesus came.

And hand washing points to another reality. Water is at the heart of the hospitality we offer at Manna House. Certainly, without water, no hands get washed. 

Even more, without water we could not offer hot coffee for guests to drink. Without water there would be no cooler filled with cold water to drink on hot days. Without water we could not offer showers for our guests. Without water we could not do laundry to cleanse the clothes and towels for showers. Without water we could not clean the coffee pots and sugar containers, and we could not mop the floors.

From beginning to end, water flows through our hospitality. Water’s role in hospitality signifies God’s liberating welcome to new life. Biblically, water is a sacrament of salvation.

The prophet Isaiah says, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3).

Jesus makes offering water a sign of discipleship. “Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward” (Mark 9:41). And again, “I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink” (Matthew 25:35).

At the Last Supper, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. After this washing in water he gives them the new liberating commandment for life in God, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).

Paul writes that we are buried with Christ “through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4, see also 1 Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:27, Ephesians 4:5 and Colossians 2:12).

In the Book of Revelation, the final vision includes “the river of the water of life.” This life-giving river flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb, and the hospitable invitation is given, “let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:1-2, 17).

On Thursday morning, I felt the Spirit hover over the waters of hospitality at Manna House (Genesis 1:2). There was a hint of the new creation made possible as water flowed and offered life. And it all started with the invitation to wash our hands.

The Transfiguration of the Lord and of the Slow Man in the Shower

The showers at Manna House these days are a scarce commodity. Due to COVID19 restrictions, instead of two in the shower room, only one person at a time is allowed into shower. The shower room also needs to be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized between each shower. And we have reduced our hours of hospitality, so volunteers and guests alike spend less time together, even with masks and physical distancing. Due to all of these considerations, instead of twenty people on Monday and twenty people on Thursday getting a chance to shower, we only have room for six on each day.

            I am sure that showers are the most important physical form of hospitality we offer at Manna House. No doubt the safe sanctuary offered is important, and so are the socks and hygiene, and the coffee. But the showers and the change of clothes for each person who showers, are most transformative.

            Today, near the end of the morning, two of the people who had signed up for showers did not show up. There was enough time, barely, to offer another person a shower. Among the guests still in the backyard there were several regular guests who had showered on Monday. They declined the offer to shower. “Give it to someone who hasn’t showered yet this week,” each of them said.

            There was a new guest. He sat alone on a bench drinking his coffee. In front of him was his wheelchair, with his belongings strapped to the chair with various ropes and makeshift ties made out of grocery store bags. He was delighted to be asked to shower. “I haven’t had a shower for several weeks. I’m covered in sweat and mosquito spray.”

            Off he went to the clothing room. Volunteers carefully and compassionately helped him pick out clothes and shoes. Then he went into the shower room. 

            Last call was made for coffee. All the other guests left. The coffee pot, coffee cups, and sugar and creamer containers were picked up and put away. The shirts, socks, and hygiene items to be shared with guests in the backyard were all picked up and put away inside. The trash was taken out. and trash cans were taken to the street. The laundry was sorted, and two loads of laundry were begun. We gathered in the house for our time of reflection with all of the volunteers. And after all of this, there was still no sign of the man who had gone into the shower room.

            I grew a bit impatient. I said to one of the volunteers, “No good deed goes unpunished.” 

I asked a volunteer who had helped get the man ready for his shower, “What do you think is taking him so long?” She said, “Well, I know he wanted to shave.”

Not ready to wait any longer, I started toward the shower room door. Just then, the man appeared, smiling, freshly shaved, clean clothes, and a fresh mask that he was beginning to put on. “I feel like a new man,” he said.

I thought about how he looked in the backyard before he was asked if he wanted to shower. Hunched over his coffee cup, eyes down, rumpled and smelly clothes. I thought about how he looked now, and what he said.

Then I thought about this day, the Feast of the Transfiguration. Jesus on the mountain “was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light” (see the whole story in Matthew 17:1-9).

            I thought about how right Peter was when he said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here.”

            I thought about how before me now, as Jesus promised, was he himself, mystically present (Matthew 25:31-46). I heard, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”

            I did not fall down prostrate as the disciples did at Jesus’ transfiguration. But I did hear at the transfiguration of the slow man in the shower, “Rise, and do not be afraid of people who take too long in the showers.”

            Sometimes I am slow to hear God. Often, I am hard of heart. Like Peter in the Gospels, I have little faith. I over-estimate my willingness to follow Jesus, and under-estimate the cost of discipleship. I need constant reminders that God is not far away, and yet is on a different timetable than my own.            

Jesus told his disciples as they came down from the mountain after the Transfiguration, “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” I am telling you this vision of the transfiguration of the slow man in the shower because death has been defeated. Jesus has already been raised from the dead. And for this reason transfiguration can happen at Manna House on Madison Heights, like it did on Mount Tabor.