There is something about sitting by the water.
It’s timeless and moving. Renewing and still. The paradox settles well with us. We’re creatures of water.
Last week BBC Radio broadcast a documentary, by Sir David Attenborough, exploring evidence that our earliest ancestors may have been river people rather than hunters on Africa’s savannas. The body’s buoyancy in water and an abundant, fishy food supply might have helped us develop our heavy brains. The story is a compelling one.
Water opens things for us.
The other thing that happened last week was I took some time away. I went to the city of Bath with K, my gracious maid of honour from way-back-when. Bath is home to Britain’s only natural hot spring. For thousands of years, people have gathered there, looking for healing and health, renewal, relaxation and maybe a little perspective. The Romans liked it there and the Celts before them. It was beside pool ringed by orange-tinted stones that the Celts honoured a goddess they called Sulis. When the Romans arrived with their habits of incorporation, she became known as Sulis Minerva, goddess of wisdom, arts, trade and strategy. Now, there is a museum there, complete with audio-guides, so the clever voice of Bill Bryson can whisper in your ear as you consider the ancient waters. He says that the water which now fills the pools last fell as rain ten thousand years ago which makes even the Romans seem like newcomers and tourists passing through.
Water brings perspective.
In the museum, there are display cases filled with all sorts of things that ancient visitors threw in. Rings, bracelets, so many coins marked with Celtic and Roman faces, brooches, earrings and beads. We can’t know why these objects were left in the water, but it is likely that they were offerings of some kind – maybe a thanksgiving
Archeologists have also found a large number of small lead scrolls. They look like ragged cigars, their edges crumbled and rough. When opened up, their surfaces reveal curses scratched into the soft surfaces. You can still read the words. One records the theft of six silver coins and lists possible suspects; it must have been the Christians, the cursor thinks, or possibly the Pagans. Another note complains about a stolen slave and asks the goddess Sulis Minerva to make the thief’s body melt away as water.
These curses are referred to as “prayers for justice” and they follow a set formula. The stolen property is dedicated to the goddess so that the thief’s action is seen to be against Sulis Minerva herself. The deity is called to anger.
I can see why Paul got frustrated with the Romans. This is the opposite of Christ’s forgiveness – and a million miles away from His self-emptying love. The Romans looked for holy retribution at the water’s edge while Paul suggested burying ourselves with Christ in baptism so that we, too, might walk in the newness of life. He had a strong point. Stewing in anger and trying to lure God into our own fury is a bit of an odd game. Far better to hold anger like a coin in a fist, then pull back and let it fall away, sinking unseen. Looking out across the baths, I wonder what Paul would make of this museum. He’d see that we’re still thirsty and he’d probably have a thing or two to say about our modern fascination with old things. You can imagine him working through the images of old stone and warm water, the strengthening minerals and the hope that only comes from the Living Water.
And yet here by these waters, Roman and Celtic pilgrims alike found release, comfort and renewed strength. I think the modern visitors also find something of worth. It is both interesting and good to consider the lives that went before us, their follies and their joys, their particular ways of seeing and our own family resemblances. We are all part of a much longer parade, all winding our way from cradle to grave, looking for light and love. Along the way, the Spirit surprises us and we find God’s new life at work. In all times and all places, God works all things for the good.