I grew up in an evangelical church where worship was informal and sacraments were almost nonexistent. Visiting more traditional churches, I was taken aback by the reverence people had for baptismal fonts full of water. Some even called it “holy water.” How could something as commonplace as water be holy?
A better question should have been: How could anything as essential to life as water not be holy? Whether you’re being baptized in it, drinking it, or washing your clothes in it, water is more than just a necessity. In a short piece for the Colorado-based literary magazine Ruminate, Jessie van Eerden describes her connection with water, and the droughts she experienced as a child. Despite her mother’s efforts to conserve, the family’s well sometimes ran dry, requiring them to get water from the church:
[Mom] drove us in the truck out to Beatty Church and we filled milk jugs at the hand pump, the same place we got water for a foot-washing or a baptism at Beatty. I remember the ways we used the jugged water that first night, in particulars, for we had to be sparing. In a shallow sink, we washed the eggs just laid by the hens, scrubbing loose the clods of shit and sawdust, and I had my mouth washed out with water and soap when I called it shit on the eggs and not manure, and my sister heated water on the stove to clean our faces with before bed. The water made itself holy because of those particulars
For van Eerden, holiness isn’t the same thing as purity or religiosity. It’s earthier, messier, and based in human realities of need. Unlike turning on a tap, the holiness van Eerden describes is neither easy nor immediate:
And when we hauled the pump’s water again from the truck to the basement, and the gallon jugs hung heavily in both my hands, I learned that water could be as heavy as stones, and that you had to wait, sometimes for days, for the world to be renewed.