A few years ago I was hired to help a parish whose church had been in turbulence for 20 years. The previous three parish priests had arrived in good health but each one was later invalided out due to various forms of mental ill health. Not surprisingly, through this period the whole congregation had entered into a kind of collective depression. This was a pattern the regional HQ did not want to see repeated. My job was to go in, find out what had been going wrong and fix it before the appointment of the next pastor.
When I had been there a couple of months I pieced together another layer of the story. I began counting the families in the congregation with children. I pieced together the disturbing and taboo information that around 88% of those families had at least one child suffering with major illnesses such as brain cancer, leukemia, anorexia etc. The children became ill after the families’ arrivals at the church. More disturbing still, this figure did not include the families whose children had died.
Before I took on the assignment I spent some time in prayer to prepare myself for the journey. Each day as part of my personal pattern of life I read a portion of the Bible. Through what was coming up in my daily readings I sensed that in this assignment God was sending me “to make bitter waters sweet.” It was a phrase that emerged from various stories in the Old Testament. Though the stories in the Old Testament are about real physical water and real physical healing, in my own cultural programming I took the phrase “to make bitter waters sweet” as a metaphor for the community healing that my work would involve.
However on my arrival I learned that the suburb had an aboriginal name that means “waters” and that every street was named after a water course. The church building was, accordingly, full of images of water and rivers. I began to wonder if my divine instruction was meant more literally than I had first supposed.
After a while Ruth and I noticed that a certain street, leading to the church, had a bad vibe about it. Then we noticed that someone had taken great efforts to paint a larger than life size image in the storm water drain running parallel to the street. The image was of a girl lying dead in the water with two black demons standing over her.
We did not sense that God was asking us to do anything specifically about the graffiti but was simply telling us to cleanse the waters. “If we cleanse the waters,” I said, “I have a hunch that the council will issue an order to erase the graffiti. I reckon that will be the sign that we have done what we need to.”
I did not know who to ask to help me with the cleansing. It was the first time I had ever been involved in water-healing. And it seemed a bit out there – even to me! I mentioned it to a young university student who, from previous assignments, I knew to be spiritually sensitive. I just mentioned vaguely that I was thinking of doing some prayer-walking around the water courses in the neighborhood. I didn’t say more than that because I didn’t want to sound crazy!
Immediately on hearing this my friend took out his iPad. “I have been doing that for a couple of weeks now,” he said. He then showed me the neighborhood from a God’s-eye-view – on Google Earth! He said, “Water enters the parish here, here and here. It all leaves at this point. If we go to those four locations we will have covered the entire suburb.” Clearly, I had asked the right guy!
So we did. Along with the parish priest of the adjacent Anglican church, we set out to visit the four key water points. To our surprise the municipal authority had dispatched its own workers that very day to clear the neighborhood’s water courses of the build-up of overgrowth and debris. It was just a funny coincidence that the council had picked that particular day to give the water courses some attention!
So we did everything that I had seen modeled in my reading of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament – particularly the book of Hebrews. We prayed prayers of spiritual cleansing over the waters, dropped the consecrated bread and wine of Communion into the water. We sprinkled oil that had been prayed over and set aside for use in healing prayer. We repeated this at all four points. The work took a whole day and we went home tired but feeling in our spirits that we had done what we needed to.
That night the heavens opened. It rained and rained and rained. We had to sand-bag my home to prevent it flooding. It rained solidly for three days and three nights. All the water courses flooded. Ruth and I said to each other, “This is going to wash what we have done through the whole neighborhood.”
The following week, after the waters, had subsided the council came dispatched another body of workers who duly removed the demonic graffiti. That was our sign that something had changed.
We watched and saw the impact on the faith community. Children were recovering and not getting ill. And the social life of the church healed beyond recognition. And in the time since the community and its new pastor have thrived together.
To my surprise and amazement there was a further proof that something to do with the water itself had changed. A few weeks after our day working with the neighborhood’s water, a man came to visit me. He said,
“Paul, I have been listening to your teaching. Your preaching has encouraged me to begin reading the Bible and praying again. Through what was coming up in my Bible-readings I somehow sensed that God was telling me to drink more water. So that is what I have been doing. I have made a point of drinking our local tap water every day. And now something miraculous has happened. For 20 years I have suffered in my throat. It has given me a squeaky voice and left me unable to sing. After three weeks of drinking the tap water my throat has completely healed. For the first time in 20 years I can praise God with a song!!”
This post-script demonstrated that what the community had just experienced was farm more than a symbolic act or a prophetic action to invoke God’s help and healing in some kind of ethereal or spiritual day. Something in the water had changed. Whereas before the waters carried an imprint of harm and ill-health, it now somehow carried an imprint or signal of health and healing.
This was my first personal experience in the healing of waters – though I had previously experienced the healing of places. And I had long known that the physical healing of water is a part of the narrative of the Bible. I had also learned that water, blessed, and set aside for healing purposes, has been used for centuries in the healing of places in diverse spiritual traditions. Yet the impact of spiritual and emotional environments on water is a realm that science has yet to model adequately. However a more basic level there is no shortage of evidence that the health of the water we drink is vital to our own physical health.
What I have shared with you in this post may sound stranger than fiction. That is because it’s a true story! It happened to me while I was serving as an Archdeacon in the Anglican Church in Australia. The healing of water and the healing of our bodies with water have since become a vital part of my practice.
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