This morning's news includes a report that the Coast Guard is considering burning the oil slick on the Gulf of Mexico. Choosing the controlled burn seems to be the sort of option I often discuss with my students in ethics class: what do we do when faced with two or more options, none of which are desirable? In this case, if the oil slick isn’t burned, forecasters think it will be reaching the Gulf shore, covering birds and beaches with oil and creating a disaster for both wildlife and for people whose incomes depend on tourism along the shore.
The irony of learning that what was left of the oil rig fell into the Gulf of Mexico on Earth Day is compounded by this latest development. Seth Borenstein’s Earth Day article that ran in many newspapers and that I mentioned in my post The Day After looked back at the sorts of environmental issues that were the impetus for the first Earth Day, including the infamous flammability of the Cuyahoga River. So we have come full circle in these forty years. There’s still concern in the United States about offshore oil spills, and there’s still talk of water burning. This time, though, instead of river pollution accidentally catching fire, we are talking about a controlled burn in the Gulf of Mexico as a possible best option.
For Christians, water is a symbol of cleansing, of new life in baptism. Last Wednesday at Hastings College we held an outdoor chapel service designed by students. We started with a water liturgy, pouring water into a container while talking about its meaning for us throughout Scripture and especially in our baptisms. Dr. Dan Deffenbaugh preached about the river of the water of life, using Revelation 22 as the text and reminding us of the wonder and sacredness of the great Ogallala aquifer beneath our feet. At the end of the service, we used smaller containers to take water from our “font” to the trees and flowers around us.
Coming soon after our celebration of the Great Vigil of Easter, when we talk about water in the story of creation, in the Exodus from Egypt through the Red Sea, and in our baptisms, this Earth Day service reinforced for me the sense of the holy meaning of water for Christians.
I wonder today, then, what meaning we give to burning water. What might it say to us on a deeper level if later today we do see images of the huge oil slick burning in the Gulf? What does it mean to have burning water become a recurring image in the United States? What does it mean when setting the water on fire -- and adding to the pollution of our air -- looks like our best option? And I wonder how we can make a connection with the reality of burning water in our liturgy, how we can acknowledge and find hope and redemption in the image of the water that cleanses us and gives us life being so contaminated that it burns.