From “Sermon 4, Preached at a Christening” (ca. 1631)
But where shall he lead them? “Unto the living fountains of waters.” In the original, “unto the fountains of the water of life.” Now in the Scriptures, nothing is more ordinary than by the name of “waters” to design and mean “tribulations.” So, among many others, God says of the city of Tyre that he would make it a desolate city, and bring the deep upon it and “great waters should cover it.” (Ezek. 26:19).
Then there is some addition that gives the sense; either they are called “great waters” or “deep waters” or “whirlpools of waters” or “tempestuous waters” or “bitter water” (for God has mingled gall in our water). But we shall never read “fountains of waters,” except when it has a graceful sense, and presents God’s benefits. So, “The water that I shall give shall be in him a well of water, springing up to everlasting life” (John 4:14), and so, everywhere else.
When we are brought to “the fountains,” to this water in the fountain, howsoever we puddle it with our impertinent question in disputation, howsoever we foul it with our sins and ill conversation, the fountain is pure. Baptism presents and offers grace and remission of sins to all.
Nay not only this fountain of water, but the greatest water of all, the flood itself St. Basil understands and applies to baptism, as the apostle himself does: “Baptism was a figure of the flood” and “the ark” (1 Pet. 3:21). For concerning the passage “The Lord sitteth upon the flood, and the Lord doth remain King forever” (Ps. 29:10), he says, “David calls baptism the flood because it destroys all that was sinful in us.” And so also, he refers to baptism these words (when David had confessed his sins): “I thought I would confess against myself my wickedness unto the Lord,” and when it is added, “surely in the flood of great waters, they shall not come hear him” (Ps. 32:5-6), he says, “Original sin shall not come near him that is truly baptized.”
Nay, all the actual sins in his future life shall be drowned in this baptism as often as does religiously and repentantly consider that in baptism, when the merit of Christ was communicated unto him, he received an antidote against all poison, against all sin, if he applied them together, sin and the merit of Christ. For so also he says of that passage, God will subdue all our iniquities and “cast our sins into the bottom of the sea” (Micah 7:19) – “That is, into the sea of baptism. There was a brass sea in the temple and there is a golden sea in the Church of Christ, which the font, the sea into which God flings all their sins, who rightly and effectually receive that sacrament.
These fountains of waters then in the text are the waters of baptism. And if we should take them also in that sense that waters signify tribulations and afflictions, it is true too, that in baptism (that is, in the profession of Christ), we are delivered over to many tribulations. The rule is general: “He chastises all” (Heb. 12:6). The example, the precedent is decisive: “Christ ought to suffer,” and so “enter into glory” (Luke 24:26).
But howsoever waters be afflictions, they are waters of life too, says the text. Though baptism imprint a cross upon us, that we should not be ashamed of Christ’s cross, that we should not be afraid of our own crosses, for by all these waters, by all these cross-ways, we go directly to the eternal life, the kingdom of heaven, for they are lively fountains, fountains of life.
John Donne (1572-1631) was an English cleric, poet, and scholar, acclaimed as one of the finest preachers of his day. He is widely considered the preeminent metaphysical poet, prized for his inventiveness in the use of metaphor and his dramatic, vigorous style. He was ordained after a political and military career, serving as chaplain at Lincoln’s Inn, and for the last ten years of his life, as dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. This undated sermon was published in a posthumous collection. Donne is commemorated on the liturgical calendar of several Anglican churches on March 31. This text is adapted for contemporary readers.