— To read a companion piece with more practical suggestions on how to save water in the home, click here.
In 1995, the Vice President of the World bank made a rather prophetic sounding statement: “If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water.” Now, nearly a decade into that “next century” that he was referring to, there are plenty of signs that these were not the words of a false prophet.
The numbers are so staggering that, even though I’d seen them before, I had to do some double and triple takes in looking at them again. The World Health Organization reports that in 2002 2.6 billion people, about 40% of the earth’s population, had no access to basic sanitation, and 1.1 billion people had no access to any form of what’s called “improved” drinking water, water that has been filtered or processed to rid it of harmful bacteria. (reference here)
This results in millions of deaths a year due to treatable diseases, and it also fuels conflicts between people and nations struggling for limited resources. Again from the World Bank: “More than a dozen nations receive most of their water from rivers that cross borders of neighboring countries viewed as hostile. These include Botswana, Bulgaria, Cambodia, the Congo, Gambia, the Sudan, and Syria, all of whom receive 75 percent or more of their fresh water from the river flow of often hostile upstream neighbors.” (reference here)
In the area of the world outside the US that I’m most familiar with, the Middle East, water is one of the main points of contention between the nation of Israel and the Palestinian population. In keeping with the Oslo agreements of the early 90’s, Israel uses 80% of the water in the aquifers that lie under the Palestinian West Bank territory. Israel also controls the area upstream of the Jordan River. (reference here)
For those Palestinians who live close to Israeli West Bank settlers there is a continual sense of injustice and bitterness toward settlers who are able to water their lawns and fill their swimming pools while Palestinians buy expensive imported water for their basic needs and are banned from drilling their own wells without permits, which are rarely given. The situation for Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip is even worse. As one of the most densely populated areas of the world, Gazans are over-extracting water from the aquifer beneath them, about double the amount that can be replenished each year through rainfall. Being next to the sea, over-pumping has already led to 70% of the water in this aquifer being mixed with sea water that is now leaking in. Having such few options for alternative water, Gazans are drinking this brackish water and experiencing the health problems that this brings. (reference here)
The story of the Hebrews in the desert is an example of how a water shortage has potential to quickly lead to disaster. After leaving their slavery in Egypt where they were constantly under the threat of abuse and punishment, the Israelites are suddenly faced with another kind of threat to their community. No water. A human can tolerate perhaps a few years of forced labor, but a human can’t live for more than a few days without water. Given the urgency of the situation, the Hebrews look quickly for someone to blame, and a natural target is their leadership, Moses, and ultimately, God. They say, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” A fair question, I’d say in light of the circumstances. Faced with their own death, the community borders on mutiny and chaos. Moses knows the urgency of the situation and expresses in a prayer that the people are ready to break out in violence by stoning him.
Consider water. The common need of all of life. Consider its potential for giving life and the threat to life when there is a scarcity. Consider our dependence on good, clean water, and the many who are struggling to stay alive without predictable access to such water.
Leader: God of life,help us to remember,
that, for some, the earth is parched.
We lift to you
those for whom clean water is
not a basic right but a luxury,
We cry out, O God,
against conflict and violence
that leaves crops to wither
and drives families from their homes
to lands where fresh, clean water is only a dream.
All: In this season of rebirth,
may we heed your call
to hunger and thirst
for righteousness —
and may your justice and righteousness
roll down as an ever-flowing stream.
(This prayer taken from the MCC website)
2. Stewardship and Miracle
We’ve talked about Lent as a time of exploring what it means to be human, but water takes us even deeper than that. Water is what makes any life possible. Ever since however many millions of years ago when those two little H’s and that one little O decided that three’s a company, joined hands, and became transformed into the first water molecule, our planet has been a place where it is possible for life to happen. Where there is water, there is life. Where there is no water, no life.
For us humans, water has miraculous qualities. We drink it in to the inside of our bodies and somehow our body adopts that water as part of itself, or at least 2/3rds of itself. Water cleans us on the outside, cleans our dishes, our cars, and carries away our waste. Water plus gravity can equal electricity. Water causes of agricultural plants and our industrial plants to grow.
Given the amount of miraculous water that we depend on to make life work, I couldn’t help thinking about my Grandma Lehman and her own relationship to water and miracle.
I remember the few times when Grandma Lehman would come over to spend the night with us kids that she would put the largest of our cooking pots underneath the faucet in our kitchen that had a slow drip. By morning the pot would be most of the way full and she’d use it to clean the breakfast dishes. This was the same grandma who would save the water from a washer cycle to either use on another cycle or water the plants if it was too dirty to get anything clean.
On one level, these are perhaps the predictable actions of someone who would have had memories of depression era shortages. Accompanied with an inbred Mennonite frugality, you can almost guarantee that the smallest amount of water possible would actually find its way down the drains into the sewage.
On another level, there is an element of mindfulness and respect for creation that went along with her water habits that feels crucial for the kind of spirituality required for living sustainable, healthy lives in the 21st century: A spirituality of responsibility and duty to involve ourselves, in however small ways, in being good stewards of what we are given; a spirituality that sees water for the wonder that it is, a miracle, and desires to see that all of creation can experience that same miracle.
Water and miracle are closely linked in the story of the Hebrews in the desert. We’re not told how the water ended up flowing from the rock, but we are told that this was God’s doing. We’re also told that in order for the water to flow, Moses couldn’t perform the miracle in isolation, but had to take the elders of the people with him to that rock. After Moses and the elders arrived together, they found both God and water, where before there was just a dry rock. And the people had all they needed to drink.
There is good work being done to address the global water crisis. Mennonite Central Committee is working with villagers in Kenya to build sand damns to catch and purify water, with farmers in Cambodia to improve irrigation practices, and with leaders in Palestine to install wastewater treatment systems. On a larger scale, the United Nations has established the Millennium Development Goals to halve global poverty by 2015, with water access being a key element.
So Moses and the elders and God are hard at work. During this time of Lent, when we consider how our daily attitudes and actions connect with the work of God, it is appropriate that we ask ourselves how we are a part of this work. How our prayers, our habits, our financial giving, our conversations, our voting, are joining in with this good work. We just may find ourselves a part of a miracle.
Leader: Source of all Being,
Who brought water from the stone,
Giver of life,
In whom all things live and move and have their being,
All: Give us the miracle of gratitude,
For how our lives are sustained in your care.
Give us the miracle of courage and creativity
To find new habits for ourselves, our country, and our world,
In sharing your resources.
3. Springs of Living Water
It’s a small detail, but it speaks volumes. Sort of like in chapter three where John notes that Nicodemus came to Jesus “by night.” Easy to skip over, but highly significant for how it sets up the story and what it tells us about the nature of the conversation. Here, in chapter four, we’re given another small detail, also about the time of day, that orients us to this encounter. Jesus, tired out by his journey and thirsty, was sitting by this well called Jacob’s well when a Samaritan woman came to draw water. “It was about noon”. Noon, the heat of the day, was not the time to come and draw water. This is something that happened first thing in the morning, and sometimes in the evening. The women of the village, in a way similar to many women villagers around the world today, would have gone out together early in the morning to get water for the cooking and washing of the day. Although it was work, it would have been a time to socialize with other women and exchange family news. For this woman to be coming to the well alone, when no one else would have been there, tips us off that she is something of a social outcast – not being welcome, and intentionally avoiding being with the other women.
There was a long history of animosity between Jews and Samaritans and Jews often went out of their way to avoid even walking through Samaritan territory on their way in between Jerusalem and Galilee. So in relationship to Jesus, this woman is really an outcast of outcasts. Isolated from her own community which was in turn isolated from its surrounding community of which Jesus was a part. Jesus will later ask her about her husband and reveal that she has been a part of five failed marriages. With the man having so much of the power over marriage and divorce, it is likely that, for whatever reason, she would have been rejected by each of these men. Cut off from women and men. When she comes to the well where Jesus is sitting, she is thirsty in ways that a jar of water is not going to quench.
John’s gospel is all about incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, and here, when Jesus meets the Samaritan woman, the Word becomes a well. Jesus, who knew that humans do not live on bread or water alone, but are just as much in need of the water of the spirit, takes on the role of the water source that offers her streams of life.
Jesus has his own policies when it comes to water politics. Everyone – no matter how rejected they are by village or outside community, has access to the water of life. This is not a well with a limited supply that gets divvied up on a first come first serve basis, with everyone else left fending for the few puddles that remain. This is an overflowing, effervescent spring. A bottomless serving of life-giving, soul-satisfy, spirit-renewing living water. There is no single destination where one must go to gain access to this well. As the conversation between Jesus and the woman continues they manage to highlight the fact that their peoples have different notions of where the proper place is to worship God – Mt. Gerizim for the Samaritans and Mt. Zion for the Jews. But Jesus notes that neither of them have it right if they are willing to narrow down worship to a matter of geography. Communion with God has to do with spirit and truth, which are both highly portable, non-location specific. The fountain of life is utterly accessibile, wherever the spirit is thirsty and wherever the truth is being sought. And Jesus becomes this fountain for this woman at that place at that time. And she drinks him in deeply, deep enough to start becoming a well herself, as she runs to bring other villagers to meet Jesus.
The thirst for water runs deep within our spirits, our bodies, and our world. Where there is isolation, this water brings community. Where there is injury, this water brings healing. Your and I are thirsty people, needing regular, daily, hourly, this gift of living water. Drink frequently and deeply from the well of God’s peace, God’s joy, God’s grace, and you will become a well of life for a thirsty world.
Leader: God of all who thirst,
our hearts are parched from wandering in deserts
far from your life-giving springs.
Call us to your well.
All: May we drink often from your stream.
Fill our cups with your grace.
Let your love overflow in our hearts,
and make us fully alive.
— To read a companion piece with more practical suggestions on how to save water in the home, click here.