Saturday, May 14, 2011

Meditation on Water

Because Easter was so late this year, the annual Earth Day celebration fell on Good Friday.  After considering this unusual convergence, and seeking some point of commonality, it occurred to me that water is central both to the life of Jesus and the life of our planet.
Examples of the role that water played in Jesus’ life are easy to find in the gospel narratives.  His ministry began with his baptism by John in the River Jordan, and his first recorded miracle involved turning water into wine.  Most of his public ministry took place on and around the Sea of Galilee; indeed, a number of his disciples were by trade fishermen, earning their livelihoods in intimate connection with the sea.  Familiar sea stories include Jesus’ calming the waves during a storm, walking on water as he approached a ship carrying his friends, and preaching to the crowds while seated in a boat a bit offshore. 
Water figures at least twice in the Holy Week readings.  The signal leading the disciples to the house where they were to prepare the Passover Seder was a man carrying a jar of water.  This man would have been noticeable precisely because in first century Palestine, as in most traditional cultures where water must be carried long distances, such a burden was women’s work.  Then there is the tale of Pilate’s washing his hands in water to indicate his desire to be absolved of blame for the death of Jesus.  Over the centuries gallons of ink have been spilled by theologians wrestling with the significance and debating the historical possibility of this act of attempted blame-shifting, nor is it likely that such discussions will end any time soon.  To “wash my hands of it” is a phrase that long ago entered our common lexicon.
As for the connection to Earth Day, liquid water is essential for the continued existence of life as we know it.  Seventy-one per cent of Earth’s surface is covered by water, and ninety-seven per cent of that water is saline.  The oceans are home to an estimated 250,000 different known species, with an extrapolated estimate of more than a million species total.  The recently concluded decade-long Census of Marine Life, the work of 2700 scientists from more than 80 countries, has expanded our knowledge of the biodiversity to be found in the oceans while pointing out how very much more we have to learn about the amazing variety of beings with whom we share our planet.  (See for a wealth of information about the census.)
While these marine creatures live quite comfortably in their salt water environment, land and air based species depend on the remaining three per cent of the total, which is not saline, for survival.  And more than two-thirds of that three per cent exists in the form of glaciers and ice caps.  The fresh water, less than one per cent of the total water on earth, that ripples in lakes and flows in streams, that comes bubbling to the surface when we dig a well, is a precious liquid that we take far too much for granted.
People of Biblical times had a much deeper appreciation of fresh water, simply because of its scarcity.  Drought and the attendant famine that drought produced figure prominently in the stories in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Dependable wells were highly valued, becoming the centers of community.  The Psalmists compared living in God’s favor with being nourished by clear water in such verses as Psalm 1:3a: “They [that is, the righteous] are like trees planted by streams of water;” and Psalm 42:1: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.”  In his conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, Jesus declared that the message he brought was “living water.”
Remembering the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday calls us to a time of self-examination, contrition, and repentance.  Celebration of Earth Day brings to our attention the fragile health of the planet.  Weaving the two together in our consciousness heightens our awareness of humanity’s role and responsibility to care for earth so that all life might flourish as God intends.  And quite frankly, right now we are not doing at all well at that task.
For example, the oceans, which are quite literally the womb of life on our planet, are now under considerable stress due to human activity.  In the past thirty-five years we have lost an estimated 27% of coral reefs, one of the most bio-rich ecosystems on earth.  By 1998, 75% of coral reefs worldwide had been affected to some extent by bleaching, and 16% had died.  Overdevelopment of coastal regions, dumping of raw sewage, oil spills, blast fishing (illegal but not well regulated), and agricultural runoff all contribute to reef mortality.
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, ocean pH has decreased globally by approximately 0.1 units.  This is a direct result of absorption by the oceans of the increased levels of carbon dioxide which our burning of fossil fuels generates.  Such a rapid increase in acidification of the oceans has not occurred before within the past 12 million years.  It is impossible to predict which organisms may be able to adapt if this trend is permitted to continue, and which will be condemned to extinction. 
In Pennsylvania and surrounding states we are now seeing tens of millions of gallons of fresh water being used in the process of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”  This method of gas extraction constitutes a double assault on our precious water, for not only is the water used in fracking being contaminated with numerous toxic chemicals, but also nearby ground water is being rendered unfit for consumption.  Because drilling companies refuse to disclose the identity of the chemicals they are using, even when doctors request that information in order to treat poisoning victims, we are leaving to our descendents massive quantities of unknown pollutants instead of the clean water that until now has helped to make our area a “garden spot” for the country.
God gave us fresh water to sustain our bodies and living water through the ministry of Christ to nourish our spirits.  As we celebrate the one during this joyous season of Easter, we need also to cherish the other, showing our gratitude to the giver by protecting the gift.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, the water images are some of the most vivid for me. Waiting at the pool to be healed. The woman at the well. Living water.