Most of the time we don’t think much about drinking water. It is just there. It comes out of the taps when we want. I’ve grown up with water rationing in the summer but that was only making the gardens thirsty or not washing the car; I’ve not had to actually go thirsty. Yes, there were the re-minders ‘Make sure the tap’s turned off!’ and we were taught to not waste water. Even on my in-laws’ small farm if the rain tanks were low you knew you could still buy water. So the thought of not having water is foreign to me.
When I was walking the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea I faced a different issue about water. The jungle had quite a bit of it flowing but none of it could be trusted to be safe for drinking and so I carried water with me and learnt to sterilise water with the tablets I took (my brother-in-law took along an ultraviolet light ‘wand’ and could do in seconds what I had to wait over an hour for). So we learned to be water conscious both to drink (and not get dehydrated or satiated) and to plan to be able to drink. It was a far cry from just turning on a tap!
Turning on a tap to get safe drinking water is also quite a new phenomenon (and it still isn’t a global one). Ok, the Romans did have marvellous aqueducts and fountains and sewers but much of that was ‘lost’ with them and it wasn’t until the 19th century that countries started to understand and develop engineering to separate clean from diseased water, get it to all its citizens in the cities and also to develop water filtration systems. (Look up Dr John Snow and cholera and Soho for a fascinating story.) One of the more curious industries to develop recently is around bottled water and so drinking water is a commodity.
Why all this talk about water? I have to admit being fascinated by the history and coming to understand how privileged and blessed it is to live where and when we can ‘just turn on a tap’ un-thinkingly and out it comes! We need water to live and without it for just a day or two has serious consequences. But there is also the link that we’re entering Lent and one of the first pictures of Lent is Jesus in the wilderness – 40 days with no food and he is hungry – but, unsaid, he obviously found water.
Water in the Bible is both life giving and death dealing. It is a metaphor for life – abundant life – and death – massive death. You have the account of the rescue through the water in the Exodus, of the power and message of the water of baptism, and of an oft forgotten image of the Holy Spirit (‘rivers of living water’ in John 7). There is life. You have the flood and the water drowning Phar-aoh and his army in the Exodus, and the imagery of the sea being chaos and death (and thus there is no sea in the new heaven and new earth cf. Revelation 21). The water remains water but its use has very different outcomes.
When the people of Israel were in Egypt they were slaves but they had loads of water. The Nile delta is certainly fertile. To leave there and go to the Promised Land was lunacy in terms of water. In Egypt water was never a problem, it was ‘on tap’ so to speak. But to go to the land God had chosen for them was to go to a land that relied on … rain! (Read Deuteronomy 11)
I don’t want people to be thirsty but it occurs to me that our modern use of water can be just an-other way of thinking that they we can live without God. Our needs met on our terms and if we pay the water companies then they’ll do their job and everything’s sweet. It’s another paying our way through life. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t pay our bills (!) but perhaps a conscious thought from time to time as we turn on a tap that this precious substance is a gift from God; that combined with God’s Word it became life giving to us in our Baptism; and as I bathe or shower so I can return to God in repentance – return to my baptism – and God continues to forgive, strengthen, and bless. Oh and afterwards … ‘make sure the tap’s turned off!’. — GS