The other day, when driving with my husband, I noticed a water fountain in front of a grand house, a fountain bubbling up on a cold January day south of Seattle, and I got angry.
It’s silly. It’s just a water fountain. It’s someone’s decoration. I even own a little battery-operated wishing well fountain that pumps a little water through a little bamboo shoot (it was a white elephant Christmas gift, if you must know). And most small water fountains that are for decoration probably recycle the water they use.
Still, the whole thing made me angry, the idea of water as decoration, where water tested in 26 homes in Flint, Michigan, was found to have ten times the federal limit of lead in their water. Where one hundred children have tested positive for lead toxicity. Where eight thousand children may have lead poisoning. Ten people have died so far from lead poisoning in the water in Flint.
And in a very upscale neighborhood just south of Seattle, someone has clean water running through their decorative well on their front lawn.
When I was eight years old my family moved from Anchorage to Knik, Alaska (just outside of Wasilla). We lived in a trailer on an acre of land that was our own, with no running water or electricity. My dad drove into town every Saturday night and filled up five five-gallon containers of water, to be our drinking water for the rest of the week. Water was boiled to cook and to wash dishes, and then used to flush (when we didn’t use the woods).
I got angry when I saw the water fountain, because I remember going with my dad to use the hoses to fill up those water jugs, every week, until our well was dug, and the home my dad was building on the weekends, on his day off, had plumbing. The day we could turn on the faucet, fill a bathtub and take a bath was a day of celebration.
When I think of Flint, Michigan, I think of the water fountain in Las Vegas—the middle of the desert—that is synched to Lionel Ritchie songs. I think of the shrinking aquafers and water shortages around the world. I think of the filth and sludge that is pouring into Puget Sound, right where I live, from old factories and shipyards, contamination that has gone unchecked for far too long. And I think of the Fukushima Nuclear Meltdown, and the levels of radiation on the Pacific Coast of the United States that continue to rise every year.
And now, I think of the dead mammals found last week along the Oregon and Washington coast, including a 24 foot humpback whale. Millions of starfish have died in Puget Sound. And every year communities near us have boil water notices for e-coli in the water. Most of California has been dealing with a drought for years (although recent El Niño rains have helped in the last few months).
Water is one of our most basic needs. Most of us will die if we go without water more than three days. Access to clean drinking water ought to be a priority, as should the cleaning up of our rivers and streams.
Water is also one of our most important symbols in the church. In the beginning, there was nothing until a wind from God swept over the waters. After light is created, a dome is set in the sky to separate the waters from the waters. Rivers marked the boundaries of the Garden of Eden. Wells were dug in Abraham and Sarah, Rebekah and Isaac, and their children and grandchildren’s days that became sacred. The people of Israel led by Moses went through the Red Sea into freedom. Joshua led the people across the River Jordan into their new homeland. Naaman was washed clean in the Jordan and cured of his disease. And John baptized Jesus there.
John baptized Jesus in the muddy River Jordan where upstream people washed their dishes and clothes and bathed in it. John baptized Jesus into the baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins as he had done all those times before. In the midst of that dirty water, people were declared clean. In the middle of that muddy river, the Spirit descended like a dove and said, “You are my Beloved.”
Can we imagine Jesus being baptized in Puget Sound with dying starfish around him? Or on the Oregon Coast, where a humpback whale has washed ashore and the Geiger counters ticking higher than usual? Or in the pollution filled water of the Flint River? If we can imagine that God’s Spirit can descend anywhere, then we can also hear the call of Jesus to repent. Repent, and clean up your water. Repent, and conserve water so that others may have water to drink. Repent of the sins of poisoning the people of Flint. May we hear the call of Jesus to justice, for access to clean water.