Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Power of Water

“We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water.” Amen. (BCP, p. 306)

This morning we will celebrate the baptism of Sophia Fastaia and, together, renew our baptismal promises. We would do well, in preparing for this moment, to recall the elemental and symbolic power of water. We normally take water for granted, confident that it is under our control. It provides a lovely backdrop for our commute over the Bay Bridge. It arrives on command with the turn of a faucet. We tend not to think of water as a matter of life and death. Catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina are so shocking, in part, because they undermine our sense of mastery over water, reminding us of its power to remark boundaries, to defy limits, to alter our existence in life-changing and life-ending ways.

Two recent stories remind us of water’s power, illustrating the way in which water maps our world and shapes our identity. This week, Michael Music brought to my attention a London Times article about the uses and abuses of water in Zimbabwe:

At the bottom of a deep pit, a woman ladled grey liquid into plastic drums.

It did not smell too bad and her family had not become sick, even after drinking it for the past two months. “Some people say it is sewage, but they may be making it up,” she said as she heaved a 25 litre (5½ gallon) drum up the slope and into a wheelbarrow.

In any case she, like many of the poorest people in Zimbabwe’s second city of Bulawayo did not have a choice: no water has flowed through the pipes in some neighbourhoods since July.

A water expert who accompanied The Times to one of several boreholes in the impoverished Cowdray Park area of the city said that the liquid at the bottom of the pit was indeed sewage that had seeped through the soil from a nearby treatment plant.

As the level of ground water sinks, the thousands who come to find water are forced to dig their impromptu wells ever deeper. All around were puddles and holes.

Critics of President Mugabe say that he is using water as a tool of political repression. In the early summer heat of the semi-arid western provinces of Matabeleland, the city of about 800,000 people is fast running out of water. Three of its five main reservoirs have dried up. The fourth is expected to be empty next month and the last one will be able to supply only 16 per cent of the city’s already tightly rationed needs. “If we have even a mediocre rainy season this summer we are faced with the spectre of Bulawayo literally shutting down,” said David Coltart, MP of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

The water crisis is a dangerous extra strain on Bulawayo, which is already reeling from the country’s hyperinflation, critical shortages of basic food and electricity supplies, and the political repression witnessed in the rest of the country.

Church and political leaders believe that Mr. Mugabe is determined to let Bulawayo wither without water. The Government has ignored repeated appeals for help.(1)

Here we have an insidious use of water to map the social world, defining insiders and outsiders, metaphorically putting people in their place. In this, Zimbabwe is hardly unusual. Water is perhaps the single most significant marker of identity on the planet.

Because of overpopulation, mass consumption, misuse, and water pollution, the availability of drinking water per capita is inadequate and shrinking as of the year 2006. For this reason, water is a strategic resource in the globe and an important element in many political conflicts.

Some have predicted that clean water will become the ‘next oil’, making Canada, with this resource in abundance, possibly the richest country in the world. There is a long history of conflict over water, including efforts to gain access to water, the use of water in wars started for other reasons, and tensions over shortages and control.

UNESCO's World Water Development Report . . . indicates that, in the next 20 years, the quantity of water available to everyone is predicted to decrease by 30%. 40% of the world's inhabitants currently have insufficient fresh water for minimal hygiene. More than 2.2 million people died in 2000 from diseases related to the consumption of contaminated water or drought.

In 2004, the UK charity WaterAid reported that a child dies every 15 seconds from easily preventable water-related diseases; often this means lack of sewage disposal. The United Nations Development Programme sums up world water distribution in the 2006 development report: ‘While one part of the world sustains a designer bottled-water market that generates no tangible health benefits, another part suffers acute public health risks because people have to drink water from drains or from lakes and rivers.’(2)

I understand now something that the Rev. Deacon Tracy Longacre said to me recently, “If you want to do something to help women and girls in Africa, then build wells.” She went on to tell me about her experience in a village in Northern Cameroon. There, women and girls had to walk two hours to fetch clean water from a river, then two hours back home. This absolutely vital task took so much time that the girls were unable to attend school.

In this case we see how water maps not only a social world dividing rich and poor, but also a hierarchy of male over female. Given limited resources and a gendered division of labor, it was the boys who were sent to school. So, Tracy and her compadres came up with a brilliant plan. They raised money to build a well in the village. And guess where they placed it – right next to the school. Now the girls attend school regularly. And the adult women have so much disposable time on their hands that they were able to organize a community center to address other quality of life issues.

Here we see the power of water in another aspect – literally as a well of life, marking the passage from slavery to freedom. If water symbolizes a “locative map,” reinforcing social boundaries that mark the status quo, defining who is in and who is out, it can also symbolize a “liberative map” that serves as a signpost on the way to a new and better place.(3)

As we gather around the baptismal font this morning, what meaning do we discover in the water there? What kind of world does it map for us? What identity does it impart? While all maps, including ritual maps, are imperfect, they do serve to help us imagine deeper truths about our location in the cosmos, and our need to be liberated from the death-dealing places in which we find ourselves.

In the words of Gordon Lathrop,

Baptism ought not be used to support the status quo; neither should it present a world-denying way of getting out of here. This place where we stand is, indeed, a little place, dwarfed and marginalized and threatened in the vast chaos of things; yet this place is beloved, dear, central even. This place where we stand thus matters immensely, yet it is connected to all places. Oppressive structures do truly surround us, yet they are not eternal; they should be challenged and changed . . . the ancient practice of the Christians, including especially poor Christians, has been to trust that it is the structures of terror and oppression that are most unreal in God’s real world, and then to cast very real, very local networks of mutual support and shared food – assembly as witness – in the face of such oppression. Such practice expresses baptismal meaning, both liberative and locative. Further, vastness does threaten, yet held in the hands of God, this vastness is also open, beckoning, new, interesting even. And we do truly die, yet we do not need to organize our whole world around our fear of death as the primary principle. We may find the place and span of our limits to be the very place of transfiguring grace and echoing song. Allowed always to say both things, [transfiguring grace and echoing song,] the public symbol of baptism can constantly challenge whatever public organization of space may mark our current culture.(4)

So much meaning in just a tiny bowl of water; it takes at least a lifetime to take it all in. That is why we keep coming back to this water again and again, to renew our promises and to reimagine the map of the world it invites us to explore, rewrite, and redeem. For Sophia, and for us, it is a map that locates us squarely in the waters of the Bay Area that nurture our daily life, while calling us through those waters to realize Sophia’s connection with the girls gathered around the well in Cameroon, and the women carrying the water that may be their children’s death in Zimbabwe.

Whether rejoicing in the water of life or lamenting the water of death, we remember that the water is not ours. It is God’s gift, and our response to that gift, in the service of life or death, shapes our identity in ways we don’t even realize. The water does not leave us unchanged. So let us choose life, for Sophia, and for the whole creation. Amen.


[1]“Parched city is forced to drink sewage while Mugabe ‘plays a political game’”, London Times, Sept. 15, 2007.


[3] On “locative” and “liberative” maps see Gordon Lathrop, Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology, pp. 97-103.

[4] Lathrop, p. 111

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