A high trail skirts the fjord of the Saguenay River on its western escarpment on its way to the St. Lawrence. My son and I had set out on an overnight hike along it travelling light. No need for extra water, we would surely be able to replenish our water bottles. When we arrived at our camping spot midway along we knew we were in trouble. No water sources could be found. Rain clouds darkened the evening sky so we put out everything we had to catch the night’s rain.
Morning broke bright and clear after a long rainstorm. Our pots and containers all together yielded only a couple of cups of water. A difficult path lay before our final destination and us. No lakes, no creeks and hence no water could be found on our line of march. As the heat of the day mounted, so did our thirst. I have seen strong men drop in their tracks from dehydration coupled with just moderate exertion.
When you don’t have it you quickly realize just how important water is. Our few hours of intense thirst that summer in Quebec left a lasting impression on me. It took a couple of litres of water each to slake our parched bodies when we finally reached our car that had been shuttled ahead to our pickup point.
Cold, clean water is so basic but oh so critical a human need. My brief experience of intense thirst cannot compare with the images I carry of women and children hauling water jugs from their mud-plastered rondovals over kilometres to and from their nearest standpipe tapping some deep underground water source on the edge of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana. Another memory recalls people digging deep holes into dry African riverbeds to find the precious liquid, no matter how brackish, to sustain themselves and their animals.
Years ago on one sweltering morning while preparing maps of a rural village in an area of tropical Guatemala served by the Claretian Fathers, I came across a sad scene. In a dirt-floored, palm-thatched home a simple table held the body of a young woman just laid out in her best cotton dress. The mourners gathered around her tearfully told me her story. Dysentery had swept through their village likely from some pathogen that had contaminated their common water supply. Most had suffered from it but recovered. Chronic malnutrition had already weakened this frail teenager. She couldn’t resist the ravages of the disease. With no accessible or affordable medical aid she died. I felt incredibly helpless.
United Nations figures state that globally nearly 800 million people today do not have access to clean water. Somewhere between 3.5 and 4 million people die every year from water-related diseases with hundreds of millions more affected by them. One estimate says a child will die every 90 seconds from a water-related illness. Still, water remains a potent symbol of life.
We see Moses in the first reading facing a restive people. Newly liberated from their slavery in Egypt the people struggle to survive in the Sinai Desert. Water, or rather, the lack of it, tests the faith of this emerging nation. Dying of thirst they cry out, “Is the Lord among us or not?” The resolve to hold onto their faith in God comes down to a question of water. Moses strikes the rock as the Lord instructs and water pours forth at Massah, “the place of the test,” and Meribah, “the place of the quarrel.” This miraculous water saves the people. God’s fidelity to his chosen people once again has to be proven, but they will test it again and again. Does this sound familiar?
Paul tells us how God has demonstrated his love for us in a profound way. “While we still were sinners Christ died for us.” “God’s love has been poured into our hearts.” This abundant grace must have a purpose. How does it sustain us, no matter how “ungodly” we are, on our journey?
The gospel today has Jesus at Jacob’s well in the edge of the town of Sychar in Samaria. We see him with the Samaritan woman. He asks her for a drink. She is surprised by his request. An unfamiliar man speaking to an unaccompanied woman would be improper. However, a clearly identifiable Jewish male addressing a lone Samaritan woman was outlandish. A centuries-old breach between these two peoples and their traditions resulted in a deep enmity. Still he begins this conversation where she learns from him that “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again but one who drinks of the water that I will give will never be thirsty.”
His words astonished her. She leaves her essential water jug and hurries back to the city. “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” Many came to believe that Jesus “is truly the Saviour of the world.”
The stories of the waters of Meribah and Massah, a drink from Jacob’s well, and of loved “poured into our hearts,” should help prepare us for our journeys.
Estimates range as high as $30 billion dollars spent a year could provide clean drinking water to every inhabitant on our planet. The United States administration proposes to add over $54 billion this year to it’s over half a trillion dollar annual military budget. Are we still asking “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Dougherty is co-chair of the Social Justice Committee at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Whitehorse, Yukon.