In the eighth century BCE, a Jewish farmer named Amos railed against the rich who were manipulating credit to seize land from small landholders. The woes of Amos’s time were real. Traditional farms fell into disarray, as the poor were kicked off their native lands. An extended drought had reduced agricultural production, and people had little water to drink: “One field would be rained upon, and the field on which it did not rain withered; so two or three towns wandered to one town to drink water,” (4:7-8). Amos gives voice to those suffering, drawing attention to the link between abundant water, productive fields and vineyards, and economic justice. He calls for the rich to act on behalf of the poor. At the height of his lament, he contrasts the sporadic rains with the ever-flowing current of God’s presence and care of the world. He cries out: “Let justice roll on like a river!”
It is an important ancient story, reminding us that rivers serve as a powerful spiritual metaphor for our lives in God and that they are the actual source of sustenance and economic vitality. God’s presence is like a river: God’s justice flows like the waters. To tend to the waters reminds us of the source of life and gives practical expression to addressing our environment and the needs of the poor.
For three years, I lived in Memphis, Tennessee. There the Mississippi River runs wide and fast. From Mark Twain onward, the Mississippi has inspired story and poetry. But perhaps no one ever depicted it better than poet T. S. Eliot, who referred to the river as a “strong brown god”:
I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognized as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonored, unpropitiated
By worshipers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting…
The river is within us, the sea is all about us.
(The Dry Salvages)
It is easy to forget the river. Sometimes we consider water to be in our way, a barrier between us and where we want to go. Or just water under the bridge. As T. S. Eliot so eloquently noted, we ignore the “brown god” that runs underneath.
Watching the Mississippi, I realized I had never seen a river so powerful. A brown god, indeed. I realized why people in Memphis lived inland. The Mississippi is hard to contemplate. This river swelled into one’s soul, demanding total attention. It was a consuming vista, that river – Let justice roll on like a river. The Mississippi does not allow for dreamy visions of distant promise. It insists on the here and now.
Many spiritual speculations have understood rivers as the way to the afterlife, forgetting about the water itself. Ancient Greeks passed over the River Styx, ancient Egyptians floated their rulers on barges down the Nile, and Indians burned the remains of their loved ones at the Ganges. If the river is the primal entrance to the underworld, the current that takes us to the grave, it is no wonder our faith traditions have tempted us to want to skirt the waters. Perhaps such spiritual disregard has led to a certain human carelessness about our watersheds, leaving us unable to gaze deeply upon these waters and consider them, in some meaningful way, significant for what they are.
But what if the power of the river is, as with the Mississippi, here and now, a fluid faith in the world? Not a distant divinity whose water ushers us to eternal life, but a swiftly flowing God whose justice surges downstream in the currents of the world? The river is not a place to die, but a place to live and share life with others.
When I first started walking along the Potomac, I fell in love with the wild irises that bloomed in the spring. How beautiful they would look in a vase at home! Without a moment’s hesitation, I stepped off the path and headed toward the edge of the river. With the first step, I felt a spongy land. A few more steps, and it was squishy. I stretched for the flowers, took another step, and I was up to my ankles in watery mud. The irises were still just beyond my reach. I stood there, ruined shoes and all, wondering what I should do – walk deeper in or turn back to the path without the blooms.
My Potomac sojourn has deepened my spiritual vocabulary. Initially, I did not understand about riparian zones, seeing them as a mucky barrier to the river. The irises taught me that the riparian zone seems an apt metaphor for life. Neither the surety of firm ground nor the excitement of clear current, the muddy edge of the river is its most vital feature. Generally, it is not very attractive, especially in our world of polluted waterways. Yet without it nothing survives. The riparian zone is remarkably like what some faith traditions refer to as liminal space, the uncertain territory between two more certain realities. How often times in my own life are like what happens in the riparian zone: the ground under my feet softens, my steps turn tentative, and I become unsure of where or how to move ahead. This is the geography of trust and transformation, where the safe shore dissolves and we feel disoriented as we consider what we should do next.
Buddhists talk about stepping into the river, of going with the flow of the universe. But standing in the mud, I realized how messy and difficult it is just getting to the water to step in! Stepping into the river means stepping into an uncertain space. Going with the flow is not only rafting down a river on a pleasant summer day. Rather, it means beginning with the creeks of the watershed far away from the river. Going with the flow means moving with all the water as they flow toward the main river leading to the sea. All the tributaries, the small waterways that seem so insignificant, merge to become the beautiful Potomac, the flooding Nile, the mighty Mississippi, or the godlike Ganges. And the great rivers themselves marry, mingling together to form the seas.
This is a vibrant spiritual vision – knowing God as water is not only about clarity and flow, but consists in great part of the muddiness of our own lives, for the river is a territory of doubt and desire. And we must walk through this riparian environment to reach the clear waters, where we might flow with the current (a flow that is not always safe or easy) and make our way toward the oneness of the great sea. Rivers are not a barrier to be breached or boundary to be overcome; rather, they are the living waters. They nourish us; they are our fluid way to health and happiness. Medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen once envisioned a time when “rivers of living water are to be poured out over the whole world, to ensure that people can be restored to wholeness.” Our lives are like a watershed, where everything flows toward the oceans; and the watershed is the metaphorical setting for the journey.
Rivers, however, are more than metaphors. Although watersheds provide a powerful language of spiritual insight, they are also real endangered places that demand our ethical attention. The world’s waterways call us to practice social justice – to restore them, to make sure rich and poor alike have access, and to manage water in drought-stricken lands with creativity and foresight.
At a gathering of the Massachusetts United Church of Christ, a senior minister handed me a plastic water bottle – not one of those throwaway bottled waters from the grocery store, but a refillable bottle, complete with a reusable straw. It is a conference giveaway that I actually use. Religious communities are increasingly aware of water issues. A pastor from New Brunswick, Canada, started the global nonprofit Water Project to provide clean water and sanitation to disadvantaged communities. The organization partners with local groups in Sub-Saharan Africa to increase access to water and educate and train people in water issues. As it says in its mission statement, “We believe that providing water to those who need it most is a natural and humble expression of our faith that teaches us to love all and serve the poor.”
Congregations often serve local communities by mobilizing for watershed cleanup and education days. Many theological seminaries and divinity schools have initiated programs of study on faith and ecology, often with water as a major emphasis in the curriculum. Theologian Benjamin Stewart points out that “for as long as humans have prayed, they have probably prayed at waterplaces” and that God “acts like nourishing water flowing through our world,” even as people of faith thank God “for the actual water” that flows in the world. New Testament scholar Ched Meyers writes of “watershed discipleship” and invites Christians to “re-inhabit” the watersheds in which we live and see these places as the primary location of caring for the environment and our neighbor.
At the November 2013 World Council of Churches assembly in Korea, religious leaders representing Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Buddhist faiths poured water into a common vessel signifying their unity, the importance of water in religious traditions, and their shared commitment to water justice. Global Christian churches have formed the Ecumenical Water Network, which, drawing its commitments from Biblical principles of creation, is dedicated to “equitable distribution” of safe, clean water for all the world’s people.
But the ethics of water is far from the latest religion cause. For almost two hundred years, people of faith have been aware of the interconnected concerns of environment, health, economics, and water. In the nineteenth century, for example, British Christians led the political movement for public water fountains. Believing that fresh, clean water was a right for all and horrified by the fact that doctors encouraged mothers to give their children beer or whiskey to drink because public well water had become polluted by industrial waste and most domestic water was not safe, Church of England priests, nonconformist liberals, politicians, and activist laity pushed for the introduction of safe public drinking fountains, so that all could have free access to good drinking water. Indeed, they often justified this as promoting “communal purity and cleanliness,” an Earthly manifestation of the New Jerusalem, where a river runs from the throne of God. Many public drinking fountains throughout England were inscribed with Revelation 22:17: “Take the water of life freely.”
In the same way, many contemporary water-justice initiatives are faith-oriented, including the work of theologians, preachers, activists, and congregations, all of whom are rediscovering the spiritual and sacramental aspects of water. With an issue of such global concern, however, Christians are not the only ones concerned with water justice. In Islam, to withhold water from a thirsty traveler is considered an affront to Allah, who is the giver of water to all people. Indeed, an eighth-century imam is reported to have said, “There is no joy in life unless three things are available: clean fresh air, abundant pure water, and fertile land.” Muslims are forming organizations such as Green Muslims to connect Islamic communities with environmental activists on a range of issues, including water. Through the auspices of the United Nations, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and secular people work together on UN Water, an international community committed to issues of freshwater, sustainability, sanitation, and water management. In addition to projects and programs across the globe, UN Water sponsors World Water Day on March 22 to draw attention to the role that water plays in all our lives.
The United Nations work is both important and essential. But the water movement is, at its heart, local. It is about the water in our own cities and neighborhoods, learning to reconnect with the liquid source of life. Across the United States and Canada, people are learning and teaching about the future of water, churches have installed wells and water barrels to collect rainwater, and congregations of all sorts regularly host watershed cleanups. Many churches and synagogues have banned plastic water bottles at events, choosing instead to serve water in glasses or cups. They are conducting water audits, planting drought-resistant landscapes, or installing low-flow irrigation systems. GreenFaith, a national environmental organization, runs Water Shield, a certification program for congregations and religious organizations that “conserve water, protect water quality, and mobilize its members and community to do the same at home.” Programs like Water Weekends and Water Wise educate faith communities regarding water issues. According to Adelle Banks of Religion News Service, “Water has become more than a ritual element used in Christian baptismal rites or in Jewish and Muslim cleansing ceremonies. It has become a focus for worshipers seeking to go beyond water’s ritual symbolism and think more deeply about their relationship to this life-giving resource.”
Across the planet, people are learning their rivers and working for water. The green movement is becoming a spiritually hued blue.