Water flows through our ancient Judeo-Christian texts. Righteousness pours down like a mighty stream (Amos 5:24), and Jesus offers relief to those who thirst (John 4:13–15). Before whales or eagles or humans did, God dwelt among the waters (Gen 1). The creation of heaven and earth commenced through a parting of the seas. Rains fell, destroying all creatures except those aboard an ark, awaiting a rainbow covenant that promised an end to the waters of judgment (Gen 9:11–17). The Israelites flee from their oppressors to freedom through the miracle of a parting sea that offered safe passage from empire into the wilderness (Exod 14). In the Gospels, Jesus was baptized into the wildness of the river Jordan (Mark 1:9f), became living water at the well (John 4), and shed tears over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41). From the beginning, water has offered a call to discipleship.
Water, which is neither renewable nor infinite, is in danger. Our capitalist, consumer, entitlement economies and lifestyles have perpetrated great violence on the waters, leaving a bleeding earth and our future in danger. Polluted and commodified, water has become the next battleground for corporate grabs, military conflict, and occupation.
After graduation from college in 2008, I stayed with a family in El Salvador for a few days. They were lucky to get running water once every two weeks, when basins and buckets would be filled. During the long dry spells, they carried their laundry down the side of a mountain to wash in a river. The health risks of doing this had been recently intensified because of a newly built private community of wealthy families upstream; I could see sewage and agriculture chemicals pour down the side of the mountain and into the river. We drank nothing but Coca Cola, because it was more accessible to the families in this village than clean drinking water.
A few weeks later I was in the West Bank of Palestine, visiting another family experiencing drought and without running water. Again to my dismay and disgust, nearby was an Israeli settlement that was well shaded with trees, sprinklers spinning water on green grass. Driving alongside the “security wall” built by the Israeli occupation force, I saw how it twists and turns according to water access instead of along the lines declared by the United Nations in 1948. Occupation has seized the water. In that place 2,000 years ago Jesus walked alongside those waters under a different occupation. Rome was constructing aqueducts to direct, hoard, and control access to water. The Sea of Galilee was being industrialized and overfished, with fish salted and preserved into both medicine and food for export, making it increasingly difficult for local peasant fisherman to sustain their livelihoods. Empire always keeps an eye on the water.
When we read the stories of Jesus, we encounter the landscape and geography of his roots. These familiar Scriptures are neither timeless nor placeless. We know the names of cities, mountains, and bodies of water. Crowds gather for baptism at the Jordan River (Mark 1:9f); turbulent waves shake the boat in a storm on the way to Gerasa (Mark 4:35ff); the com- munity gathers to share a simple meal of fish caught in the Sea of Galilee (John 21:12ff). These place names were written and remembered because they matter. Jesus walked on water, was immersed in it, ate from it, traveled on it, and healed with it. He was intimately connected to water, and critical of the imperial economy that sought to control it.
Ironically, it is likely that we know the names of Jesus’ waters better than we know those of our own. We know our water as it comes from a tap or bottle, but are ignorant about from which stream, lake or aquifer it comes. What are their names? What would it look like if communities were defined by the watersheds that nourish us rather than by gerrymandered political lines? Today our lives are so fast-paced and mobile that there is no time to touch and know the waters. We have forgotten how to be still, to pay attention, to feel the earth below our feet, and to honor it as our home. If we are to follow the Jesus who knew his waters and his place, we must take the time for our roots to go deep, to know our place so intimately that we cannot ignore the needs of our neighbors or the unjust history that has shaped us. We must be able to feel the waters drying up. The earth cries out to us like a voice in the night, pleading with us to walk gently, for she is tired. She calls on us to remember her history, to tell the stories of those who have walked before us, and to live in a way that honors those who will walk after us. The trees invite us to come and sit and watch them grow. The soil asks us to hold it in our hands and learn why it is disappearing. The birds, bees, creatures, and plants call on us to preserve and trust and honor diversity. The rain summons us to dance and rejoice in all that grows and is sustained, for without water there is no life. God has always called us to this work through every moment of history.
Watershed Discipleship requires us to be followers and learners, nourished and nourishers. We must grow to trust water like manna in the wilderness, taking only what we need without hoarding, profiting or exploiting (Exod 16). Water serves all of creation, and in return we should serve the waters. It is a matter of dignity and justice for all people and for the planet.
This post was excerpted from Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice (Myers, 2016).
Lydia Wylie-Kellermann is a mother, writer, and activist in the Detroit River Watershed which the Ojibwa Wawiatonong, “where the river goes round.” The Detroit River winds its way between two countries, and connects the Great Lakes, which hold 20 percent of the world’s fresh water. She co-edits wwww.radicaldiscipleship.net and On the Edge, a Detroit Catholic Worker Paper.