Monday, April 20, 2009

A Sermon on Water

I preached on World Water Day, March 22, which happened to fall on Sunday this year. Below is my sermon. 

When asked how much water we use each day, or what effect water has on our lives, most of us would probably answer that it’s a decent part. After all, we use water to clean ourselves and cook, and of we try to drink that recommended 6-8 glasses a day. But if we stop and think about it, we might realize just how much our lives depend on water.

Let’s just take my typical morning as an example. I wake up in a bed made up with cotton sheets—water’s needed to grow that cotton. I brush my teeth, shower, flush the toilet. I get dressed in clothing that I wash in my washing machine on a fairly regular basis. I make coffee—not only do I use water right then, but the coffee plantations depend on water to run. I eat breakfast, most likely a bread product, made from grain on a farm that depends on good irrigation. Maybe I have a little bacon or sausage—meat products use a LOT of water to produce.

So clearly water factors highly into our daily earthly lives. But what about our spiritual lives?

In many world religions and cultures, the elements of the natural world—wind, water, fire, and earth—are held in high regard. In astrology, each star sign has a corresponding elemental sign. So Aries is a fire sign, Pisces is a water sign, etc. Some religions worship gods of those elements, while other people simply uplift them as the four core parts of nature.

Christianity, on the other hand, is often viewed as sacramental, rather than elemental. We like to see ourselves as being more about the unseen, intangible things like grace or the Holy Spirit, about the rituals of communion and baptism.

And yet the elements do factor into our Christian tradition quite prominently, particularly water. In our particular tradition, communion and baptism are our only sacraments. Obviously water is important—it’s what we use to baptize, whether it’s a little sprinkle on the forehead or a dunk in the river.

But water is threaded throughout the Bible, and often plays a prominent, if not the dominant role in stories.

Some that quickly come to mind:

  • Creation, which began with a wind from God sweeping over the face of the waters, and then God creating life out of those waters
  • Moses as a baby floating in a basket of reeds in the river
  • Moses parting the Red Sea
  • The flood and Noah in his ark
  • Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan
  • The woman at the well from whom Jesus requests a drink
  • The disciples and Jesus on the boat when the storm comes up
  • Jesus walking on water

There are others that perhaps aren’t remembered for the presence of water quite as quickly, but that are just as important. One that I particularly like is the story of Hagar.

It’s a story that shared among all three “people of the Book”—Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The story appears in a section of Genesis that recounts the history of Abraham and his descendants as they move from Haran into the land of Canaan and then into Egypt. Wells and water figure prominently at important points as this story follows characters back and forth from their tent community to the wilderness within a broader desert landscape.

Hagar was Sarah’s Egyptian slave, given to Abraham to conceive a child because Sarah was unable to do so. Hagar leaves their home and goes out into the wilderness on two occasions.

The first time, Hagar is pregnant and has allegedly looked upon Sarah with contempt for her barrenness, so Sarah “deals with her harshly,” as the Bible puts it, and Hagar runs away. The angel of God finds her by “a spring of water in the wilderness,” and tells her that she will bear a son to be named Ishmael, which means “God hears.” And then by that spring, Hagar does something no one else in the whole Bible does: she gives God a name, El-roi, “God who sees.” And because of this, the Bible tells us, the well where this happened is named Beer-lahai-roi, or “the Well of the Living One who sees me.”

The second time Hagar goes out into the wilderness, she is sent away by Abraham at Sarah’s request, because Sarah does not want Ishmael receiving any of Isaac’s inheritance. Abraham sends Hagar out into the desert with bread and a skin of water. Let me read to you what happens from there:

(Gen. 21: 14c-19) And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voices and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God as heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

It is this scene in particular that grabs me. I can just picture Hagar heading out into the desert wilderness, no where to go, no one to turn to, and only a little bit of water and bread on which to survive. In a hot dry desert, humans can only live a couple days without water, so imagine Hagar’s distress when the little bit of water she had was gone. She knew it meant certain death for her child, and so she put him under a bush so she didn’t have to watch him die of thirst.

I wish this was something that only happened in biblical times, many thousand years ago. If only there weren’t mothers in the world right at this moment watching their children die of thirst or disease because of lack of access to clean water.

UNESCO, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, estimates that 5,000 children die every day because of unsafe water, poor sanitation, and hygiene. That means that in the time it takes for us to worship together this morning, about 208 children will die as Hagar thought Ishmael would. And that’s just children. More than 1 billion people worldwide lack clean drinking water.

For Christians, water is symbolic of our relationship with God, carrying the image of renewal, promise, and hope. It is through water that we are baptized and welcomed into the Christian community. Water is essential to all life, connects us with the rest of Creation, and is a gift from God. As a gift from God, it is meant to be shared. As one resource from the National Council of Churches declares, “We recognize clean water as a priceless gift of God, but too often we don’t realize the global water crisis is ours to reconcile.”

Isaiah says that when the poor and needy are thirsty and seek water, but have none, God will not forsake them; God will provide rivers, fountains, pools, and springs. While it may not seem like it, that is still true today. God does provide. There is enough water for all—but only if we use just what we need, and make sure that all have access. And this is where we as faithful Christians come in.

“When I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink,” Jesus describes himself saying in the kingdom of heaven. “Just as you did to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Hear this woman’s story from Uganda:

"At the request of the community where I grew up, a church development organization funded the construction of a water well project and trained 30 villagers how to properly use and administer water resources. The effects on the community have been like ripples in a pond. Before, when I was growing up, we did not have easy access to water. With a new water point, villagers created an irrigation system that waters crops of bananas, mushrooms and vegetables. With water, it has been possible for them to raise livestock. With livestock, they have milk that lowers malnutrition, with a surplus to sell. With water, some are beginning to farm fishponds and sell fish. There is more. As they drilled and built the well, villagers discovered clay that makes good bricks. Some villagers have become brick-makers and sell what they make. Others have built more permanent housing by using the bricks instead of grass. All of them worked together to build a permanent school for their children. Water has brought surprising new life to the village."

The water debate is often about two distinct perceptions. The first understands water as a “public good” to which all forms of life have a right. One South African activist puts it this way: “I need to have water, enough even for a stranger. The one thing that I cannot do, even to an enemy, is deny water.” The community I come from has protected water and treated it as a common good that is sacred and beyond commercial value.

In 2003 the Africa Women’s Economic Policy Network did field research in Uganda

and reviewed existing government policy concerning water pricing and public utility management. Their research, not surprisingly, revealed that water privatization has already taken a heavy toll. When the cost of water is high, people who live on less than a dollar a day have to choose water over school fees or food, or find alternative ways of getting water. People resort to unprotected springs, boreholes and long-distance wells. Health problems increase from lack of clean water, including cholera, typhoid, diarrhea, malaria, intestinal worms and skin-related diseases. Alternative water sources hold not only health hazards but also physical dangers. Stand taps installed along the Nile require a fee. Those with no daily income to pay the fee fetch water from the river. Women and children have drowned in River Nile, and several have been taken away by crocodiles. When people have no money to buy water, there is death.[i]

Another story, from Vietnam:

“People of faith can make a real difference in confronting these problems. Lack of access to clean water and sanitation is one of the leading causes of illness and death among people in poverty in Vietnam, where many in rural areas suffer from waterborne disease. This is particularly true in the mountains of Pho Yen district, where more than one out of four people suffers from a water-related disease. In Pho Yen, even the health clinics lack access to clean water, thus facing the double burden of treating patients suffering from water-related diseases without having their own clean water. In response, Church World Service (CWS) is helping to construct water supply facilities and hygienic latrines for three clinics, and lay pipelines for water distribution to 150 households. Training is being provided on the operation and management of the systems, on prevention and transmission of water-related diseases, and on good hygiene practices. This is an effort we can all be a part of, too. Members of the Church of the Brethren, taking part in a faith expedition in 2007, saw the situation in Ph Yen first hand. Upon returning, they worked through CWS and their Global Food Crisis Fund to directly fund a project at a local school. We can all be involved in making a difference.”[ii]

How can we make a difference? How can we offer a drink of fresh, clean water to our thirsty brothers and sisters?

First of all, we can educate ourselves. I didn’t give you a lot of facts and figures today, because I don’t think they really belong in a sermon, but they’re out there and fairly easy to find (and if you’d like me to come back some other time and do a workshop or presentation on this stuff, we can talk about that). We need to learn about our role in the global water crisis, and know what’s going on globally and in our own backyards. For instance, a cholera epidemic has been sweeping through Zimbabwe since December. As of the end of last month, over 80,000 people were infected, and 3,800 had died. When we face Jesus in the kingdom of heaven, and he asks us why we didn’t give him a drink (or why the water wasn’t clean), we cannot say we didn’t know he was thirsty or that the water was contaminated.

Second, we can conserve water and pay attention to our water usage. Are we watering our lawns while someone is forced to drink dirty water? I’m not saying we should feel guilty every time we take a shower, but we need to be conscious that our decisions and actions affect others.

Third, support legislation and governmental action that helps provide everyone, and particularly those living in poverty, with access to clean water. One thing that’s happening now is a push for the United Nations to add a 31st article to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that would establish access to clean and potable water as a fundamental human right.

And finally, get involved in funding water projects. Church World Service has great projects, like the one I mentioned in Vietnam. Instead of a DVD for a gift, for $18 you can buy water jugs for three families from Oxfam in someone’s name. Want to get kids involved? Raise money to provide a community with a PlayPump—a water pump powered by children, since it doubles as a merry-go-round.

Water equals life. God called Creation out of water, we begin our lives cushioned in the water of our mothers’ wombs, our lives are sustained through water. Jesus called relationship with God “living water,” saying all who drank of it would never be thirsty again.

As I pour this water, I’ll say a short prayer, and then I invite each of you to touch the water—as reminder of your baptism, as a reminder of your creation, as a reminder of the gift of life and new life in Christ it brings. You might simply put your fingers in, you may want to trace a cross on your forehead as might have been done if/when you were baptized, maybe you want to cup some water in your hands—however you feel moved to connect with this water, and remind yourself of the life it gives.


I was pleasantly surprised that the congregation readily participated in the ritual. Sure, we did them all the time in seminary, but asking a small congregational church in New Hampshire to do it is another thing. They were game, and many said they were moved by it, so I'm glad I took what seemed like a big risk to me!

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  1. Lovely sermon, Beth. Prophetic and sweet. Nice mix.

  2. This is a beautiful and enlightening sermon that is empathetic and visionary.

    Blessings to you!

  3. Just I copied your great sermon to preach in Sunday worship on 22-07-2012. I love to read it and it is a great message. Thank you for sharing with us. My name is B.S.Raju. I am working as a preacher since 16 years in Kamepalli congregation KCOC. I have a good Christian wife and 3 God gifts. If you like, please share your all sermons with me at or or

    Thank you.
    Yours Brother in Christ.