Bottled at the Source
When scientists look for signs of life on other planets, one of the first things they search for is evidence of water. Though I can imagine there might be varieties of life that exist without it, almost every form of life of which we know needs, either directly or indirectly, the presence of water in order to survive. Scientific evidence points to water as the original birthplace of life, and as the necessary ingredient for its formation. And even though there is often a perception that the scientific and Biblical narratives for the origin of life are in conflict, in this sense they agree. In the book of Genesis, it states that before there was any life on the earth, the Spirit of God was “hovering over the surface of the waters.”
It is one of the many phenomenal blessings of living in a prosperous country that typically speaking, we don’t have to worry about where our water comes from, and whether or not it is safe. This, sadly, is not true around the world. In fact, some estimates say as many as 1 in 3 people globally do not have access to a safe source of water. (a) While this is hard to imagine for most of us who take clean water for granted, here in Texas we have at least gotten a small taste for what that situation could be like. And while I don’t want to minimize the severity of the situation billions of people are in, without access to sanitary water, I hope that we here in America can at least now empathize just a little.
The recent freeze in Texas had a twofold impact on our water supply. The first result was that water mains were frozen or burst, leaving the water supply completely unavailable for many of us, and reduced to just a trickle when it was available. But the power outages also compounded this effect, taking the sanitation facilities offline, such that even now that the water is restored, it is still not safe for many common uses, most notably, drinking. Being without access to water for even a week has restricted many of the activities we normally take for granted: cooking, washing our hands, cleaning our dishes and our bodies, even making coffee. The coffee shop around the corner from me, even two days after the freeze lifted, is still unable to make coffee for all their many customers because of unsafe water conditions.
Water is so integral to our lives, it constitutes about 60% of our bodies, and the percentage is even higher for our most vital organs. Our brains, lungs, heart, and kidneys each comprise upwards of 75% water, with some persons showing composition percentages as high as 85%. (b) So then it is not simply a point of origin for us, from which we depart, but it is a continuous need, vital to our sustained existence.
One of the fascinating things about our water usage is that, by and large, much of it ends up being waste. Most of the water we drink we eventually evacuate. The water we use for washing our hands and our dishes ends up just going down the drain. Fresh water, then, is not something that is stationary, or something that is permanent. It is something that must constantly be replenished. Even our lakes and rivers are refreshed from rain and melting snow. Water must cycle. It must flow. Stagnant water leads to corruption, disease, rot.
In religious traditions around the world, the symbolism of water looms large. It is both practically ceremonial and metaphorically useful in nearly every religious practice. In Hinduism, the Vedas term water ‘the first door unto divine order.’ In Buddhism, water is offered at shrines as a sacrifice to symbolize the purification of our souls and minds. In the Shinto tradition, visitors to shrines must wash their hands and their mouths with water before entering. As I’ve already mentioned, in the Christian Bible, the entire world begins with water. But it also ends with it; in the very last chapter of the book of Revelation, which ends the Bible, the river of life flows from the throne of God and through the middle of the new city of paradise. Then in verse 17, before the final exhortations of the writer, we find this: “And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.”
So it is not just our bodies, it seems, but also our souls which need a kind of water, a fresh source that flows, that is replenished, that washes us and nourishes us. And just like physical water, this spiritual water has a source. But it also has a destination.
One of the most wonderful things to see through this freeze was the willingness people in our communities had to share water with one another. I saw friends offering bottled water supplies to one another and offering to let people come bathe in their homes when they couldn’t do so in their own. Water, even the spiritual variety, is meant to flow, to be a mutual benefit to everyone around us. We are meant to be pipelines. Connected to a source on one end, but also connected to a recipient at the other. It is only in this way that we are kept clean, and full. “Whoever believes in me,” Christ says in John 7, “‘out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”
We are meant to be flowed into, flowed through, but then flowed out of. We are not meant merely to consume, but also not merely to pour out. If we do the first, we will become stagnant; spiritual Dead Seas. If we do the latter, we will find ourselves depleted, empty, and lifeless. We must do both. We must soak up the life from the source, and from those around us, but then we must let that life flow out of us as well.
In order for a pipeline to work, the sections of pipe need to be clean and empty - free of garbage, free of debris, free of gunk that sticks to the side and ice that freezes the supply. Too often I am either all consumption, or I am clogged with gunk: thoughts of myself, of my own comforts, of my own needs. Filling, filling, filling, but never emptying. Which is why I find foul things in me, vile things, dead things. At other times I have also been all distribution: trying to give out of my own supply (which is to say the least limited), striving to white-knuckle my humanitarian concerns. This is equally ineffective. The answer to this quandary is to complete the pipeline - to simultaneously tap into the source of life and connect to those downstream. To feed and nourish others out of the abundance of influx.
I must admit, first, my need. This is where many of us, myself included, fail. It is a quintessential American attribute that we feel we are self-sufficient; that we think we can accomplish whatever we need to by our strength alone, by the force of our will, from the wellspring of our individual power. This is noble, but fundamentally flawed. If we are to have anything to give, we must first be filled. And to be filled, like a bottle of mineral water, we must be emptied. That is the paradox of this whole human existence; only in being empty can we actually be full of what matters: life.