The Elemental Spirits, 5: Water
CAMERON DAVIS & WILLIAM A. EVERTSBERG
William A. Evertsberg
I am so honored to be sharing this sermon with my good friend Cameron Davis, who is sometimes called the Water Czar of the Great Lakes. Cam is a Commissioner for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District in Greater Chicago. Welcome, Cam!
I chose these particular Scripture texts this morning because I wanted to remind us all that the Bible is bookended by Paradise. The Bible starts in a Garden and ends in a City, but both are Paradises with crystalline rivers, flourishing trees, sparkling gems, and maximum habitability.
The human family starts in Paradise and ends in Paradise. Our origin is God and our destiny is God. We suffer many misadventures between, but we travel from home to home.
And home is where the rivers are. Then and now. “A river runs through it,” says the Bible of Eden. And even today most of the world’s great cities are the world’s great cities because they were planted on rivers.
Mesopotamia, which is Greek for “in the middle of the rivers,” is the cradle of civilization because it is embraced by the Tigris and Euphrates. The Nile in ancient Egypt; the Tiber in Rome; the Thames in London; the Seine in Paris; the Hudson in New York; the Chicago River and Lake Michigan here. The human family can flourish only when it is proximate to mighty waters.
Water is the sine qua non of life. No water, no life, anywhere in the universe, so far as we know. You’ve heard the old axiom that human beings can live seven minutes without oxygen, seven days without water, and seven weeks without food.
In the Bible, water is both a gift and a problem. Sometimes the problem is a surfeit of water, as in Noah’s Ark and the Flood, or when God parts the Red Sea to let the freed slaves escape bondage for freedom and promise in Canaan. Sometimes it is a dearth of water, like when the Hebrews are wandering in the barren wilderness, and God gushes potable water from the flinty rock. Over and over again in the Bible, water is a symbol of God’s unfailing grace, God’s solicitous faithfulness to God’s people.
In Islam, the Qur’an reminds us why we must appreciate water when it states that God asks: “have you seen the water that you drink? Is it you who brought it down from the clouds or is it We who bring it down? If We willed, we could've made it bitter, so why aren't you grateful?”
In Sunnah, the Islamic body of practice, it is said: “Humans are co-owners in three things: water, fire, and pastures (and therefore must share them).”
In Buddhism, water symbolizes purification, cleansing ourselves of delusion and aversion by embracing generosity, wisdom, and most important, kindness. The offering of water is a reminder to care for the environment—land, air, and water—upon which we are all dependent and interdependent.
And another foundation in Buddism is the concept of “right action,” that is doing...intentionally conducting ourselves with compassion for all life. And if all life depends on water, then one way to take “right action” or “karma” is to act to protect our water on which all life relies.
Our neighbors, the Anishinaabe, call the water we drink nibi and the water that we cry nibiiwsh. Throughout our Great Lakes region, we are fortunate to have some 35 federally-recognized Native American nations. And together they believe, so elegant in its simplicity, that “water is life.”
And water isn’t just life. Water is living. Which is why the New Zealand Maori Tribe has granted the Whanganui (WAN-GAH-NUI) River the same legal rights as a human being, considering it an ancestor.
Cam: I’m glad you quoted the prophet Mohammed: “The best charity is to give water to drink.” Jesus of Nazareth said the same thing: “I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink, and inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done it unto me.”
I think the time I wept most intensely for my country was when I saw those videos and photos of United States Border Agents emptying jugs of water that had been placed there for migrants in the Sonoran Desert of the American Southwest. Two hundred people die in that wilderness every year. What kind of people are they?
Think about the parallel between where we live and who we are.
Here in this region, the Great Lakes comprise 20% of the Earth’s, 83% of North America’s, and 93 % of all U.S. fresh surface water.
At the same time, 60% of our bodies are made up of water. Our lungs are 83%, skin 64% and even our bones are made up of 31% water. 73% of our hearts are water. And the same, 74% of our brains.
I guess, if we are what we eat, we are also what we drink. And we think because we drink.
So it’s little wonder that how we treat our water is a reflection of how we treat ourselves. If we keep our water healthy, we keep ourselves and our neighbors healthy. If we pollute our water, we pollute it for ourselves and our neighbors. The more we cover the land with hard surfaces, we flood ourselves and our neighbors.
Water can exist in three forms: liquid, gas (think vapor on a hot, humid day) and solid (think ice, like what we see out on Lake Michigan this time of year).
Water can be slippery and barely tangible, yet over time cut through stone, and gouging out great canyons.
Also like us, water lives on land, may be lowered to the ground, and rise again. Water like us, constantly seeks equilibrium. We can perish from too much water or not enough.
And water has a sense of humor: why do its negative ions make us feel so positive?
All the water in the universe was created billions of years ago. There will never be another drop. Did you know that the ancient water contained in our underground aquifers is sometimes called ‘fossil water’? Our water is a million years old. We’d better take care of it.
I’m so grateful for my buddy Cam, who talked to us the other night about “The Spirituality of Sewage.” I left Cam’s talk hopeful and optimistic, because he told us all the ways our civil servants are working diligently to protect our rivers and our Great Lakes.
Our beliefs—whether religious or purely philosophical—are roadmaps for our lives, guiding our journeys from day to day.
If water can be transformed from one state to another, it’s only natural that we transform our beliefs into action. March 22 is World Water Day. April 22 is Earth Day. What will you do to act on your beliefs between now and then?
Eliminate waste. After all, in nature, there is no such thing as waste.
We all have a watery cathedral, right? A holy place on the banks of the Pere Marquette, or on the shore of Green Bay in Door Country, or at Big Sur, or on Penobscot Bay, or at Key West. For my family it is the Leelanau Peninsula stuck like a pinky finger into Grand Traverse Bay. It is our holy place. I am almost as close to God there as I am when I’m here with you on a Sunday morning, about a thousand feet from Michigami.
Cam and I have a mutual friend named George Heartwell. George is an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America and also the United Church of Christ. He served with distinction as mayor of my hometown, Grand Rapids, Michigan for 12 years.
George talks about a solo camping expedition he once took along the Pictured Rocks Trail between Munising and Grand Marais, Michigan. One night near dusk he sat on a bluff looking out over Lake Superior. Ominous Thunderclouds rolled in from the west and the waves were crashing on the rocks beneath.
And George says that he went into almost a trance. There was water above him, and water beneath him, and water within him. And he says, “It’s all the same water. It was as if I were one with the sky and the Lake. A child of the universe. At peace.” Yes? What’s your watery cathedral?
One of my favorite books is A River Runs Through It, by University of Chicago Professor Norman Maclean, about a family of fly fishermen. Maybe I love it because the father in the story is a Presbyterian minister. Or maybe it’s because it has the most beautiful last line of any novel I’ve ever read:
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. I am haunted by waters.”
Water unites us. No matter our race, age, sexual orientation, socio economic status or other personal history, we all need water to survive. To thrive.
Every drop of water we use has been used before and will be used again to feed life so we must leave it as our greatest legacy, not attaching our names to it, but attaching our care.
We leave you with this. Instead of asking who you want to be, ask what do you want to be? And why not aspire to be like water?
- Clear in our convictions to protect it so that it can continue to provide for us,
- Yet tranquil in the confidence of our convictions,
- Powerful in turning our convictions into action,
- And remembering that water unifies all of us.