If all earth’s water fit in a gallon jug, available fresh water would equal just over a tablespoon—less than half of one percent of the total. About 97 percent of our planet’s water is seawater; another 2 percent is locked in icecaps and glaciers. Yet there’s as much water on earth today as there was thousands and thousands of years ago. Like blood pulsing through our bodies, water has cycled from the clouds to the land, from the land to the rivers and oceans, and back from the land and the oceans to the sky, nurturing all of life on its journey. Not a moment goes by when it doesn’t rain or snow somewhere on earth. Think about that for just a second or two, and try not to sing in wonder.
In the contiguous United States, an average of 4,200 billion gallons of water falls each day. Each day. 4,200 billion gallons of rain, snow, sleet, or hail. Two-thirds is absorbed by plants or evaporates back into the atmosphere; most of the rest runs to the sea, through streams, rivers, lakes and wetlands. And everywhere it flows, along every inch of its endless journey, living things drink and grow and swim, and not a single drop is ever wasted. Think about that for just a second or two, and try not to sing in wonder.
Scott Potter astonished us on Wednesday when he told us that just about every home and business in Nashville is connected with the Cumberland river by about 3,000 miles of water main. The largest pipe is five feet in diameter – wide enough for a child to walk through; the smallest pipes branch off to every neighbor on every street like twigs on a tree. Water makes us one, because none of us can live outside its flow. No wonder we speak of thirst when we try to put into words our longing for God.
Like a deer craves streams of water,
so my whole being craves you, God.
My whole being thirsts for God,
for the living God (Psalm 42:1-2).
There is just as much water on earth today as there was thousands and thousands of years ago, but there are many more people – and not all of them live close to potable water. In many parts of the world, in both rural and urban areas, collecting water is a woman’s task. And it is a chore that often occupies several hours of the day. Women and girls may have to leave their homes at dawn to travel miles to the nearest well, and some will not return before nightfall laden with containers of water. A woman might have to spend an entire night waiting in line at a distant water pump for her turn to fill her bucket. Many school-age girls spend more time each day carrying water for their families than they do in school – if they get to go to school at all.
And much of the water fetched with such enormous effort is not always safe for drinking, bathing, and cooking. Water-related diseases kill more than five million people each year—that’s ten times the number of people killed in armed conflicts. Think about that for just a second or two; you won’t feel like singing.
The widow in Zarephath didn’t feel like singing either. There had been a long drought in the land, and life had literally dried up slowly. Now she was gathering sticks to build one last fire to bake one last little cake for herself and her son, from a mere handful of meal and a little oil. Week by week, she had watched her meager supplies of flour and oil from last year’s harvest dwindle. Day by day, she had watched her child slowly grow thinner and more listless. Life had dried up and now death was waiting at her door.
The widow, the orphan, and the stranger appear together many times in Scripture, representing the most vulnerable of the community. In this story, the stranger meets the widow and the orphan, and amid drought and looming death, life erupts. Life erupts because they trust the word of God the life-giver that the stranger brought with him. Life erupts because they hold on to generous hospitality and idol-defying faith in the parched landscape of scarcity. Life erupts, and it all begins with the stranger’s request, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” Life erupts when a little water flows again. Think about that poor widow handing the stranger a cup of water, think about the simplicity and the beauty of that gesture for just a second or two, and try not to sing in wonder.
There’s a lovely story that’s just waiting to be recalled. Abraham and Sarah had a baby boy when they were both old and well advanced in years. Isaac grew up, and his father sent a servant back to the old country to find a wife for him. At the end of his journey east to the city of Nahor, the servant arrived at a well, and he prayed, “Lord, please grant me success today and be loyal to my master Abraham. I will stand here by the spring while the daughters of the city come out to draw water. When I say to a young woman, ‘Hand me your water jar so I can drink,’ and she says to me, ‘Drink, and I will give your camels water too,’ may she be the one you have selected for your servant Isaac.” And then Rebekah came, beautiful Rebekah, carrying a water jar on her shoulder. She went down to the water, filled her jar, and when she came back up, the servant ran to meet her and said, “Give me a little sip of water from your jar.”
What do you think she did? Not only did she give him a drink, she emptied her jar into the trough for his camels, then ran to the well again to draw water, and drew water for all ten of his camels. The rest, the say, is history. Rebekah became Isaac’s wife. But that’s not all.
There’s another story that wants to be heard. Years later, Rebekah’s son Jacob was in the land of the people of the east, and he saw a well in the field and three flocks of sheep nearby. It was the middle of the day. He asked the shepherds if they knew his uncle Laban, and how he was. And they said, “We know him. He’s fine. In fact, this is his daughter Rachel, coming with the flock.”
Now what do you think Jacob did? He rolled the stone from the well opening and watered the entire flock Rachel had brought. And the rest, they say, is history. It was love at first sight; there was a bit of a delay, but eventually Jacob and Rachel were married, and they became the parents of many tribes. Love and life erupted, with blessing rolling down like a never-ending stream, generation to generation.
Now John tells us that Jesus had to go through Samaria, and you know that Jews and Samarians didn’t get along and tried to avoid each other. So Jesus had to go through Samaria, and he came to a Samaritan city named Sychar, and almost in passing John mentions that Jacob’s well was there. And John writes, “And Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. I was about noon.” John shows us Jesus sitting by Jacob’s well in the middle of the day – talk about building expectation!
A Samaritan woman comes to draw water, and Jesus says to her, “Give me a drink.” It sounds like a simple request for water, but she knows it’s not that simple because he’s a Jew and she’s a Samaritan, and we know it’s not that simple because we know who it is that is asking her for a drink. We know that life is about to erupt, that blessing will flow like water, and divine love heal the wounds of our fragmented world. Jesus knows that she’s thirsty, that her whole being thirsts for the living God.
“Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Not a moment goes by when it doesn’t rain or snow somewhere on earth. Water flows, and everywhere it goes, living things flourish, and not a single drop is ever wasted. Water makes us one, because no one can live outside its flow. Jesus invites us to come to him and drink, never again to live outside the flow of all he pours out for us:
“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-39).
Rivers he promises! We drink and receive all that he gives, and we become conduits branching off to every neighbor on every street like twigs on a tree, conduits for the rivers of living water that bring life to dry places. Life erupts, and again and again it begins with a neighbor’s simple request, “Bring me a little water, will you?”
A girl cannot go to school because she spends hours every day fetching water for her family; you know she is thirsty. A woman gets up before dawn for the long daily trip to the river; you know she is thirsty. A man doesn’t know how to keep his children from drinking the foul water in the irrigation ditch because it’s the only water there is, and he knows it will make them sick; you know he is thirsty.
In each of them, we encounter Jesus; and when we reach for the cup to share it, it is not at all clear who is the one giving and who the one receiving, because the river runs through us.
 Estimates vary from year to year, and depending on which diseases are included. I used an estimate from a CWS flyer. For a recent estimate that adds up to four million see http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Africa/2010/0322/World-Water-Day-Dirty-water-kills-more-people-than-violence-says-UN