This past July I visited Siem Reap in the Mekong Delta of Cambodia. There was no potable water anywhere – all drinking water came from bottles. All water taps had warnings on them not to drink the water. I visited a floating village on Tonle Sap, a huge lake in the region, and saw rain barrels so that people would have drinking water. I remember thinking then how sad it ws that the infrastructure was so bad that there was no safe water anywhere. But surely, in my own country, surely in the United States, at home, everyone has access to clean water!
Alas, no. While I was traveling in Southeast Asia and drinking water from bottles, people in Detroit were having their water cut off. And while the shutoffs in Detroit have been widespread and widely publicized, this is not the only jurisdiction where people have lost their access to safe water.
What are we doing with our water? We live on a blue planet – our planet is mostly water – we are mostly water, yet we can’t seem to allow everyone access. We send water to the deserts so that people in Phoenix can have swimming pools and grass lawns and hotels in Las Vegas can have spectacular fountains, but at the same time we have water shortages in California, and people in Detroit can’t get water out of a tap.
In Exodus 17:1-7, the Israelites complain to Moses that they’re thirsty and are afraid of dying in the desert. Moses doesn’t get it. He’s management, and I guess he’s just not that thirsty? He’s not able to empathize with the people, so he just yells at them for being uncooperative. Well, that’s helpful. It doesn’t do anything to get them water. It doesn’t do anything to repair their relations. It just creates more bad feelings. Fortunately, God is a more experienced and more benevolent manager. God has better leadership experience, and God instructs Moses on what to do. God knows that the people need water! God instructs Moses to strike a particular stone with his staff so that water will flow from it, so that the people may drink. This is a basic necessity. Perhaps we can learn from God here. Ex.17:5-6 “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.’” (NRSV translation).
We have a choice. We can, as a society, behave like Moses did initially, and argue with the people, but what will that get us? From a practical perspective, it won’t get us much. It surely won’t cultivate good will between people and leadership. But it’s not even good for the bottom line.
Water is a necessity. Are we going to condemn families to wandering in the wilderness without it? When there is no running water in a home, this can be grounds for removing children. I will say this again – a family that is not in any way abusive or neglectful may have children removed from a home because they have their water shut off. Every time Child Protective Services (CPS) has opens a case, there has to be an investigation. A social worker is assigned to the case. If a child or children are removed, then there is at least one foster family that is involved. There will be a guardian ad litem assigned by the court to represent the children. All of this costs money. A lot of money. Most likely more money than the cost of the original water bill. And that’s just the cost in dollars.
I know from my own experience as a foster parent that there’s a human cost as well. Taking a child away from parents is a last resort. Doing it because a parent is unable to pay a water bill is a poverty of our spirit. It also pulls resources away from genuine cases of abuse and neglect. What lives could be saved but we are spending time turning off water and then chasing after families who couldn’t pay their bills?
The people are thirsty. We could be Moses. We could argue with them about who should pay the bills to fix infrastructure. We could argue about paying bills, and we could hold the water hostage. Or we could take our cue from God. We could recognize that water is necessary for life. We could recognize that when the water flows, everything else flows more easily, too. We could strike the stone with the staff so that everyone may drink. It’s time to strike the stone.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24 – NRSV)
That’s all I’ve got – that’s my mite.