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Water and the Bible

image Published: May 20, 2015

By Chris Wigglesworth, SRT Committee member

I've had a lifetime's fascination with water, twelve of the best years being in India digging or drilling for it so people could get clean water, and building small dams so that rainwater could be saved for the dry months. The sight of children dancing for joy when a bore-hole strikes water in a dry area and cascades over them us unforgettable. Today water is the world's most critical resource. Water security and justice are rapidly becoming priorities for the sustainability of life on earth, so I still think about water a lot ...

Water is a wonderful thing, one of God's greatest gifts. We can't live more than a day or two without it. That's why water looms so large in the Bible, as a sacred sign of life, not only in baptism but from the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem.

Having a well from which to draw sweet drinking water is as essential today in much of the world as it was for Abraham's Hagar and their son, Ishmael (Genesis 16.7 onwards, or 21.19 - read on in that chapter for one example of many in the book of Genesis about the necessity of wells for animals, crops and humans). Basic humanity and justice require its provision: “if your enemies are thirsty, give them water to drink” (Proverbs 25.21). “When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I the Lord will answer them.” (Isaiah 41.17)

Rainfall is evidence of God's kindness to all, both just and unjust, as Jesus declared (Matthew 5. 45).  Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures it is celebrated as God's gift par excellence – see for example Isaiah 30.23 and 44.3-4, Psalms 68.9 and 104.10-17, and especially in the book of Job.

Significantly for the Holy Land today, water, and especially the injustice of its unequal availability and use, is a vital issue in relations between the state of Israel and people in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Rain is the source of all drinkable water, though nowadays desalinated (very expensive) sea water has to be manufactured for about 300 million people, mainly in the Middle East, North Africa, and Australia. Wiser use of the rain is becoming essential in Indian cities. Every roof in Bangalore has to drain its rainwater into storage. This approach to rainwater “harvesting” will have to be followed worldwide.

Yet water itself, as much as the lack of it, can be dangerous. Chaotic and destructive, from Noah's Flood to sailors' tribulations (Psalm 107.23) and Paul's shipwreck (Acts 27), today increasing flooding and rising sea-levels caused by climate change threaten the existence of millions of our fellow-humans. Added to this is the growing menace of droughts, water shortage, and water pollution, resulting from the combined effects of climate change and population pressure.

Less obvious but in fact more significant in creating water scarcity is our dependence on the vast amount of other people's water consumed globally by irrigated crops, animal-feed, and textile fibres, which some people term our “virtual water” consumption. 140 litres (or 250 pints) for one cup of coffee: and one hamburger has used up 2,400 litres (4,200 pints) of water in its production, from the animal-feed grain to the final item!! Nearly half of the water the UK uses up for our food is imported in this way, so changes are vital. The notion of our “water footprint”  is one way of bringing this home. Why not “Google” it ? !

Least considered in estimating future water needs yet probably most important of all is the protection of sufficient clean water in the wider environment. This is essential to sustain all life-forms on earth, including our descendents. 

Meanwhile serious water shortages, starting amongst the people of the Middle East, North Africa and across Pakistan, India and China, are going to occur in the next ten years unless we co-operate far more in the wise use of all water. The poor, both in urban shanty-towns and in fragile villages, are the first victims of failure to take water seriously. Ironically they often pay more for their water than neighbouring rich people. Safe and affordable drinking water has at last been recognised to be a fundamental human right. It is still denied to about one billion people worldwide: this has to be the priority. Fancy bottled water is at the opposite end of the scale! One good sign is the Edinburgh-based NGO, Water Witness International, which is pioneering global water stewardship standards, especially for big water consumers, and everyone can do something about the importance of this is as a part of Fair Trade!

We can thankfully celebrate our superb water resources in Scotland, and at the same time think of others and about the future. The key biblical truths on Water to reflect on are Stewardship and Justice.

For further information:
Christian Aid, Oxfam, Water Witness International, and Water Aid.
Two Scottish books: “Water” by Paul Younger, Hodder 2012, and “Peak Water” by Alexander Bell, Luath 2009.
Excellent are: “The Atlas of Water” by Maggie Black and Jannet King, Earthscan, 2009, and “Water” by David Feldman, Polity, 2012.

Chris is currently vice-convener of the Church and Society Council, member of the SRT Committee and helps as a retired Church of Scotland minister at St Giles Cathedral. He trained and has worked as a geologist in India, Greenland, Malta, and Sudan, and as a minister-cum-theologian in India and Scotland.

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