Christianity, Sacredness and Scarcity of Water
This is first of seven reflections for the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) Ecumenical Water Network’s (EWN) Lenten campaign, "Seven Weeks for Water" in 2017.
Rev. Dr Benebo Fubara Fubara-Manuel is an ordained minister, theologian and ecumenist of The Presbyterian Church of Nigeria. Fubara-Manuel currently serves as Rector of Essien Ukpabio Presbyterian Theological College, Itu, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria and is President of the Christian Council of Nigeria. He is a member of the Covenanting for Justice Network of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC). In his reflection, Fubara-Manuel elaborates on the Bible’s Exodus story of the pilgrimage of the Israelites in the wilderness of Shur. It tells of their days of travel without water and, finally, when they found water, it was bitter! Fubara-Manuel relates it to today’s global water crisis.
Christianity, sacredness and water scarcity
Bible reflection on Exodus 15:22-27
Rev. B. F. Fubara-Manuel, Ph.D.
Many people today think that some sufferings are meaningless because in their eyes they cannot justify why such woes should occur. While these concerns are important, we are reminded that we can come to find as very significant some occurrences in our lives that we once interpreted as meaningless. Perhaps this is how we should understand the sufferings of the Israelites in the wilderness of Shur. They travelled for days without water and, finally, when they found water, it was bitter! Little did they know that Elim, a place with good water, was only 7 miles (11 kilometres) away. Why did God watch them endure this apparently meaningless suffering? Our pilgrimage with the Israelites in this Lenten season from Exod. 15:22-27 will show us how we in the Christian Church can learn about sacredness and scarcity of water under God’s providence.
Reflection on the Marah story
Under Joseph, the children of Israel were to live in Goshen [a very fertile area called “the best of the land” (Gen. 47:6)], and, therefore, probably a very well-watered part of Egypt. But in spite of their good settlement, they had found it hard to be a people under the hand of taskmasters who did not know Joseph. Moses was raised by God to get them out of Egypt after over 400 years. And out they came. As they approached the Red Sea, the Egyptians pursued, but God gave them victory by carving a way through the sea for them to cross over to dry ground. When the Egyptians pursued, God fought for the Israelites and killed the attacking Egyptians in the Sea. And they made it to the other side of the Sea.
Such a story should not be interpreted today to suggest any negative approach to Egypt or any other Biblical nation; such ways of reading the Bible can only lead to fundamentalism. Nevertheless, all the passage remains inviting to those who want to hear the voice of the Spirit through them.
Some translations of the first verse of our passage suggest that the Israelites were reluctant to move on in the journey. The English Standard Version says “Moses made Israel set out. . . .” If this suggests a spirit of reluctance in the Israelites, then it is possible to conceive of the possible reasons. The Red sea separated them from their enemies and gave them many possibilities. It signified for them the end of all that was against them – the sea had become for them the purge of their opposing forces. But it is also possible that water scarcity was on their minds and they wondered if they would later find water, since they would be entering a wilderness. B ecause of this fear, they attempted to stop their divinely ordained journey prematurely. But with Moses’ persuasion, they moved ahead and confidently named the wilderness “Shur” (in Aramaic) or “etham”, in Hebrew) meaning fortress. Perhaps after Moses’ effort of convincing them, they thought, in their optimism, they would face no more problems. They were moving from the waters of the Red Sea to the fortress wall.
But God had a lesson to teach them. Instead of leading them straight to Elim, God let them pass through Marah. Marah was a place of bitter water. God probably needed to teach them that there are some places in life that do not look like the Red Sea (that they had just experienced), or Elim (that they were expecting to experience), but they are, nevertheless, sacred places. A sacred place is where God is present, where God encounters His people and where, in spite of the problems faced, God’s grace and mercy can also be experienced. Every part of God’s earth is sacred: “The earth is the LORD’s and its fullness thereof” (Psa. 24:1). In going through Marah, the Israelites learned that some sacred places are like Marah, and call for work!
Marah represents those places on earth where there is scarcity of good water, or where the water available is contaminated (the experience of about 2 billion people on earth including a substantial part of Africa) or where there is no access to improved sanitation facilities (the experience of about 2.4 billion people), and where the contaminated water available calls for human cooperation with God towards its sanitization. All Christians must know that such places exist, and in God’s loving providence, we may pass through some of those places for the learning of greater commitment.
The sweetening tree was found not in another land, but in Marah. For every experience of bitter water of life, there is a sweetening tree available, not far away, but in the place, or spot, or experience of challenge. And we need God to find this tree. Marah reminds us that no matter the Red Sea or Elim of our lives, there are other sacred places where holy people struggle for basic necessities of life, like water. In taking them through Marah, God challenges their memory and their creative commitment by the demands of this encounter. Human efforts to make water available for all must be seen as God’s work through humans, and taken on in this understanding of its sacredness. Without God, Moses would not have found the sweetening tree. We need God in all our mission engagements. Jesus admonished “apart from me, you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5).
The Israelites, in their search for water, turned their blame onto Moses, their leader. While this is a right thing to do – we must put strong pressure on our governments to provide the basic necessities of life – many times this distracts us from our role in ensuring that there is good water. Governments alone cannot bring our world to where it should be; we all must show our willing hands.
- What do you consider the importance of the story of Marah?
- What are some of the experiences of life today that hide from us the reality of the Marah around us, especially the Marah of non-potable water and a lack of adequate sanitation?
- What starting points would you suggest for your context in the efforts to overcome the Marahs of life?
- What religious, practical, scientific, technological discipline would you suggest for your context of Marah?
- How may the church engage the larger community in ensuring that the sacredness of all lands is affirmed, even when water may not be available, or sufficient, or clean?
God often allows us to pass through so that we can experience what others are going through and be reminded about what our place is in the life of others. This may be one reason why the Israelites had to go through this detour in their journey to Marah. Even though water is already recognized by the United Nations as a human right, let us pray that God will open our eyes to see many parts of the world, where water is not yet understood as a basic human need. “We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.”
Please note: Opinions expressed in Biblical reflections do not necessarily reflect EWN and WCC policy.