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Pilgrimage of water justice in the context of India, by Metropolitan Dr. Geevarghese Mor Coorilos

The second Reflection of the “Seven Weeks for Water 2019” of World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Water Network is by Metropolitan Dr. Geevarghese Mor Coorilos, the Bishop of Niranam diocese of the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church in India. He also serves the World Council of Churches as Moderator of the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism. In this reflection, he elaborates on the story of Jesus's encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well and relates it to the Indian context of caste untouchability and discrimination.

The second Reflection of the “Seven Weeks for Water 2019” of World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Water Network is by Metropolitan Dr. Geevarghese Mor Coorilos, the Bishop of Niranam diocese of the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church in India. He also serves the World Council of Churches as Moderator of the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism.  In this reflection, he elaborates on the story of Jesus's encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well and relates it to the Indian context of caste untouchability and discrimination.

 

Text: Samaritan Woman at the Well: John 4:1-30

 

Reflection

Water is a profound Biblical and theological theme. In fact, water becomes a permeating element from creation to the final revelation in the Bible. At the time of creation, the Spirit of God was brooding over the waters (Gen.1:1) and one of the signs of the new heaven and new earth is that of the stream of Life.  " To the thirsty, I will give from the fountain of water of life without payment "(Rev. 21:6). Water is a channel of divine grace and a means of God's healing, and salvation in the Bible.

Bapurao Tanje is a daily laborer in the State of Maharashtra in India. He dug a well single-handedly, digging it for 40 consecutive days after he and his wife were denied access to a local water source because of their  "low caste" identity as Dalits. "I came home that day in March and almost cried. I resolved never to beg for water from anybody... I just wanted to provide water for my whole locality so that we Dalits did not have to beg for water from other castes". (1)

This incident is not an isolated case in India today. Dalits, especially their womenfolk experience discrimination and rejection on a daily basis in India. Public wells are sites where Dalits are denied access to water in many parts of India. Access to water especially drinking water continues to be a social-eco justice issue for Dalits.

Wells had a significant place in the lives of Israel in the Old Testament. "In the evening when women go down to draw water " (Gen 24:11 ) can strike chords with women in Indian villages. It is at public wells that rural women gather to fetch water. They also share their stories and life experiences and build their bonds of community around these wells. Therefore to deny access to such public sites amounts to gross violation of fundamental human rights. What Bapurao Tanje and his wife encountered in their village was an example of outright social isolation and exclusion.

The story of Jesus's encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well reminds us of the Indian context of caste untouchability and discrimination. The Samaritan woman here represents a typical Dalit/Tribal woman in India who is forced to tread miles to fetch water. This is either because they are not allowed to draw water from public wells on account of their caste identity or because they are driven out from their homeland to make way for "development " through mega dams and so on. The Samaritan woman at the well, therefore, is a prototype of the Dalit/Tribal women in India. Daya Pawar, a Dalit woman activist expresses her plight in a song that she composed:

 

"As they build this dam

I bury my life...

The dam is ready ...

It feeds their sugar cane fields

Making the crop lush and juicy

But I walk miles through forests

In search of drops of drinking water..."   (2)

 

A Samaritan woman was considered " a menstruant from her cradle " and hence a perpetual source of pollution. She was not allowed to interact with Jewish men. Therefore, Jesus asking her water was nothing short of a revolutionary act of defying the dominant patriarchal and casteist/racist values. As Sister Vandana argues, through this encounter here, Jesus was also establishing the fact that public wells were no longer to be the monopoly of certain caste or ethnic groups. (3)  "Earth is the Lord's and it's fullness thereof " (Ps. 24:1) implies that nature and it's resources belong to God and therefore cannot be privatized by anyone or any group. It is meant to be shared equally among all people.

During the lent season, this Biblical account of Jesus encountering the Samaritan woman with a new vision and message, that of social justice and equality, has particular pertinence, especially in contexts like India where people are still socially ostracized and denied access to essential sources of life such as water. Observance of fasting has deep social, ecological and hence theological implications in such situations. To fast is to co-habit with the outcasts and to share resources including natural resources with one another.

Isaiah 58: 6-7 reminds us of this truth:

"Is not this the fast that I choose; to loose the bonds of wickedness; to undo the thongs of the yoke; to let the oppressed go free; and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor to your house...?"

The account of Jesus's encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, therefore, leaves us with at least two significant messages to ponder over as we observe the great lent,  that is, to identify with the outcasts and to ensure that resources from nature are shared in an egalitarian manner. May this Lenten season be an occasion to live out these messages of solidarity, justice and liberation in the context of our Pilgrimage for water justice!

 

Questions

1. Could we think of our own specific contexts where people are still discriminated against and denied access to nature 's resources on account of their caste/tribal/ethnic/racial/ gender identity?

2. Could we identify women from our own contexts who share the same plight as the Samaritan woman in the Biblical story and offer our solidarity with them this lent season and beyond?

 

Action plans

1. Observe lent by joining an on going struggle against social discrimination and ecological destruction in our contexts.

2. Could we think of meaningfully observing the lent by taking a decision to give up products that are produced by Multi National Companies through indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources especially water?

 

References

1. See https://drop4drop.org/india-caste-system-water/

2.  Quoted in Aruna Gnanadason, "Towards A Feminist Eco-theology for India" in Daniel D Chetti (Ed), "Ecology and Development: Theological Perspectives", Gurukul, Madras, 1993, p. 29.

3. Sister Vandana, "Waters of Fire", ATC, Bangalore, 1989, p. 12.