“El Agua Es Vida”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

October 1, 2017

Exodus 17:1-7


Fourteen years ago, in the fall of 2003, I spent a few months living and studying in Costa Rica.  Along with about a dozen other students, I lived and worked on an organic farm, where we got hands-on experience to complement our coursework and field study in ecology, economics, natural resource management, and sustainable development.

A couple weeks after we arrived, as we were just beginning to get acclimated to the heat and humidity, just beginning to get used to seeing palm trees instead of maples and parrots instead of blue jays, just beginning to get accustomed to the daily downpours that would drench your laundry on the line if you weren’t paying attention, our teachers took us to the center of the little town where we were living and learning.  It was September 15, Costa Rica’s Independence Day, and we were to march in the local parade.

We joined in with marching bands and dancers, politicians and students, processing along the assigned route, wearing red, white, and blue soccer jerseys (our shared national colors) and carrying banners we had painted ourselves.  Afterward, we sat down on the curb to watch everyone else go by.  And the thing I remember most, other than feeling totally conspicuous as the only gringos to be seen anywhere in the crowded streets, was watching the children from the local elementary schools.  They were dressed as water droplets and clouds and happily blooming flowers, and they carried banners that read, El Agua Es Vida!  Water Is Life!


The ancient Israelites knew that el agua es vida, water is life.  They were still wandering in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula, traversing sand and stone and rock, with only the occasional oasis to keep them alive.  When they saw the scrubby, sparse vegetation replaced by a small enclave of palm trees, they knew that they, their wives, their children, and their livestock would live another day.

But on the day when today’s scripture reading took place, there were no palm trees.  There were no spring-fed pools.  There was not even a small trickle where they could dampen a rag to wipe the dust from their faces or their feet.  Nothing for their animals to drink.  Nothing for their children to drink.  No way for anyone to wet their whistle.  And in that desert environment, in the midst of a long and arduous journey, not having water to drink for even one day could be deadly.

You can understand why the Israelites might feel quarrelsome.  You can understand why they might ask the poignant question with which this morning’s reading concludes:  “Is the Lord among us or not?”


The people of Flint, Michigan, know that el agua es vida, water is life.  Starting in 2014, the city switched its water source and failed to properly treat the new water.  Complaints of health problems and discolored water began almost immediately.  Every time a child bathed… every time a parent washed the dishes… every time a student got a drink from the water fountain before soccer practice… every time a person brushed their teeth before bed… they were exposed to the toxic results of the new water corroding their old pipes.

By early 2015, tests were beginning to show elevated levels of lead in the residential water supply.  Later that year, a pediatrician discovered that lead poisoning levels had doubled in children exposed to Flint’s municipal water.  But it was still months before officials took the issue seriously and began mitigation efforts.  And it will take until at least 2020 before all the lead pipes have been replaced.

Meanwhile, residents are still advised to use bottled or filtered water.  And as many as 12,000 children and their families will live out the rest of their lives affected by the irreversible impact of lead poisoning.

You can understand why the people of Flint might feel quarrelsome.  You can understand why they might ask that same poignant question:  “Is the Lord among us or not?”


The people of Puerto Rico know that el agua es vida, water is life.  In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island with a direct category-four hit, the entire electrical grid is down.  And, as you Woodstock residents well know, if you live in a rural area, then no power means no pump, and no pump means no water.  So people are squeezing the last drops from their rain barrels, or standing in long lines to spend their scarce funds on the few available bottles, or filling jugs and buckets from ditches and streams, or going without.

Aid from the U.S. government has been slow in coming and woefully insufficient to the scope of the disaster.  It may take months for power to be restored.  In the meantime, that means no flushing toilets, no washing your hands, no showers, no laundry, no way to clean up the dirt that was deposited everywhere by the winds and waters of the storm.  The risk of disease due to the inevitable poor sanitation.  And no cool cup of fresh water to ease the thirst of a hot, humid, tropical afternoon.

You can understand why the people of Puerto Rico might feel quarrelsome.  You can understand why they might ask that same poignant question:  “Is the Lord among us or not?”


You know this, too, don’t you?  When your well pump breaks suddenly, or you lose power in a blizzard, or you are out hiking on a hot afternoon without sufficient water in your pack—you know how precious water suddenly seems, how essential to sustaining life.

And you know what it is to wonder, “Is the Lord among us or not?” don’t you?  Whether because you are without the literal water that sustains your body, or the living water that sustains your soul, you know what it feels like when it seems like you’re abandoned, like your leaders are not taking care of you, like the deck is stacked against you, like the needs are monumental and the resources are nonexistent, like you don’t know what you’ll do or how you’ll survive.


But like the Israelites in the Sinai wilderness, when your mouth or your spirit is parched to the bone, God is there, ready to hear your cry and to respond.  Ready to provide what you need, albeit from an unexpected source, like water from a cracked-open rock.  Ready to reassure you that you are not alone, not ever.  Ready to send living water pouring forth abundantly to sustain you, body and soul.

And here’s how God does it:  through people.

Through Moses and the Israelite elders, who heeded God’s call and found a way to help their people survive.

Through children in raindrop costumes on the streets of a small town in Costa Rica—children who are now in college, out in the workforce, leaders in their communities, leaders who understand that el agua es vida, water is life.

Through regular people in Flint who would not be silent in the face of injustice, and through doctors who took heed of the plight of their patients, and through the pressure of civil rights leaders across the country who lent their voices to the cause until, finally, things began to change.

Through people like you and me, who will seek ways to bring relief to the people of Puerto Rico, and to so many others who suffer from disasters both natural and human-made.  Who will raise our voices for justice for all who thirst.  Who will heed God’s call and find a way to help our sisters and brothers—old and young, near and far, known and unknown—survive.

Friends, look around this room.  (Go ahead, look around!)  Someone here is thirsty for a drink that only you can give.  And someone here has access to the living water you need most.

In your mind’s eye, look around your community, your family and friends and neighbors and coworkers.  Someone is thirsty for a drink that you can provide.  And someone knows just how to crack open the rock that will give you what you need.

Now expand your vision, and look around this world.  Someone out there is thirsty for a drink that we, together, can give.  And someone out there knows just the thing that will quench our thirsty souls.

Like Moses and the Israelite elders, may we be open to the grace and guidance of God, even when it takes us somewhere unexpected, even when it asks of us something we aren’t sure we’re prepared to give.  May we receive what we need from the hands of our sisters and brothers.  And may God use us—our gifts, our skills, our very hearts—to bring the water of life to a thirsty world.



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