In July of 2008, I delivered a sermon at Earth Ministry's Holden Retreat in 2008. I preached on John 4:1-30, the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well and offering her the Living Water. The sermon was part of a Caring for All Creation: By The Waters service led by Earth Ministry staff and members. Listen to the service. When I was asked to preach, I wasn't sure how I would connect Living Water to the environment.
Certainly, the metaphor of Living Water is a beautiful image of God - the One who's well never goes dry, who quenches our thirst, who provides us with the most important sustenance all living creatures need to survive. But what has that to do with caring for the environment? I decided to talk about the things we thirst for in this life that take the place of Living Water and how those other gods or idols are behind our current environmental crises. It worked well, but for some reason, I recently found myself revisioning the sermon.
In biblical times, the term "living water" had a specific cultural meaning - a body of water that moved, as opposed to stagnant water. Jesus was indeed culturally relevant! When we look at that contextual definition we find a clue for a multitude of environmental sermons based on this text. Here are a few ideas I came up with:
- Salmon - Here in the northwest, one of our hot environmental topics is the removal of dams from rivers where salmon spawn. We have decimated countless salmon stocks because of dams which hinder the free movement of rivers and all the life therein. Additionally, plant species adapted to the ebb and flow of river systems are no longer prevalent. We have made rivers to bow down and worship men with good intentions (power production, agriculture, drinking water supplies) but we have paid the price.
- Water Resources/Conservation - We use so much water per capita that utilities have to build dams in order to make sure that there is enough water to last through the dry season. If you live in the southwest, you are familiar with the California water wars and other water supply issues such as the over-assignment of water rights on the Colorado River affecting Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, California, and Mexico. Overuse of rivers results in devastating consequences to once balanced and sustainable ecosystems. By the time the Colorado River reaches Mexico, it is so salty they have to treat it with a desalinization plant before it can be put to use. Water conservation measures (and good water resource policy) can help significantly with these issues.
- Water Quality - What is more unappealing than stagnant water? Do you want to drink water that's been sitting in a bog, that's smelly and full of detritus? I didn't think so. And no one wants to worship a God that is stagnant and lifeless. We want to worship a God who is moving, vibrant, active, clean, sparkling, and full of life! God wants no less for our spirit, why would God want less for our bodies? Then why do we not push for legislation that preserves our water ways and protects our rights to living water?
- A Call to Action - The image of God as living, breathing, moving water can be used to call Christians to action. God does not call us to be stagnant and sit idly by while God's good creation is torn apart by man's devices. God calls us to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to flow out into the world bringing life not desolation. We must move in this world, we must take action, we must be filled and overflowing with the Living Water!
- The Gulf Oil Catastrophe - I can think of no other current environmental crisis that epitomizes the exact opposite of Living Water than the atrocity in the Gulf of Mexico. The waters of the Gulf have become stagnant. They are not filled with the living and vibrant creatures that God chose to fill that beautiful place. I was in New Orleans in December and their aquarium has a huge Gulf of Mexico display. I was in awe and wonder as I saw sea turtles, several species of sharks and rays, and fish large and small circling around a mock oil rig structure. Indeed, oil rigs provide reef habitat for creatures in the gulf, but the relationship has soured, spoiled, and stagnated. It is time for the faith voice to cry out from the roof tops - THIS IS NOT RIGHT! God calls us to more - to better stewardship and to greater life. This is not God's intent nor God's will for the Gulf.
Whether you are a clergy or a lay person (like me) and find yourself considering how to apply scripture to current environmental issues, please consider entering the 3rd Annual Celebration of St. Francis Sermon Contest! It is a priceless opportunity to enrich the Christian dialog about the environment. You can even feel free to use one of the ideas I've presented in this blog post. Ordained, non-ordained, students, men, and women are all welcome to apply! The deadline is July 31 and fast approaching so submit a sermon today!