From Sea to Shining Sea ... How Water Literate Are You?
Updated: Feb 11
At the dawn of the twentieth century, French composer Claude Debussy gave voice to our fascination with the many moods of the sea in his symphony La Mer. Look up a version of this on You Tube - perhaps by the NY Philharmonic conducted by Pierre Louis Joseph Boulez (Click here) or The Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France conducted by Myung-Whun Chung (Click Here). Then close your eyes and let your imagination wander -- take in humanity's attempt to capture the essence of the sea.
Fifty years later, marine biologist Rachel Carson, a lover and protector of the ocean, told the story of the lure of the sea captured by Debussy in a way that echoed her scientific training:
What is this sea, and wherein lies its power so greatly to stir the minds of men? What is the mystery of it, intangible, yet inseparably its own?…For hundreds of millions of years, all life was sea life, developing in prodigious abundance and variety.…But we as man carry the sea’s salt in our blood, and the trace of our marine heritage in our bodies, and perhaps something akin to a racial memory of that dim past lies within us….And surely the sense of these things was in Debussy’s mind when he composed La Mer …capturing in immortal music the shining beauty, the awful power, and the eternal mystery of the sea. Rachel Carson "Lost Woods" 1999
Our captivation with water was reinvigorated when we saw for the first time that we live on a shimmering “Blue Marble.” The picture of Earth as a Blue marble was taken from space in 1970 and showed us how political borders and cultural boundaries are artificial and arbitrary. Our planet’s blue lifeblood ebbs and flows, connecting everything. Water constantly circulates in and between all bodies, uniting and connecting them through time and space in a grace- filled way.
The story of our watery interconnectivity needs to inform all aspects of human ecologies: education, politics, healthcare, economics, and religion. Water in all its complexity should be noticed, celebrated, and respected in all human activities, including Christian catechesis, spirituality, rituals, and practice— but this is not the case.
Laudato Si’ invites humanity to recapture our lost wonder and awe of our sacred watery world and our neighbors that dwell there. Otherwise, we will not care enough to do what it takes to care for this part of creation.
Time for some holy noticing.
A consequence of our human- centered tunnel vision is that we know very little about water.
Here is a small test ...what do you know about water?
How much of Earth is made up of water -- and how much of that is drinkable?
What body of water does the water in your taps come from?
When did we get 24-7 water availability in our homes?
Where are the pipes that bring it into your home?
How clean is tap water compared to bottled water
How much is the cost of the water infrastructure (pump house; pipes; sanitation; etc...) reflected in your water bill?
How many people do not have access to clean water? Ask this globally, nationally, and locally.
How is water used in Scripture or our rituals of faith to teach us about God, our neighbors, ourselves?
Which ones did you know? Many? Few? Did any surprise you shocked you? How water 'literate' were you?
What we know (or don't know) about water impacts the way we act towards this essential element of life on Earth. In my classes, few students (or other professors for that matter) have ever thought about these questions ... until that is, no water comes out of their dorm tap when they turn it on! Then they care only until it is working again.
This ignorance about water is a privilege.
This privileged ignorance reflects a false belief that water is infinitely abundant and incorruptible. We are in for a rude awakening; the age where water is abundant, safe, and cheap is over, but we cannot live without water. Thus, those who can pay will have access to safe water while the poor will be denied access to clean water and life itself.
Holy Noticing Activity: Google the phrase "drinking water" and look at the first 10 images that appear. What do you notice about these images. Look first at who is in these pictures -- especially race and ethnicity. This is whom we associate with blue, clean, sparkling drinking water. Now look at the class (affluent or not-affluent) of these individuals. Now Google 'water scarcity' and scroll through the images. What do you notice. Explore why this is the 'norm' for explaining water scarcity.
People of faith must speak out. If one's experience of water is not life giving, then how can Jesus be understood as living water that nourishes, redeems, and sustains (John 7:38).
Pope Francis speaks out about water poverty as injustice all believers must address:
Even as the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market. Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity. Laudato Si', para. 30.
The social debt the world has— including Christians— can only be paid if we appreciate what water is, how it works, and why it is important to our lives and faith.
Believers must intentionally become water literate so they can relearn how to be in solidarity with the Earth and the poor— and see God’s presence in these activities.
An authentic relationship with living water provokes the sense of wonder and awe captured by Debussy. However, people who truly love Earth’s watery depths will be outraged at water poverty and act to stop this injustice.
If you have read to the bottom, here are some of the answers to the above water literacy questions:
How much of Earth is made up of water (~71%) -- and how much of that is drinkable (only about 3%)?
What body of water does the water in your taps come from? Depends where you live :)
When did we get 24-7 water availability in our homes? Running water was first introduced in Western Europe and North America in 1800s, usually one tap per neighborhood. Then after the 1900s individual houses routinely had running water in the kitchen and bathroom. Poorer communities lagged up to 50 years after more affluent communities.... this is environmental racism and if you think this injustice has disappeared, just think about Flint Michigan whose citizens (majority are people of colour and of low affluence) still do not have clean water
Where are the pipes that bring it into your home? Depends...
How clean is tap water compared to (unregulated!) bottled water. Tap water is just as clean as bottled water (sometimes better!). In fact, an estimated 25 percent or more of bottled water is really just tap water in a bottle. Check out: https://www.nrdc.org/stories/truth-about-tap
How much is the cost of the water infrastructure (pump house; pipes; sanitation; etc...) reflected in your water bill? Not very much! Check out The Big Thirst for more about this and many other aspects about water.
How many people do not have access to clean water? Ask this globally, nationally, and locally. Not sure, then watch Dr. Christiana Peppard outline the problem of water scarcity in this video: Fresh water scarcity: An introduction to the problem.
How is water used in Scripture to teach us about God? This is a beautiful family prayer time or small group activity ... be sure to check out these passages and rituals (there are many others too) to help reflect on your answers to this question:
Isaiah 12:3; 44:3; 49:10
2 Samuel 22:17
Revelation 21:6; 22:17
John 7: 37-39
Blessing of a Home
Water poverty reflects both the physical and spiritual dimensions of the water crisis. It also connects ecological problems with the scriptural mandate to care for the poor. The term calls Christians to act in very practical ways: increase funding to clean water projects; stop commodifying and privatizing water; educate against the wasting of water; stop using single use plastics... and many more small acts done with great love.
But to address this biospiritual crisis, readers must make watery ecosystems less invisible in their lives and learn how they are polluting Earth’s waters and disrupting Earth’s aquatic cycles.
This will be the task of my next series of blogs: an awakening to water as a formidable act of faith.
We must take to heart the wisdom of Maya Angelou: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Let's do better.