I lay myself down in the Dead Sea waters. It's the middle of January and I’m travelling with a group led by Earth Ministry, a nonprofit based in Seattle that works in the area of faith and the environment. We're in Israel/Palestine for the usual reasons -- a pilgrimage to holy sites -- but also to learn more about the water situation.
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So I float in a shrinking Dead Sea. I put my hands into a polluted Jordan River.
Symbols are alive in the Holy Land, even if their source is dying.
For millions of people, the power of this river and land is evoked in the lyrical language of the Bible, which has made the Jordan River one of the world's great symbols. In these texts, just as the land is more than just another piece of property, water is never simply water. Here the waters sing in poetry.
It's not that the biblical images are simply poetry: All of us are on this trip because there is a genuine water crisis in this region. Too often we hear that the next war here will be over water. But this crisis, which includes not just how well humans are living with each other, but how well they are living on the land, is connected to the loss of a sense of water's "mystique," as Thomas Berry calls it. The mystique of the water here comes partly from the poetry -- and it's something that we lose the moment we think we control it.
The irony is that there's a dream in these scriptures of coming home to this place, but the attempt to literalize that dream has taken a gift and locked it up behind a wall.
One morning early in the trip, I awake at 4:30 in Nazareth and lie in bed as the birds begin to sing, as a chant rises from a nearby mosque. I turn on the light and begin to read from Psalm 46:
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved.
When I am at the Jordan, it is a holy day for Syrian Christians; both banks are lined with celebrants and priests, some in Israel, some in Jordan. They can see one another, even shout to one another across the 10-foot-wide stretch of the river. What they can't do is cross it. I walk down to the bank past a soldier and cup my hands in the still water. I say a prayer for my brother, dying from a stroke in a hospital in Chicago, and another for this place and these people. I let the water run through my fingers. I do not drink.
We travel about the countryside and through the villages. We listen to stories from Christian Palestinians, including Samuel Barhoum, an Anglican priest near Nazareth, and Sami Awad of the Holy Land Trust, a nonprofit based in Bethlehem that uses nonviolence tactics in support of Palestinian farmers. Both speak at length of going for days without water -- no water for bathing or for cooking, little for drinking -- while they can see Israeli settlements in the West Bank with swimming pools. We travel down to the Dead Sea, where we meet with Gundi Sachal, Middle East regional director for Friends of the Earth. We hear of (and see in front of us) the shrinking of the Dead Sea. Gundi confirms what we saw days before, and what I’ve also heard from Susan Koppelman, a young Jewish-American woman who works with the nonprofit initiative LifeSource in the West Bank: The Jordan River is now mostly untreated sewage, with 5 percent of its historical flow reaching the sea here. Lebanon, Syria, and Israel all cut into it. The Dead Sea drops a meter every year.
We float in the warm water. We sink our feet into the famous mud.
In both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, we hear the beautiful phrase "living water." But it's important to know that, when the scriptures use this phrase, it means fresh water that hasn’t been controlled by human action: Living water is a direct gift from God.
We may wish to dismiss this distinction; after all, the water that most of us in this country get from our taps is pure in some literal sense (as is the "pure spring water" that we drink from plastic bottles). But anyone who has drunk from a mountain stream on a hot day knows the difference, as does anyone who has done any research at all on the bottled water industry: Such water's claim of purity leaves out the "living" quality -- that mystique -- as well as the human and environmental cost. And these omissions are of course connected. We substitute the poetry of marketing for the poetry of water.
I certainly appreciate the convenience, as did the Romans, whose magnificent engineering under Herod the Great brought this living water directly to homes in Palestine. But in doing so, biblical archaeologist Marianne Sawicki suggests, they "secularized and subdued the water. That is, the Roman client ruler profaned water by removing it from the ideal realm of Covenant governance."
"Water is the basis for Jewish existence in the land of Israel," Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol said at the time of the 1967 war; "without control over the water sources we cannot realize the Zionist dream." But that dream lives through the inspired poetry of the prophets, who knew that water is not a commodity to be owned. Within that literal water is something invisible, something deeper and more fundamental, upon which any human existence in the land depends.
"Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." The royal priest Amaziah sent Amos away after this outburst of poetry. Amaziah wrote to the king, Jeroboam: "The land is not able to bear all his words."
Joshua crosses the Jordan to claim the Promised Land; Jesus -- another Joshua -- enters the Jordan for baptism, a dying to self to make way for new life. He’s driven into the surrounding desert, undergoing a second Exodus -- another vision of dying to an old perspective. He comes, he says, not to overturn but to fulfill Torah. To reveal it anew.
He comes to embody it, and he invites us to do the same.
In John's gospel Jesus identifies himself with this living water at Jacob's well (where he meets a Samaritan woman), which is itself living water in the traditional sense: water fed by underground springs, and thus moving and not simply stored in a cistern. But, more significantly, the well is identified with Jacob, who is Israel, which suggests that Jesus is also redefining Israel:
Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give them will never thirst; the water that I shall give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.
How this water is given is mysterious, but it seems to be offered in Jesus' very being: It is himself he offers, some indefinable gift that, when she receives it, gives this woman a taste of the deepest of all realities.
We thought we knew about living water; now we meet its real meaning. This living water is both metaphorical (Jesus is not literally water) and real. And, if one reads these lines in the context of the gospels as a whole, it becomes clear what this "spring of water" signifies. It says: This is what truth tastes like. This is how deeply justice satisfies our thirst.
This is what it means to dwell in this land.
"There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God." These are the words that President Obama quoted so powerfully at the memorial service after the shootings in Tucson in January. There’s a reason for this: Their poetry speaks to our deepest thirst. The lyric uses fundamental imagery -- rivers, habitations -- that catches the imagination and opens us again to this primal longing and fulfillment. Like any great poetry, the words take us deep inside of what actual water and rivers are. But they also make clear that these waters -- and, really, all waters -- nourish God's city, meaning both that the city belongs to God and that it is God’s very essence: It is a city made of who and what God is.
This is a vision that tells me that the meek "shall inherit the earth" or "possess the land" (Psalm 37) by serving it. One "owns" by attending, which is not ownership at all but a free relationship that honors the other before oneself.
It's the same vision that a Wisdom teacher once shared with two women, both of whom claimed ownership of a child. The true "owner," of course, was the one who could not bear to see the child sacrificed to a mathematical, legal, and ultimately violent resolution -- that of literally cutting the child in two. The true mother was the one whose love trumped her desire for possession.
Can this holy land be partitioned? Will a wall or fence -- whatever you want to call it -- settle the issue? Or is even the two-state solution a kind of Solomonic gamble? I honestly don't know, and can't claim to be enough of an expert to say. But I suspect that the real solution lies somewhere in the imagination of that Solomonic mother, meaning that it lies in the imagination of all of those whose love for this land trumps their desire for possession of it. Only in this way, paradoxically, will anyone come into their inheritance.
Doug Thorpe teaches in the English department at Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of the forthcoming Wisdom Sings the World: Poetry, Creation, and the Way of Dwelling, from which this is adapted.