Living Waters

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.

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.

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