Reflections on Water: Insights from the life of Abraham

Homily – Sunday the 5th of March 2023

Vinod Victor with Dinesh Suna

Water is crucial to our existence. The story of Abraham is replete with the imagery of water and an attempt to weave a collage of those would be a good preparation for a much deeper discussion on water.

Today we have with us Dinesh Suna the Coordinator of the Ecumenical Water Network of the World Council of Churches and he will be discussing with us two crucial questions:

1. What percentage of water in the world today is available for human consumption?

2. We have heard a lot about drinking water. But have we thought of the water we eat?

In his blogpost Dinesh writes:

Water is a very scarce resource, despite the fact that two thirds of the earth is covered with water. Of this vast amount of water on our planet, 97percent is saline water found in the oceans and the seas. The remaining three percent is freshwater found in glaciers and ice below the ground, or in rivers and lakes. Of that three percent about 69 percent is frozen in glaciers and icecaps. Of the remaining freshwater, 30 percent is groundwater. Contrary to popular belief, only 0.3 percent is found in rivers and lakes. The rest is found in the atmosphere.

It is also interesting to note that the amount of fresh water used by human beings for domestic use, including drinking, bathing, sanitation needs or washing our cars only amount to around 10 percent of the total usage. The remaining 90 percent is used for agriculture (70%) and energy production (20%).

However, it is important for us to know why agriculture and energy production require around 90 percent of fresh water consumption. It is because we “eat” more water than we drink.

An interesting study by the Water Footprint Network shows that it takes about 140 litres of water to produce a cup of coffee and about 15’500 litres to produce 1 kilogram of beef. This is the “virtual water” which is used in the production process, including transportation, production of energy for various forms of processing, packaging, etc. Everything we eat or even the clothes we wear, the household products we use, including electronics and all other goods have a water footprint. We should therefore be aware of the Water We Eat and the Water we Drink. Further, when we eat locally sourced /produced food, the virtual water foot print is the lowest. (See Dinesh Suna’s blogpost The Water we ‘eat’ here on the website of the World Council of Churches).

When we closely look at the life of Abraham there are significant markers with the image of water which are strongly visible.

Abram was the son of Terah and began his life in Ur of the Chaldeans. He had two brothers, one of whom, Haran, died in Ur. Lot was Haran’s son. Terah decided to travel to Canaan and started the journey with his family, including Abram and his wife Sarai, Lot and his family, but they settled in Haran, where Terah died. God asked Abram to proceed on the journey to Caanan and when they reached the river Jordan the company of people with them had grown to such an extent that they had to part ways. Abram gave Lot the first choice. He said to Lot: “If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’lll go to the left.” Lot looked about him, and saw that the plain of the Jordan was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar. (This was before the Lord had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah). So Lot chose for himself all the plain of the Jordan. Water determined decisions. Choice of fertile spaces around water sources has been a constant reality in the power struggles among communities and within communities all over the world, across the ages. We have had instances of purity pollution scales, of community demarcation played out around water. Prominent communities chosing spaces near water and marginalised communities demarcated to space farthest from water sources. Abram gave Lot the choice, though being the prominent among the two this is something we need to look at much more closely.

Water as Markers of Boundaries.

In Genesis 15 we read of the vision of Abram and his covenant with the Lord. The promise from God about the territory that he would inherit is again marked by water. The Lord says: “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphratesʼ, (15:18).

Water marking boundaries of geographical territories is common even today. As a matter of fact, more than 260 river basins are transboundary in nature involving two or more countries. Today about 150 water related treaties are signed by countries. Water is therefore a cause of conflict, else these treaties would not have been put in place. Recent examples of conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia over the waters of the Nile due to the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in Ethiopia, landed these two countries at the UN Security Council on an emergency special session to avoid further escalation of conflict upstream of the Nile.  

It is worth reading the report of the 30th Water Convention held in Estonia in 2022 to understand the cross-border river water disputes, which said: “More than 3 billion people depend on water that crosses national borders. As climate impacts – from drought to flooding – are felt more and more acutely worldwide, and with rising demands, pollution and tensions threatening increasingly scarce water resources, cooperation on shared waters offers a vital tool to promote sustainable development, climate change adaptation, peace and stability.” So the question remains, whose water is it and does anyone have the right to stop another from accessing life giving water which is nature’s precious gift to the whole of creation.

Water as a Symbol of Sustaining Life

The story of Hagar is closely associated with the life of Abram. In Genesis 16 when Hagar flees from the house of Abram and Sarai The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur.(v.7). So she named the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are El-roi’; for she said, ‘Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?’Therefore the well was called Beer-Lahai-Roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered. (v.13,14)

In Genesis 21 when Abraham and Sara send away Hagar and Ismael we read that they took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. Wandering in the wilderness they were tired. When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes and said she did not want to see the child die. Hagar meets with God again and in verse 19 we read Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

Divine intervention happens in the case of a fleeing young girl sending her back to safety and when she becomes a young mother it happens again with a promise of sustenance. In both cases the evident symbolism of water cannot be brushed aside.

Water and the marginalised is a theme that the world is looking at closely in the context of the current crisis and gender in one salient factor therein. The United Nations Water Programme WASH- Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, clearly foresees that there is a gender vulnerability to abuse, attack, ill health, even today, affecting women and children and their ability to study, work and live in dignity. Hagar and her son just takes fresh manifestations. It could help us read about water not only through the gender eyes but also through the eyes of racism and those of children.

Water as a Marker of Covenants and Oaths

In Genesis 21 Abraham and Abimelech meet. When Abraham complained to Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized, Abimelech said, ‘I do not know who has done this; you did not tell me, and I have not heard of it until today.’ We read of conflicts around water and how they were amicably managed by visionary leaders. Abraham had dug wells and now is affirming ownership as he says offering seven lambs, ‘These seven ewe lambs you shall accept from my hand, in order that you may be a witness for me that I dug this well.’Therefore that place was called Beer-sheba. This could mean Well of the Covenant or the Seventh Well. It was there Abraham worshipped God calling him El Olam- The Eternal God. It is interesting to note that Abraham plants trees around the area and water discourses has much to do with trees and nature.

We see this covenant almost repeated in the case of Issac in Chapter 26. When Issac reached Gerar he dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of his father Abraham; for the Philistines had stopped them up after the death of Abraham; and he gave them the names that his father had given them. There arose a conflict around water when the herders of Gerar quarrelled with Isaac’s herders, saying, ‘The water is ours.’ There was conflict around a second well too but when Isaac built the third they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehoboth, saying, ‘Now the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land. The fact that a well was a symbol of room, space and fruitfulness is to be specially noted.

The simple message of this covenant is that “there is room for all” and we need to understand that the right to water belongs to ALL and not just a few. The underlying issue of territory and territorial integrity not withstanding we need to find a way to access to water for ALL.

Water as a Symbol of Hospitality

Earlier in Genesis 18 when the three visitors reach Abram and Sarai this is what he says ‘My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.

Offering water to wash the feet is a powerful symbol. This is true in some cultures before entering sanctuaries and thereby implying every home need be understood as a sanctuary. In the Bible hospitality is beyond room and board. It involves receiving, caring and loving a stranger. In the Indian context we talk of guest as divine- athithi devo bhava.

Offering hospitality to the stranger therefore is a call to see the divine in all around us- the last, the least and the lost. Offering them water should resonate with what Jesus said- I was thirsty and you have me to drink.

As Abram was called he was promised that he would be a blessing for all. And if we ask the question as to how we could be a blessing of another in the context in which we live today, one obvious way would be ensuring people have water to drink. Engagement with water justice thus becomes a larger challenge of being the church- the body of Christ which is called to epitomise hospitality to a parching world.

Water as a Marker of Divine Choices

In Genesis 24 we find Abraham sending Eleazar to seek a wife for his son Issac and the encounter with Rebecca is a Water Story. As he reached the town, there was Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, coming out with her water-jar on her shoulder. The girl was very fair to look upon. She went down to the spring, filled her jar, and came up. Then the servant ran to meet her and said, ‘Please let me sip a little water from your jar.’ ‘Drink, my lord,’ she said, and quickly lowered her jar upon her hand and gave him a drink. When she had finished giving him a drink, she said, ‘I will draw for your camels also, until they have finished drinking.’ So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough and ran again to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels. The man gazed at her in silence to learn whether or not the Lord had made his journey successful. It did not much longer for him to realise that it was the Lord’s doing and is pleasant in our eyes. In due time Rebecca became Isaac’s wife.

The story here is beyond giving water to a stranger. It is about caring for the thirst of the camels, the animals. Human intrusion into spaces of animals and nature included finding the way to manipulate water sources that animals and birds depended upon. The human intervention into animal water territory led to fencing of water sources in many areas. It raises a very serious issue of non-human water accessibility and water justice. In many nations domesticated animals and birds do not get the water they require for healthy existence. It is about sensitivity in a world that clamours only about profit even at the cost of injustice to creation.

Water as the Quencher of Thirst

We find Abraham in the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man in Luke 16:19-31. The rich man went to hell and was shouting out about his thirst to Abraham that Lazarus be sent with a drop of water. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” The response of Abraham is significant. But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” When the rich man requested that Lazarus be sent to warn his brothers Abraham says- “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

The warning that Abraham gives is very true and relevant even today. Listen to the prophets who are telling us about the water injustice we live with and calls for course correction in the way we live.

Dinesh concludes his blog that we mentioned earlier thus: “The goal #6 of the 2030 SDGs aims at making universal access to water and sanitation a reality by 2030. The chairperson of the International Reference Group of the EWN-WCC, Ms Veronica Flachier, once said, “till the last person on this planet has safe and dignified access to water, we cannot celebrate the World Water Day. Until then, we must observe this day to mobilise communities and advocate for water justice with our governments.” But the goal has to be set beyond the last person gaining access to safe water. Our goal should be water justice to ALL including ALL creation.”

Today therefore we pray that we would be able to treasure water more, value its preciousness and commit to be frugal and responsible in our use of water, aware that we are the ancestors of the future. Our action defines their quality of life. Yes water is precious.


You are welcome to subscribe here to the WCC EWN newsletter “Together for Water” and the WCC Lenten Campaign: Seven Weeks for Water.

Learn more about the Ecumenical Water Network here.

Vinod Victor (with Dinesh Suna)

5th March 2023

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