I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. (Matthew 25.42)
(With a grateful hat-tip to Jan, of Yearning for God, who brought the date to my attention.)
Years ago, Chicago parks were outfitted with bubblers—six-sided cement water fountains that flowed non-stop. They were just tall enough for a six-year-old to tiptoe against and lean into for a quick gulp before returning to play. The water was, without question, the sweetest, coldest, and most refreshing I’ve ever tasted. Bubblers were also exciting to us because we were expressly forbidden to drink from them, due to high frequencies of communicable diseases like mononucleosis, strep throat, and rheumatic fever. Although we’d been vaccinated against many of these illnesses, the risk of contracting a crippling infection was too great. So we were repeatedly warned, “Stay away from the bubblers or you’ll get sick.” But how can a child who’s worked up a tremendous thirst look at a bubbler—or any other freshwater source—and see potential danger?
Ours to Correct
Thirst is an immediate, primal need. Unless readily available water is noticeably tainted, thirst will overrule reason every time. This is true for people and animals of all ages. The possibility of eventual sickness loses its import when the need to replenish depleted fluids takes over. Since the vast majority of water-borne diseases have no discernible taste, it’s very easy for long-term health concerns to evaporate on demand. In areas where clean water supplies are low or non-existent, aid workers report tremendous difficulty convincing locals that imperceptibly polluted drinking water and widespread epidemics are linked. Furthermore, in places where the only available water undeniably runs thick with deadly microbes and chemicals, residents are apt to acquire a taste for it. Dying of thirst or dying of disease amount to the same thing: dying. In these situations, a perverse logic takes hold. Remedies for water-borne sicknesses are typically easier to find and administer than solutions for untreated water sources.
In many places, quenching one’s thirst constitutes a death-dance. It’s very hard for people who drink worry-free from taps and fancy-labeled water bottles to comprehend that. Imagining such a thing is so far beyond the pale we tend to set it aside—as if letting Mother Nature worry about the crisis is the most sensible response. But she’s got no worries, because she’s not to blame. We’ve made this mess by treating her streams as our trash disposals, rerouting her rivers for our purposes, and assigning value differentials to human, plant, and animal life based on profit motives. It’s chilling that we can wrap our heads around the literally godforsaken notion it’s permissible to violate remote peoples and places if mining their minerals and befouling their deltas raise our standard of living. Rogue corporations and tycoons treat Africa, Asia, and parts of Central and South America as though they’re barren planets: get in, get the goods, and get out, all the while soaking the terrain with toxins that wash downstream, leech into freshwater aquifers, and destroy the natural balance created to safeguard against diseased and deadly water. We created the crisis. It’s ours to correct.
Data and Biology
Jan posted some powerful data on her site that’s worth sharing here:
- Every 20 seconds a child dies from a water-related disease.
- 890 million people lack access to safe water.
- 2.5 billion people don’t have a toilet, roughly 1 in 3 of us.
- $25 brings one person clean water for life.
- 200 million hours of labor are consumed daily to collect water—i.e., our “modern world” is nowhere near as modern as we think.
- Improperly disposed and untreated human and animal waste is the primary cause for global illness.
- More people on the planet have mobile phones than toilets.
Now let’s add biology into the mix:
- On average, water comprises 55-60% of the human organism.
- Virtually every bodily function relies on it for chemical reactions, purification, and waste elimination.
- Dehydration sets in with a 5% reduction in water content.
- Severe, often fatal dehydration occurs when body water is reduced by 10-15%.
- Since the largest populations without clean water are concentrated in tropical and subtropical regions, dying of thirst is hardly a metaphor or figure of speech for them. Indeed, that’s what ultimately what kills most who suffer with water-borne illnesses due to nausea, perspiration, diarrhea, and cellular decomposition.
A Life-and-Death Issue for Us All
Universal access to clean water is an urgent global imperative and moral responsibility. But believers have the added obligation to care for the thirsty in obedience to Christ. To know this need exists and ignore it condemns us with neglect. In Matthew 25, Jesus gives us a glimpse of how we’ll be judged. He compares the process to a herder dividing his sheep and goats. The herder groups sheep to his right and goats to the left. He welcomes the sheep into his fold, naming all the good things they did for those in need, never mentioning “them.” He personalizes it, saying, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (v37) Jesus lists caring for thirsty people among the compassionate deeds the herder rewards. The same criteria apply to the goats, who minimized others’ needs and suffer dire consequences. “I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,” the herder tells them. The goats protest, “We always took care of you!” Here’s how the story ends: “He [the herder] will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (v45-46)
There we have it. Thirst is a life-and-death issue for all of us. It kills those we neglect and, as long as we ignore the clean-water crisis, exposes us to an even grimmer fate. Simply put, as long as we’re in the world, there’s no excuse for one soul perishing to thirst and water-related disease.
Accessible, clean water we take for granted is a godsend to millions. As God’s agents, we must send it to them.
Postscript: Obedience Outlets
There are hundreds of organizations working to solve this crisis, all of them needing our time and means. They’re obedience outlets—opportunities to honor Christ’s commandment to care for the thirsty among us. Here’s a very short list of organizations you can contact to learn how to support to their efforts.
The Clean Water Fund (US-focused)
(If you’ve worked with or given to other organizations and would like them added to the list, please let me know and I’ll update the post.)