Water everywhere and not a drop to drink


Scripture: John 5: 19-24 Nigel Bunce



Protesting for clean water Neskantaga First Nation. Photo: www.cbc.ca

Water everywhere and not a drop to drink

Water everywhere and not a drop to drink. Today’s homily speaks to the immorality that Canada has the resources and know-how to provide safe drinking water around the world when disaster strikes, but neglects the lack of clean water in remote First Nations communities at home.  It follows on directly (in my mind at least) from last week. I ended that homily by quoting Dietrich Bonhöffer. “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.” Most Christians look for a domesticated Jesus. Great teacher and healer. Inclusive, compassionate.

We think, “I could imagine myself like that.” But we instinctively shy away from the kind of Messiah who asks us to risk everything. To “give up my life for the sake of the Gospel” [Mark 8: 35].

Jesus’ authority

Today’s passage from John’s Gospel speaks to the authority of Jesus. It’s very clear. Jesus and the Father are one. He is on an equality with God. This overarching theme of John’s Gospel opens the very first chapter. The Word (logos) was with God, and was God, since before time began.

Here, in Chapter 5, Jesus had just outraged the Jewish authorities. He had broken the Sabbath rules by healing a paralyzed man. But worse, Jesus then said that God the Father continues to work on the Sabbath, and that he and the Father are one.

The other three Gospels leave the question of Jesus’ authority hanging. Jesus had just overturned the tables of the moneychangers at the Temple. The Temple leadership challenged Jesus. “Who gave you the authority to do these things?” [Matt 21: 23 and //] I assume that all Christians get the right answer: God gave Jesus that authority.

But in these scenarios, Jesus fenced verbally with the Temple authorities. He wouldn’t answer their question directly. Instead, he asked them whether John the Baptist acted on divine authority or on human authority. As we have seen before, that was something of a trick question. The Temple leaders could not give a straight answer. So Jesus refused to answer them.

The Gospels in the style of a Greek biography

I now want to take a slight detour. The Gospels all use the Greek language. Their authors wrote like a Greek biography of a great man. We see this style in the interactions between Jesus and the Temple authorities. Jesus always has the snappy comeback or the pointed put-down.

I’ll admit that this has always been something that I especially enjoy about reading the Gospel Scriptures. Jesus, our hero, always seems to have the upper hand in debates with the scribes and Pharisees. But when you look more closely, you see something else.

Danger lurks everywhere

Almost from the beginning of his ministry, Jesus is in danger. The scribes and Pharisees keep trying to catch him out. Threats of arrest and death are always in the background. It’s especially noticeable in John’s Gospel. In fact, right before today’s reading, we read that the Temple leaders wanted to kill Jesus. Because he healed on the Sabbath, and claimed equality with God.

I connected the threat of personal danger for Jesus to modern day martyrs like Dietrich Bonhöffer and Oscar Romero. They were prophetic voices were like that of Jesus. Their public ministries took place under the threat of arrest or death by the secular authorities.

Fortunately, we in Canada don’t have to face arrest or death for proclaiming our beliefs. But that doesn’t mean that we should not speak with prophetic voices. After all, the role of the Hebrew prophets was to critique Israel’s leaders for not living up to God’s standards. They didn’t foretell the future, except to point out the consequences of the leaders’ immoral behaviour.

Water everywhere, but not a drop to drink

I have spoken several times about the fact that many of our remote First Nations communities do not have safe drinking water. It’s not lack of water.  It’s more, “Water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.”  We southerners take it for granted that when we turn on our taps, clean water will flow out. Just imagine if that were not the case. It would be like living in the cholera- and typhoid-ridden Toronto or Montreal in the later 19th century. That’s 150 years ago!

Neskantaga First Nation. Photo: Fred Lum; Globe and Mail

It is a national disgrace that in Canada, in the 21st century, people should have boil-water advisories lasting decades. Neskantaga First Nation has had a boil water advisory or 41 years!  So I was absolutely incensed recently to read this headline on page 1 of the Globe & Mail. “Sanitation specialist developed system to ensure refugee camps anywhere have healthy drinking water”.

The newspaper cited technology that Dr. Syed Imran Ali of York University developed.  It uses computer assistance, in the form of machine learning, to optimize the guidelines of the World Health Organization to the specific site. The WHO standards apply to municipal water systems in cities, which operate under fairly hygienic conditions.

Yes, it’s a good news story. People who have to flee their homes deserve access to safe drinking water, just like anyone else. Canadians developed the new technology. Canadian taxpayers paid for it. So why, I ask, is this good news not available to remote communities here in Canada?

A decades long injustice

This isn’t the first time that I have read about a situation of this sort. Canada’s Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) can fly portable water treatment plants to places where disasters like earthquakes have rendered water treatment plants inoperable.

Again, I ask, why can we fly people round the world to provide humanitarian assistance? Yet, we cannot, or will not, do so for people living right here in Canada? What would I think, if I were a First Nations person living without access to clean drinking water?

I think that I would be very angry. Because the Government of Canada refuses to recognize that the disaster in my community deserves the same response as one happening the other side of the world. That is immoral. I want to raise my voice against this injustice.

This is the Gospel message for today. Jesus said that as we do or don’t do things for the least of his brothers and sisters, so we also do or don’t do them for him. That’s what we heard three weeks ago on the Reign of Christ. No, I didn’t have to risk my life to say this for the sake of the Gospel. But it’s important, nonetheless. Amen.