One hundred hours. That’s the oft-cited statistic for how long a human body can typically survive at average temperatures without access to water. Today’s Sinai Peninsula averages 91°F in June, with the average high temperature at 104°F. In such extreme heat and with exposure to sun, the timeline for survival shortens considerably.
Now we’re down to fifty hours. Exertion—such as walking long distances in the daytime, carrying one’s belongings, tents, and small children, and wrangling livestock along the way shortens the timeline further.
Under extremely hot desert conditions of at least 120°F … during forced marching … sustained high sweat rates can reduce estimated survival time without drinking water to as little as seven hours, or approximately the time it takes to walk twenty miles. One long day’s march on an unusually, but not impossibly, hot, June day was all it would take to finish God’s people. Because they had no water – that’s the context we have for the first reading today from the Book of Exodus.
And the people of Israel were right to complain to, contend with, and test their leaders … and their God. We would be, too.
While about 71% of the earth's surface is water-covered … and the oceans hold about 96.5 % of all earth's water … and that water also exists in the air as water vapor, in rivers and lakes, in icecaps and glaciers, in the ground as soil moisture and in aquifers … and even in you and your dog, there still many in our world who thirst for water – clean and available drinking water.
Water is essential to life, yet 771 million people in the world – that’s 1-in-10 - lack access to it. According to one report, the water crisis is the #5 global risk in terms of impact to society. Nearly 1.5 times the population of the United States lives without a household water connection. These people, in particular women and children, must spend time to get water, instead of working or going to school or caring for their families. Unbelievable in 2023!
Moses, the leader who bears the brunt of the people’s contention, fears the people will stone him, because the landscape has no edible plant life and surely no visible water, but it does have lots of rocks. Moses has exhausted the avenues that are familiar to him and has no ideas for moving forward.
In response to his desperate query, “What shall I do?”, God instructs Moses to look to the very landscape that has engendered the people’s despair and his own mortal fear and tap the resources it does have to engineer a creative solution.
Moses must be willing to put himself out in front: “go on ahead of the people”. Moses must cross in front of the people, and in so doing become vulnerable to their anger, fear, and insistence. In so doing he will also see the need that is written upon their bodies and in their faces, and he will have to confront and respond to the magnitude of their thirst.
Moses is not the solution himself, however. Lest he imagine himself as the sole agent of the people’s salvation, he is to take with him a group of people, elders from among the Israelites. The elders carry with them their testimony to the past. They carry the trust and the hurt and the hopes of the people. In this new moment they will witness God’s presence and saving action in the present. They will participate through their own ministry of courageous presence.
Moses may be called the first “ecological economist”. Ecological economics is a trans-disciplinary field. It's a bridge across not only ecology and economics but also psychology, anthropology, archaeology, and history. That's what’s necessary to get a more integrated picture of how humans have interacted with their environment in the past and how they might interact in the future. It’s an attempt to look at humans embedded in their ecological life-support system, not separate from the environment.
As we continue our series on caring for our creation, I believe that we are called to be like Moses, perhaps, even to be mini-ecological economists ourselves. Let’s face it, it’s undisputed that clean, safe drinking water in parts of the world is scarce. Today, nearly 1 billion people in the developing world don't have access to it. Yet, we take it for granted, we waste it, and we even pay too much to drink it from little plastic or glass bottles.
Also, like Moses, I think that we too need to be a bit more vulnerable … that is open to the fear, anger and disbeliefs of our brothers and sisters. There are still those, perhaps even here, who refuse to see the problem … who deny it, who speak against it and who even criticize those who are trying to help and address it.
Water scarcity is a global concern, and that means there's even a problem in our own backyard. While it may be difficult for us to put ourselves in the shoes of an African child struggling to find fresh water, it's important to understand that water scarcity affects everyone, even here in the United States. Water scarcity is not just an issue for those who "never had." It is a problem that faces people where water seemed abundant. Pollution, demand, and other factors are ushering in these new problems at record speeds.
Water scarcity within the United States is not just an environmental problem. Our current daily demand for water also affects its future availability. Wasteful flush toilets, non-insulated pipes and generous showerheads are all culprits to the water crisis. The Southwestern United States is already this emerging reality. A crisis may soon spread into other areas when local waterways can no longer replenish their resources to meet our growing demand. Many may "thirst" for more.
God told Moses to tap the resources he had. God tells us the same. Let’s be open to learning more about it, to acknowledging it and to be better at not wasting water and our other natural resources.
Exodus says that Moses was not the solution himself, nor was he the sole agent to fixing the problem, he brought others on the journey to help. We can mimic those actions, because it’s not just about us, it’s about everybody!
Access to safe water can protect and save lives, just because it's there. Access to safe water has the power to turn time spent into time saved when it's close and not hours away. Access to safe water can turn problems into potential: unlocking education, economic prosperity, and improved health. As a Church, we believe that every human being deserves to define their own future, and water makes that possible.
In the Gospel today the woman from Samaria asks Jesus to give her a drink. My friends, people all around us are asking us the same … to help them with their thirst, their spiritual thirst and the physical thirst too.
This Lent let’s recommit ourselves to working together to design a sustainable future for our children and theirs. Moses knew that satisfying people’s needs was not just an analysis of the past, but an analysis to create something new and better for the future. We are challenged to do the same!