Sermon “By Water and the Spirit: A Global Water Summit”

Sermon “By Water and the Spirit: A Global Water Summit” 

By Bill Wylie-Kellermann

Isaiah 55:1-3

55 Ho, everyone who thirsts,
    come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
    and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
    and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
    listen, so that you may live…

10 For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
    and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

In the name of the One who breathed across the face of the waters in creation; the One who is Lord and Servant of all; and the Spirit militant that summons, fills, and holds us together as one, let all of this be.

I am a former pastor of this congregation, so I’ve preached many times from this pulpit; I was married in this sanctuary, my daughter was baptized here, and still I confess to feeling the burden of bringing a Word to this important summit. I’ve been asked to “lay a theological foundation” for these conversations. In that, I’m mindful that the charism we need in this moment is less one of speaking than of listening – especially to our guests from the African continent.

The first book the Hebrew Bible begins with God’s breath moving over the face of the waters. And the last book of New Testament ends with an appeal which echoes Isaiah the prophet: “And let everyone who is thirsty come and take the water of life as a gift.”

In between it’s as if a river runs through it. Water is offered and drunk, pulled from wells, washed with, desperately sought, crossed to freedom, walked upon, poured out, flooded of the earth, stilled, gathered by, rained down, immersed into…more

If you can read Scripture without getting thirsty, my friends, you’re not paying attention. In our text this morning we hear: 

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
    and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

The image suggests Water as Word and Word as Water, both bearing fruit and returning, cycling home. To be honest, I paused in beginning with Is 55. Detroit Water and Sewage Director Gary Brown repeatedly accuses the Detroit water struggle of asking for free water. Not that it’s a bad idea, but the Peoples Water Board is not asking for free, but clean and affordable watere.  The UN says the cost of water should not exceed 3% of household income and most Detroiters pay many times that.

Still, this passage is foundational in that it underscores a first fundamental: water is gift. From heaven, it falls, Jesus says, equally on the just and the unjust.

Fifty years ago, sitting on the porch of his Kentucky hermitage, and hearing a downpour drum on his corrugated tin roof, the Trappist monk and spiritual writer, Thomas Merton wrote:

Let me say this before rain becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute for money. By “they” I mean the [ones] who cannot understand that rain is a festival, who do not appreciate its gratuity, who think that what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real, so that the only way to make something actual is to place it on the market. The time will come when they will sell you even your rain. At the moment it is still free, and I am in it. I celebrate its gratuity…

This character, water as a free gift, is underscored by the Jewish tradition of “living water,” mayim chaim, which was current in the time of Jesus. “Living water” has as its source, a spring, melting snow or rain flowing down of its own will, in natural undiverted streams. Only living water could be used for the rites of purification. If empire built an aqueduct redirecting and piping water to the palace baths or the precincts of the elite, it was no longer considered “living.” Claimed in this way, re-engineered, it couldn’t be used in the mikvah. If you perceive a tension between imperialized water and living water, you are most discerning. This is the tradition which John the Baptist is tuned into, even contending over. He moves his operation upstream into the wilderness, closer to mountain run-off and the headwaters of the Galilee. 

The Jesus movement and the church likewise embrace this character of gift. Water is the very emblem and means of grace, the sacrament of baptism, as suggested in the very theme of this summit.

Understanding of Water as gift undergirds important public conventions.

Water is part of the commons, that which belongs to all. In this view, one can’t own a lake. In Michigan, as a high school student I learned that if you were walking along the lakeshore and a cottage owner came out and yelled for you to get of his property, all you had to do was step into the water and you were off. He didn’t own the lake. These days as the Great Lakes reach a record high, owners are losing yard by yard of property to the lake’s great maw. 

Jesus had a practice of teaching, afloat or afoot, from such “commons.”

Municipalities, water departments and authorities do not own the water. It is not a utility to be sold, but a commons held, purified, circulated and distributed as a “trust.” Yes there’s a cost to it, because the industrial powers upstream are using it to wash their machines or flush away their chemical waste, passing “the cost of doing business” downstream to municipal taxpayers. (I like Wendell Berry’s logion, “Do unto those downstream, what you would have those upstream do unto you.”)

Secondly, if water is a gift to all, then access to it is a human right. This is an understanding built into UN declarations and enacted by some states and cities. It’s a view reiterated by Pope Francis in his Laudato Si encyclical. Detroit was blessed in 2014 to receive two UN special rapporteurs in an official visit. After hearing testimony and visiting neighborhoods they declared (and reported to the UN) that in water shut-offs, the City of Detroit was in violation of this basic human right.

Let me offer one theological caveat here. Question: gift for whom? It’s one thing to say water is a gift to humans, and quite another to say it’s a gift to all. I’m thinking of how a planet burning, Australia in flames, has visibly affected other vulnerable creatures. Water is an animal right. For that matter, water is a tree right.

If we may, let’s take a step further along that path. We are shortly going to sing “All Creatures of our God and King,” the Methodist version of the Canticle of St Francis. We will sing of Sister Water. Our kin. Just so in the Psalms, the waters clap their hands in praise of God. She is a creature in her own right with a life and integrity all her own. My friend Jim Perkinson says, Water is a human right. And water is a water right.

Ten years ago the US Social Forum came to Detroit, upwards of 20,000 justice activists. One of the memorable ceremonies of that week was a water rite, offered by Anishinaabe grandmothers who were in the process of walking the entire shoreline around the Lakes as act of spiritual care. By some accounts that marks the beginning of the water protectors movement. Three years ago a group of native women walked the 400 mile length of the Potomac River from its headwaters to its basin at the Chesapeake carrying water from the origin and pouring it into the basin so that, as they said, “the River could remember and taste where it began.” They understood it as an act of healing and memory. Would that in recalling our baptisms, we might remember and tase where we began.

 (Just a legal parenthesis here: we are seeing cases filed in various places around the world on behalf of rivers or even forests, that would give them standing as parties before the law).

There is, particularly in North America, but in other places of the world as well, a movement called Watershed Discipleship. The idea is that following Jesus is best done rooted in place. There’s gospel evidence to that effect. But also, the knowing and loving of a watershed involves discipling oneself to it.

Water Protectors have become increasingly militant in their non-violence and ceremonial direct action, particularly where pipelines are violating sacred lands and waters. The Standing Rock occupation in resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline is most notorious among them and there protectors faced brutal militarized police forces. The same is true in the Bayou or Minnesota, the Northwest and Alberta CA, among many others.

I know we’ll hear from Jannan Cornstalk about resistance to Enbridge Line 5 here in Michigan which not only threatens the Great Lakes, but carries the dirty energy which fuels climate catastrophe.

Akin to these struggles, we have been learning a couple things here in Detroit.

One. This water struggle is both a material and a spiritual struggle. Too often faith traditions, and church in particular, participate in justice struggles with secular allies. Good and right. But so often they fail to bring their gifts of discernment and spiritual practice to the table. For example, it’s one thing to block the gates of the yard where the corporate water shut-off trucks are housed, a strong nonviolent direct action. But even more powerful to do so as a public act of prayer, a rite of intercession, an act of worship and liturgy. We pray like trees planted by the water (and will not be moved).

Two. This I actually understand this to be a good tactic for engaging the “principalities and powers,” the rulers and authorities of the present age. In Detroit we call those who take them on, Water Warriors. You will see that water warriors and prayer warriors are often one and the same. Moreover, from the sampling on our panels, and here and in room, you will notice the predominance of women, women of color, and in particular Indigenous and African American women warriors. 

This is also to say, a theological survey of the elementals of water ministry and struggle is not complete until we have also named “the rulers and authorities,” the global “principalities and powers” at work in this present moment. These are realities economic, political, structural, but also spiritual in dimension. They are active and aggressive in turning…

That which is a gift into a theft

That which is commons into privatized possession

She who is a sister and creature of praise into a commodity

That which is an emblem of grace, even into a weapon

Theologically, this is the undoing of creation or what is commonly called The Fall.

Earlier, when I read the Merton quote “they will sell you even the rain,” I had to think of Bechtel Corp. In the 1990’s, with the help of structural adjustment under the World Bank, the water system was privatized in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Bechtel promply tripled the water rates, and people began collecting rain water off their roofs and in cisterns. Whereupon Bechtel claimed all the water belonged to them and attempted charging people for the rainwater. This sparked an uprising, which also faced state violence, but which drove out the corporation.

(Actually, something similar is happening here in Detroit. At present nearly half my water bill is a fee for run-off sewage. We are charged for the rain! And it is finally prompting an uprising from churches who have giant buildings and parking lot surfaces).

This afternoon, we’ll begin to consider global realities. That must include the multinational corporations that have a foot on the ground here, but also reach around the planet. Bechtel, Veolia, Nestle, Suez and above them now the Banks and financial industry. Some of the same banks that made predatory loans to Detroit and its residents. As Goldman/Sachs recently advised their clients, “Water is the petroleum of the next century.” They do think they can own it.

This is to say: Last century’s oil wars will give way water wars in this new one. Water will not only be fought over but weaponized. We can see it, for example, in Palestine where Israeli walls are built to seize water sources and to cut off Palestinian villages from their groves and waters.

We see it here in Detroit where simultaneously as the city downsizes its footprint and becomes more white, water shut-offs function (along with foreclosures, infrastructure degredation, school closures, and the like) to drive people from their homes and from neighborhoods that “have no future.” And since water shut-off is a reason for state child protect protective services to remove children from a home – it is backed up with the threat of family separation.

When Jesus cries “I thirst” from the cross, it not only signifies God’s solidarity with all who lack water, but points to the way the denial of water can be a form of personal or collective torture and crucifixion.

We who are baptized, St Paul says, are baptized into the death of Jesus,  which is to say we are baptized into water, but also into this very thirst of Christ.

Years ago, I read an article by the German scholar Ernst Kasemann which argued that the letter of Paul to the Ephesians (a prison letter wherein he claims authority as an ambassador in chains), was in fact structured around an ancient baptismal liturgy.

I wished this morning I could lay my hands on the book, but suffice it to sample the topics of the letter. It says we are marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit… that we who were dead through trespasses and sins, following the course of the world, the ruler of the power of the air , have now been made alive with Christ… who is or peace, having broken down in his body, upon the cross, the dividing wall of hostility between us…we are no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens in the household of the saints.

There is also a blessing: now to the One who by the power already at work within us is able to do far more than we can ask or imagine, to that One be all authority in the church for generations to come, now and forever.

And there is a Charge: cast off the works of darkness and live as children of the light. 

Finally, the letter says, take up the whole armor of God, for our fight is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against the rulers and authorities, powers of the present darkness, against the very forces of evil.

The latter is not a bad stand in for the baptismal question “Do you renounce Satan, the Power of Death, and all his works?”

I believe the first person to call baptism a “sacrament” was Pliny the Younger, Governor of Bithynia, in a second century letter to his Lord, Trajan the Roman Emperor. He was reporting what he discovered, by spies and torture, of how the Christians acted underground – including taking an oath (sacramentum) to Christ, as to a god. It was an apt analogy. The sacramentum was the oath of allegiance to Caesar sworn by Roman soldiers before the gods. It was renewed annually on January 3, and eventually granted them citizenship. That is how he understood baptism. Read Ephesians in that light.

Now. Our authority for ministry and struggle in this world is not based on ordination or consecration, but on baptism. We, as church, are not called to support activists, water protectors and water warriors, but to BE water protectors and warriors. We are called to be church as movement and movement as church. So that as Amos says, justice might roll down like mighty waters and righteousness as an ever-flowing stream. Now that’s living water.

I pray that we may we in these days come to recognize:

Water as justice;

Water as gift; 

Water as right;

Water as means of grace;

Water as Word;

Water as sister;

And finally, Water as life.



The People’s Water Board Coalition advocates for the human rights to water and sanitation and equitable access and affordability for impacted communities.


2022 People's Water Board Coalition