Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson, Dean

Psalm 23, Number 20: 1 – 13, John 9: 1 – 11

 “Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.”

These words, buried deep inside Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ provide a good background to the theme of this year’s Sunday evening preaching series during Lent.  It is well known that of all the water available on the planet less than 1% is actually able to be drunk by humans! So the Mariner knew what he was talking about.

Why water, and why JustWater, for Lent? Three cathedrals: St George’s Cape Town, St Paul’s London and St Paul’s Melbourne, with Trinity Wall Street (New York), came up with the idea of focusing on water during Lent 2017. Between them they have not only made available a vast array of resources but have challenged Christians across the world to consider the importance of water during Lent. Here at St Peter’s Cathedral, situated in the driest state on the driest continent in the world, we too are well aware of the importance of using water wisely and well. Each Sunday evening in Lent, our six preachers will talk on a particular perspective involving water. None of the preachers is experts on water. All of us are consumers of water.

You’d think that being the son of a civil engineer, who spent his working life ensuring the cities he worked in provided fresh drinking water for people and removed the waste water from their homes, I’d have some sort of expert knowledge about water. I don’t but, as I thought about how to begin this series of Sermons, the need to be an expert seemed less and less necessary. After all, while few are experts we are all consumers of water, and rely, utterly and completely, on being able to get enough water for life itself. Let me set the scene for the next few weeks by offering a few quite random thoughts on water, snapshots – drawn from my own experience and observation. I hope my reflections will spark your reflections and encourage you to become more aware of water in your life, how we use it, waste it, treasure it. And, in something I have never done before, but seems right to do now, I dedicate this sermon to my father Derek Nelson, BSc Civil Engineering.

I love water – not so much the drinking but being in it. There is nothing on this earth closer to heaven for me than being totally immersed in water – preferably at the end of a long hot busy day down at Henley Beach – it is so good for refreshing both body and soul! So yes, I am something of a water-baby. Both my parents were strong swimmers and made sure we children were well able to hold our own in a river, swimming pool or sea. But I grew up, like most of you, in a country were water was never taken for granted.

One image in my mind is that of a string of people silhouetted against the dawning sunshine plodding slowly back up the hill from the river. In this traditional Zulu way of providing water for the home – with a bucket on their heads – mother and daughters must spend hours every day walking to and from the source of water (often a muddy pool in a dry river bank a few hundred metres away). It does wonders for posture and back strength – but takes an inordinate amount of time, and is not always terribly hygienic.

High in the mountains of Lesotho we went for a swim in the fast-flowing river at the end of a day spent digging storm-water ditches. Splashing and cavorting as only 2nd year uni students at the end of their academic year can do, we had a sobering wake-up call from the mission doctor when he heard what we had done. Lacking piped running water and water-born sewage in their homes, the local people use a spot behind their huts for their toileting. All very well in the dry season – but when the violent summer storms come the rain water gushes down the footpaths forming streams which flow into the river, carrying the human faeces with it. “Even our mountain rivers are cholera carriers,” said the doctor. Suddenly it seemed less important to wash each day!

Our first-born was a few weeks old when the rains failed – again. For the third year in a row the rain had been pitiful, the town dams were nearly empty and the council imposed stringent water restrictions. Never mind no washing of cars or using hosepipes – each household was limited to a maximum of 200 litres per household per day. That may sound like a lot until you realise that each flush of the toilet cistern uses about 6 litres per flush (and that’s on a modern ultra-low flush toilet). We had the best crop of beans and carnations ever that year – the precious water was used to bath the baby, ourselves, rinse the clothes, wash the floor and then finally, laden with soap which killed the bugs, and nutrients which fed the plants, bucketed out to the garden!

An early memory is of accompanying my father on a work trip during the school holidays. I had the exciting task of emptying a bucket of tennis balls into the new water main and then racing along to the other end, about 5 kms away, to see whether all the balls came out of the pipe.

Another is hiking as a teenager – we underestimated how much water we needed to carry and spent a very thirsty night. I crept out and slurped up a handful of muddy polluted water from a stream – lucky not to get giardia.

Another memory is a school trip to look at dongas – an Afrikaans word for deep gulleys caused by soil erosion. Years of poor farming methods, usually aggravated by greed and ignorance, had seen the soil completely stripped of natural cover – shrubs, trees and grass. Backbreaking hours were being spent building walls, little dams, across the dongas, hoping they would stem the loss of valuable top-soil. All over the world people continue to cut down forests, overgraze land and plant cash crops that systematically denude precious nutrients.

Another school memory is of cross-country running – up and over the hills of home. Right at the top of one hill was a sludge pond. Now I was used to sludge ponds from my father’s work. Usually they are alive with birds. But not this one. This was factory effluent – not a living bird or plant or fish or crab to be seen. Pollution.

Yet another memory comes to me: for days it had rained, so hard that the manhole cover over the storm water drain in front of our home bounced 2 metres above the water spout. My father and I took our bicycles to go and watch the river in flood – the whole valley was covered in angry swirling water. The beaches were completely washed out and then, a few days later, the tide washed in branches and trees, furniture from houses that had been flooded, including a grand piano; plenty of people reported seeing snakes on the beach. I had a new insight into the damage caused by flood water that week. As the engineer in charge of sewerage for the city, my father would get home late at night, stinking of raw sewerage, having spent the day working alongside the crews battling to repair and re-join broken sewerage pipes.

I began to take a greater interest in water – where it comes from how it is delivered to our homes, and removed once used. No longer did I take water for granted. When the devastating earthquake struck Christchurch in New Zealand a few years ago, the whole city was without drinking water for weeks. Months and even years later, there were still portaloos on the street corners. A reading such as that we heard tonight from the Book of Numbers takes on new significance – the people grumbled while slaves in Egypt – but at least they had food and water there.

New Zealand’s South Island rivers are mostly powdery sky-blue in colour as they carry off the glacial water. Being ice-cold they are a trout and salmon fishers delight. In the Fiordland area of the West Coast the rain is measured in metres and the water literally tumbles down the mountainside. Unlike South Australia, where people have learned to survive droughts lasting years, six-weeks without rain in the dairy-farming countryside of the Waikato on New Zealand’s North Island is considered a serious drought.

On holiday in Sarawak on Borneo some years ago we saw first-hand the effects of logging on mountain rivers. Our campsite was close to the confluence of two tributaries. From one flowed beautiful pristine-clear water, along the other a muddy brown deluge. For some hundreds of meters after the two had joined you could see these two separate, different coloured flows of water. As if that weren’t bad enough, along the yellow sand, palm fringed beaches was empty plastic bottle after empty plastic bottle – the discard of surely what is one of the greatest curses of modern living – our obsession with bottled water.

I could go on and on and I am sure you can – as we all have experiences and stories of water. It has been said that where the chief reason behind the wars of the latter 20th century was oil; water will be that of the 21st. Over the next few weeks you are invited to consider water – ‘just’ water, and, Just Water.

Since 1993 the United Nations has designated March 22 World Water Day. In 2017 the theme is Waste Water. There are many many websites dedicated to giving information about water. I encourage you to visit some of them. Read and think about water and be better informed about this vital God-given resource we so easily take for granted.