Carla J. Bailey, Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
When we take work groups to Mississippi every year, it’s rare when we are able to engage in meaningful conversation with people of color with whom we work – home-owners, community members, even Habitat board members. The color line is very nearly impenetrable. Sometimes the color line is breached because of shared experiences. For example, Glenell Lee-Pruitt and I have enough shared experiences as women pastors to be able to talk to one another honestly, and Carl Fuller was a police officer in New York before he went to be a construction manager for Habitat so he has been more willing to risk genuine friendship with a few white folks. In general however, white people from the north carry with us an air of superiority that makes us, well, dubious. So it was truly remarkable when once, some years ago, an after-dinner conversation with two elderly leaders in the black community turned into story-telling about what it was like to chop cotton. Chopping cotton is a term that covers all the field work for a cotton plantation done by hand – preparing the field with hoes, turning the soil, chopping down the weeds between the rows. It was back-breaking work, as you can imagine, cotton fields expanding acres after acres, and in the south, it was work done by poor whites and blacks. Mr. Gooden chopped cotton as soon as he was old enough to manage a hoe. This was in the late 1930’s and early 40’s. He later became an activist in the Civil Rights movement and dedicated his long life to developing affordable housing in Clarksdale, Mississippi. But his story about chopping cotton was a story that could have been told by thousands of African Americans in the south. He was treated badly by the foreman, not allowed to stop, rarely given time to rest, and water to drink was a luxury. I don’t remember the details any more, but he told a story about spitting into a water pail from which he knew the foreman would be drinking and how that one act of rebellion kept him going through long, torturous days of labor.
I just finished reading a novel by Margaret Maron, set in the recent south. In one scene that would later have significance to the story, on an Easter Sunday, a pastor in a very small, fringe white Christian church, to demonstrate the importance of women honoring their husbands’ every wish, spit into a glass of water and told his wife to drink it, in front of the congregation. It was a shocking scene in that little church and in the book itself, a demeaning and disgusting moment that grew to have terrible consequences. In both of these scenes, one remembered and one imagined, water was degraded to degrade a human being. In one, a little part of me cheered. In the other, a little part of me cried. What was the difference?
Anyone of us can easily embrace Jesus’ message told to us by Matthew. It is at the very heart of our understanding of radical hospitality. When we welcome a stranger, we may be entertaining angels unaware. Certainly, we are told, when we welcome a stranger we are welcoming Christ himself. And when we welcome Christ, we welcome God. It’s a pretty straightforward concept, repeated often by Matthew and in a variety of settings. Welcome these little ones, do not turn them away. When you did it for the least of these, you did it for me. When we say, you are welcome here, as Christian churches tend to do, we are saying that who you are, where you’ve been and what you’ve done do not matter when you pass through our doors. You are welcome here. In tribal Israel, the hospitable welcome to strangers and sojourners was a critical necessity and throughout the Hebrew Scriptures there are examples of either its unusual extension or the repercussions of its denial. The infamous story of Soddom is all about hospitality and the dangers that befall a community that does not practice hospitality. It isn’t difficult, is it, to understand what Jesus was talking about when he said, “whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me”. So why do you suppose, since it is not a difficult concept to understand, we find it so difficult to practice?
For the moment, let’s lift our heads up from the individualistic approach we too often adopt when thinking about Jesus and look at a larger, more communal meaning. As I did last Sunday, I’m going to turn to the United Nations for information and inspiration. According to the UN more than one billion people lack access to safe drinking water and 2.6 billion are without basic sanitation. In 1948, 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were ratified by all the nations of the world. They guaranteed a broad sweep of human rights across many human endeavors. But it wasn’t until sixty years later, recognizing that over a billion people across the planet lack access to clean and potable water and that millions die each year as a result, the UN recognized that one more article needed to be added, the Right to Water. Just one year ago, access to clean water and sanitation was declared a human right. One hundred twenty-four countries voted in favor of the resolution. Citing procedural concerns, the United States abstained from voting.
This past March, UN water expert Catarina de Albuquerque criticized the United States for its own obliviousness to domestic water issues. Her work for the UN is to examine laws, policies, and practices of nations concerning access to clean water. “I am concerned”, she said, “that the practices in the United States, while appearing neutral at face value, have a disproportionate impact on the enjoyment of human rights by certain groups”. She quoted a study on the racial impact of water pricing and shut-off policies of the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, noting that for every 1% increase in Boston’s percentage of people of color, the number of threatened cut offs increases by 4%. In addition, 13% of Native American households have no access to safe water and/or wastewater disposal, in sharp contrast with 0.6% in non-native households. Ms. de Albuquerque underscored that ensuring the right to water and sanitation for all requires a paradigm shift with new approaches that promote human rights, are affordable and create more value in terms of public health, community development and global ecosystem protection.
Do you know how much water it takes to keep a golf course in Arizona green? Audubon International estimates that the average American course uses 312,000 gallons per day, but that in a place like Palm Springs, each course takes up to a million gallons a day. That is, each course each day in Palm Springs consumes as much water as an American family of four uses in four years. I don’t mean to pick on golfers alone. There are a thousand ways in which the consumption of fresh water around the globe threatens the lives of people around the world. It’s pretty much a direct relationship. But the contrast in Arizona is especially glaring. This past year, Arizona hit a record high of illegally entered immigrants, 252, and all but a very few died for lack of water.
I’m going to close with two very simple observations. The first is this – when I began this sermon remembering two stories about spitting into water, they were illustrations of insults. The insults were not of an individual nature so much as they were to whole classes of people. When Bennie Gooden spit into his boss’s drinking water, he was paying back an entire culture of oppression – one small act of defiance against a system of exploitation and discrimination. When a misguided and abusive pastor forced his wife to drink a glass of water into which he had spit, he was exemplifying the abuse of power based on gender, and supported, painfully, by misguided religious dogma. In both examples, with far different motivations, the point was to degrade whole groups. Which leads me to my second and final observation. If we cannot learn to interpret the teachings of our Savior as having far-reaching implications for human life, if we cannot see that Jesus was applying his vision not only to oppressed individuals but to whole cultures and peoples, then we will never bring about his hope for a righteous reign of God. And we are especially bad at this here in the U.S. where we are always certain the rights of the individual trump the needs of the community. If we continue to insist that Jesus was only talking about giving a Dixie cup of cold, clean water to one thirsty child, then we will be responsible for the hundreds of immigrants who are dying of thirst in the Arizona desert. It will be our fault when whole communities perish for want of water. We will bear the shame of knowing we could have done something and we didn’t. And we will have said to Jesus, sorry, you are not welcome here. IF we don’t care for individuals, we will never learn to care for whole communities of strangers. But if we don’t care about whole communities of strangers, then there will never be an end to the stream of individuals who are suffering.
It’s pretty much that simple I’m afraid. It doesn’t matter if there is enough water for me and you if there isn’t enough water for them. And if there isn’t enough water for them, then we have failed the one who welcomes them. Amen.