Our second week of studying The Hole in Our Gospel centered around the issue of lack of access to clean water in Africa. We learned that many families must hand-carry their water from a source that can be miles away from their homes.
The brunt of this responsibilty falls on women and girls as young as age 10. During the church service, we watched a short video from World Vision depicting women and girls with five gallon plastic jugs or "jerry cans" tied onto their backs with ropes.
They may walk as far as seven miles round trip twice a day to get water for their families. Carrying the water is, in fact, the main activity that occupies their days.
The most distressing part of watching this was seeing the water they were retrieving was from a filthy, stagnant stream. Close to where the women and girls were collecting water, other people were washing clothing, diapers, dishes or themselves. A little further upstream, livestock stood in the water to drink their fill.
Needless to say, the water they travel so far to lug back is filthy, disease ridden and makes their families and villages sick.
After the service, the staff had several five gallon jerry cans filled with water for us to try carrying. I watched my older son muscle his way around the courtyard at church, lifting the jug with great difficulty.
My 10-year-old could lift it, just barely. I imagined a girl his age in Africa being malnourished and trudging several miles with a full jug strapped on her back. I'm sure the ropes used to hold it on must be both uncomfortable and painful.
I thought later about how our kids lug heavy backpacks to and from school filled with books and school supplies. Many parents have raised concerns about kids developing back problems from carrying such heavy loads daily. One recommendation says that a person should carry no more than 15 percent of his or her body weight on the back.
I did some quick calculating by weighing a full one gallon jug of milk and was surprised to see that it weighed 10 pounds. My 10-year-old son weighs about 75 pounds. I struggle to envision a girl his age in Ethiopia walking several miles with even 10 pounds of water strapped to her malnourshed body. Personalizing the situation in this way really caused it to hit home for me.
We were given our choice of several different "Compassion Challenges" designed to help us walk in the shoes of a typical poor family who has no running water in their home and not even a source close by. We were challenged to walk one mile with an empty water jug, fill it and walk back just to see how it would feel.
The alternative was to carry around a plastic water bottle all week that had a label with part of Matthew 25:35 printed on it that read: "I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink."
The object of this activity was to have the bottle be constantly in our way, reminding us of the lack of access to clean water that so many people have. This is a stark contrast to the ease of access we have to purified bottled water, not to mention EBMUD tap water that tastes just as good.
While I didn't do either challenge exactly as it was presented at church, I think the message came through to me loud and clear. I kept two empty water bottles on the table all week long and let the irritation of their clutter remind me of how much I have compared to those without running water.
I was also so much more aware of how I see people take clean water for granted all around us every day. Over the course of the week I saw two different people power washing their homes and driveways and thought of people in drought-ridden parts of the world. I imagine they would be amazed to see clean, rare, and valuable water being used in such a frivolous way. I don't know if we always realize how much we have and take for granted sometimes.
The passage that accompanied this challenge came from Matthew 25:31-46. It is a section of Scripture that can make a person squirm uncomfortably. In it, Jesus talks about separating the sheep and the goats when He returns to judge the world. The sheep represent righteous people and the goats, unrighteous. Both groups claim relationship with Him, but He only acknowledges one group (the sheep) as His true followers.
He says, "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me ... I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."
My 12-year-old son leaned close to me after the verses were read aloud and whispered "I don't know if I like that passage very much, it makes me feel uncomfortable." I whispered back, "I know, buddy, me too. I think it's hard for a lot of people. Being challenged isn't always fun."
The sermon highlighted some convicting truths, first and foremost:
"We are judged by our walk, not our talk."
In the notes I scrawled during the service, I wrote:
"How we live our lives reveals what we believe about Jesus."
"Our relationship with Him is based on our walk with Him, not our talk about Him."
"Jesus takes our treatment of others personally."
None of those are small concepts to digest! It could be easy to become discouraged and feel like we have failed or can never accomplish these things.
Rather than pointing fingers or employing guilt, the sermon encouraged us to look at how Jesus responded to people and to ask Him to transform us from the inside out. We were challenged to pray that God would open our eyes to see the "least" among us.
One thing that is reassuring to me as I grapple with each of these challenging concepts is that I don't have to do it alone on my own strength.
God doesn't expect me to figure it all out, get my act together and respond perfectly every time.
He wants me to come to Him in my weakness and to lay all of my fears, anxieties and misgivings before Him.
It takes a lot of pressure off knowing that my job is to ask Him to transform me. I know I can't do it on my own.