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Stewarding Water

By Scott Bader-Saye

On my first trip to the southwest with the woman who would become my wife, I took in the arid earth, the minimalist flora and fauna, the dust and rock, and thought this must be what the moon is like. I had lived in the east my whole life, only venturing west to ski in the mountains of Colorado, which, during the winter months, were flush with snow and hardly moon-like.

Then I moved west to the cusp of the 100th meridian that marks the isohyetal line beyond which the land largely lacks the twenty inches of annual rainfall to grow crops without irrigation. When I arrived in 2009, Austin was in the midst of one of the worst droughts in its history. The drought eventually abated but it was a sign of things to come. Scientists say that the 98th meridian is the new 100th. This puts Austin, for the first time, in the arid west. Over these ten years, I have become aware of water in a way that I never had to when I lived in Pennsylvania or North Carolina or Georgia.

But even in the arid west, we can count on water flowing from the tap when we turn the handle, and we can count on bottled water lining the shelves of the H-E-B grocery stores. In some parts of the world, however, this has never been true, and it may not always be true in any part of the world.

Recent studies show that roughly four billion people, two-thirds of the global population, face severe water scarcity for at least one month a year, with half a billion people enduring permanent water scarcity. The poor around the world now experience what Pope Francis has called “water poverty.”

And while churches and theologians cannot pretend to provide technological solutions for water capture, storage, and distribution, we can articulate a set of theological questions to help us and others imagine the task. These might include the following:

  • Jesus tells us, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). What would you say is now “required” of those of us who have been “given much” (that is, who have access to plentiful supplies of water) in relation to those who have little? Are we willing to curtail our use of water for industry, leisure, and domestic amenities so that more water can be available for the basic needs of others?
  • While acknowledging that small-scale conservation at the domestic level will have no discernible impact on large-scale water availability, what might be one small behavior change that would make us more attentive to water issues? Why might such changes in personal habit be important even if they do not produce a measurable increase in water availability?
  • The use of the steward metaphor in 1 Peter 4:10, “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received,” suggests that we might interpret stewardship less as the management of another’s possessions and more as the right response to another’s gift. How do we treat water differently if we think of it as a gift instead of a possession?
  • A guiding question for faithful water stewardship might be whether a particular use of water is consistent with its capacity to voice creation’s praise, that is, to “tell the glory of God” and to “proclaim his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). What measure of pollution, what level of toxicity makes water unable to enact this sacramental function?
  • Most water scarcity and low-quality water are experienced by poor and marginalized groups, while most of the burden of procuring water globally falls to women. How might our implicit biases about race or gender or class affect our sense of urgency about water scarcity, quality, and distribution?
  • What Wendell Berry says of soil seems true of water as well: “We build soil by knowing what to do but also by knowing what not to do and by knowing when to stop. Both kinds of knowledge are necessary because invariably, at some point, the reach of human comprehension becomes too short, and at that point the work of the human economy must end in absolute deference to the working of the Great Economy.” What are some of the things we should “not do” with water? What are some of the things we should stop doing with water? 

“O merciful Creator, your hand is open wide to satisfy the needs of every living creature: Make us always thankful for your loving providence; and grant that we, remembering the account that we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of your good gifts.” 

~ Collect for Stewardship of Creation, Book of Common Prayer 

This spring, we will continue to devote Sowing Holy Questions to issues of stewardship, now giving special attention to the role of humans–and the calling of Christians–as stewards or trustees of the non-human creation around us.  

Dr. Scott Bader-Saye joined the seminary faculty as the Helen and Everett H. Jones Chair in Christian Ethics and Moral Theology in 2009 and has served as academic dean since 2013.

His current research centers on theological readings of gender and transgender. Other research interests include economy, sexuality, political theology, virtue ethics, and interfaith dialogue. He teaches the core Theological Ethics courses for all degree programs. He is author of Formed by Love (2017), Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (2007), and Church and Israel After Christendom (1999/2005). He has contributed to The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics (2006) and The Cambridge Companion to the Gospels (2006) and has published widely in theological journals and magazines.

Professor Bader-Saye helped found and lead Peacemeal, a missional Episcopal community in Scranton, PA, served on the Episcopal Church Executive Council Economic Justice Loan Committee, currently serves on the Gathering of Leaders Steering Committee, and is active as a teacher and parishioner at St. Julian of Norwich Episcopal Church, a mission in northwest Austin.


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