Water is life. It is as easy and simple as that. Rivers are our lifelines; human populations have settled on their banks since ancient times. The great cultures developed along the rivers, and along them migration has flowed to this day. Oases became places of refuge, especially when water was scarce in the summertime. Water was collected in cisterns and in huge, well-sheltered basins; small wells, too, became places where animals and humans gather.

Rivers and seas make the exchange of goods and knowledge possible – for good reason, the great seafaring nations have grown economically strong. Culture developed in regions alongside the waters; for example, this is evident by the Mediterranean Sea. Yet, even in antiquity, vessels from one spot were to be found in distant places: glass from the seashore city of Tyre was to be found even at the farthest ends of the Roman Empire, largely because the way over the sea was easier and less dangerous than were ordinary roads. Keeping this long, common history in mind, it is depressing to see that today the Mediterranean Sea is becoming more and more of a forbidding border, a deadly barrier hindering those who would flee from unacceptable living conditions. Once again, the water meant for life is becoming bitter, threatening, and lethal.

The Bible offers endless stories and poems about water, about its power for life, but also about its dangers – in order finally to lead us to life.

In other words: Water plays an import role in the Bible. That has to do with the original settings of the biblical stories. Water in the Middle East is precious and in no way to be taken for granted; on the contrary, droughts and a long dry season are too often the painful reality. Therefore, in Genesis 2, paradise – God’s own garden – is described as a lush park in which four rivers have their source: "A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.” (Genesis 2:10-14 NRSV)

In paradise, water is found abundantly. Gold, bdellium and gemstones are named as well – through them the plenty of creation grows more visible. Where water is found, life is blooming, plants are growing, fruit is adequately nourished, humans and animals have plenty to drink, and even more: the water cools down our senses even in the grueling summer heat, and the banks of the rivers are places where everyone may take refuge and find rest. It sounds as if the author of this text was a desperately romantic person, imagining paradise in such a way. But the Bible knows all about drought and need, about struggling to dig small wells, about the many dangers presented by water; the description of paradise presents a beautiful contrast to those harsh realities.

Water is life itself: In Genesis 1 we find the concept that in the beginning, before all creation, there is only water, “the waters”, and that heaven and earth somehow must be encompassed within this setting. In the story of creation we glimpse the power or violent force of water: it requires the strong, creative power of God to tame and control these otherwise chaotic waters. And woe to us when the water-gates are opened again! Humans and animals are helpless when facing catastrophic flooding. This is what the story of the Flood, a few chapters later in Genesis, reminds us.

Last summer, in the southern part of Germany, after weeks and weeks of endlessly pouring rain, when everything was soaked with water, the streams and rivers overflowed their banks. The dikes were breaking, water was almost everywhere. Houses, villages, whole cities were inundated, animals drowned, people used to living in safety and security were losing their goods and property. Even in a country where people are insured against virtually every eventuality in life, and the state has enough money at its disposal and is willing to help quickly, a flood is a catastrophe. All the more so, in those countries where people have to rely on themselves, or possess only what is absolutely necessary, or where the state lacks sufficient means to help efficiently. The ugly face of climate change was on display last year, with droughts on the one hand and gales and floods on the other. The planet’s eco-system has been thrown out of balance due to human interference. Water, the source of life, rapidly is turning into something dangerous.

And lack of water also is becoming a bone of contention. Disturbances arise when people have no access to water free of charge, when wells are poisoned due to greed or springs become possessions to contest, when some have water in abundance and others are disadvantaged. Everybody is affected by the claim of international operating companies that argue free access to water is not a basic human right, but rather a good to be traded like any other, and that people consequently have to purchase rights to water. Bad luck for anyone unable to afford water – at their set price.

Today, the struggle for water assumes enormous, almost incredible dimensions. Injustice is crying to heaven, but in the end the struggle for water is an old story. Genesis 13:1-12 reports the conflict between Abram and Lot, his nephew. Both had arrived, in terms of material prosperity – Abram even more so than his nephew – yet both families and their cattle and smaller livestock were in need of water. Once again, their shepherds quarreled over certain wells and streams, places where the flocks would find water in the dry season. The arguments were escalating, most probably fists were raised, and in the end Abram and Lot were forced to find a solution providing enough space and – above all – enough water for both families.

Abram, although older and wealthier, offered Lot the right of free choice, perhaps because he suspected that otherwise Lot would have the feeling he had been manipulated. “Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.” (Genesis 13:9) Lot is choosing that portion of land which seems to be more suitable for him – and at least this conflict is solved. Lot’s choice will create some new problems, but that is another story. What we learn is this: Evidently, there is enough water for both of them, and the stronger does not have the right to withhold water or hinder the other person from access, whether or not he had the power. Both claim the same right to water. Three aspects of Genesis 13 are fundamental for the churches engaging in water-issues today:

First: Everybody has the right of free access to water, whether that person is well-off or not. Being wealthy or influential does not make any difference.

Second: Water is absolutely necessary for life. It does not even occur to Abram, the stronger of the two, to ask his nephew Lot for money or service in return for access. Water is so elemental a human need that we are not to question a person’s right to it. Finally: Abram asks Lot to make the choice. This shows there is sufficient water for both of them, and maybe even more. In this respect, we have to question ourselves and our attitudes, and the process of questioning may become uncomfortable for some of us. What does it mean – “sufficient” water? What are the criteria? What do people in the USA or Western Europe see as sufficient? How do viewpoints in India vary? Our attitudes toward stewardship of water link closely to the nature of social justice. Can it make sense to write policy for water and sanitation in one part of the world if those who urgently are in need do not benefit, or have a voice in the decision?

The time is over for well-composed speeches and declarations of intent. Now is the time when we have to implement everybody’s right to sufficient water – always keeping in mind regional differences in the availability of water, a circumstance that will continue to be felt into the future.

Water is life. We need water if we want to live – in the literal, as well as in a figurative or spiritual sense. Our Bible ends as it began, speaking of water: “And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” (Revelation 22:17)