Padre Rosario Messina
In the Old Testament God had already revealed that He was living water that quenches thirst and refreshes: ‘O God, you are my God, and I long for you. My whole being desires you, like a dry, worn-out, and waterless land, my soul is thirsty for you’ (Psalm 62:2-9). Jesus, in his conversation with the Samaritan woman, identified with spring water: ‘whoever drinks the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again’ (Jn 4:14). Naturally, in these as in other texts, God uses symbols and images that are within the range of our understanding in order to make us understand more easily that just as man cannot live without water so our hearts cannot find peace and happiness without taking refuge in His loving arms. In wanting now to reflect briefly on the second work of corporal mercy, it is evident that God invites us to engage in an act that is as valuable and indispensable as ever before for the survival of every man – in truth there is no life without water.
Death from thirst is terrible. For this reason, ‘giving drink to the thirsty’ is a sacred and vital precept that is to be found in an infinity of cultural and religious traditions. For we Christians the Old Testament of the Bible reminds us that we should also give drink to our enemy (Pr 25:21). In the New Testament the thirsty person becomes a sacrament of the presence of Christ. Indeed, in the final judgement the Lord Jesus will say to the righteous: ‘Come you that are blessed by my Father…because I was thirsty and you give me drink (cf. Mt 25:35, 37, 42).
When we consider our time, an absolute priority is the ‘water emergency’ which afflicts entire populations and every year leads to the death of almost two million children under the age of five because of illnesses connected with a lack of water or water pollution. Illnesses connected with water are frequent amongst poor people, for example dysentery and cholera. Water is a renewable resource but it is a limited one and the world water crisis is making ‘blue gold’ a valuable commodity that provokes the action of interest groups, leads to a race to corner it, and wars. At the basis of this crisis there is indeed climate change, but there are also, and above all else, ill-advised interventions by man in local areas.
Pope Francis in his encyclical letter Laudato Si’ describes in strong terms the drama of water that the world is going through. Amongst other things, he emphasises that ‘access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights’ (n. 30). Each person must be able ‘to drink at their own well’, without depending on other people who humiliate them by giving them water or who exploit them by selling them water. If this valuable resource is not seen as a right, with the passing of time it will become increasingly a privilege. Riccardo Petrella, the founder of the World Committee for Water, has launched an appeal: ‘water is an irreplaceable public good. Let us keep it close to us with careful policies’. Let us also remember that this unwritten imperative ‘give drink to the thirsty’ also applies to flowers and plans, trees and grass, because from everything that lives there comes the supplication ‘I am thirsty’.
In this dark context, we can find light and inspiration in the ‘Canticle of Creatures’ of St. Francis of Assisi which is also the oldest poetic text of Italian literature we know about, and as Pope Francis writes in the encyclical cited above ‘reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us’ (n. 1). When beholding with wonder and amazement the whole of the creation, and in joyous ecstasy because of the very many beautiful things created by the Lord, the gratitude of this saint exploded in a Canticle of Praise of the Almighty God and Creator which is of rare intensity and exquisite beauty. Indeed, ‘whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise…he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ (n. 11). I am especially moved by the words of praise that he addressed to the Lord for sister water: ‘Laudato si’ mi’ Signore, per sor’acqua, la quale è multo utile et humile et pretiosa et cast’ (‘Praise be to you my Lord for sister water who is very useful and humble and valuable and chaste’). With these simple but splendid adjectives, this saint manages to describe the immense beauty and mandatory necessity of water. But when expanding his gaze to the whole of the creation, the Pope continues, St. Francis ‘invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness’ (n. 12).
The Work of Mercy of giving a glass of water therefore calls on each one of us: are we really certain that the thirsty are not near to us as well? How many homes have disabled, sick and elderly people who need everything! Certainly, they would be happy to drink a fine glass of fresh water, especially during the summer, in order to quench their thirst and feel a pleasant refreshment and relief. But they are also thirsty for nearness, for company, for caresses, for being able to ‘express their feelings’ about the joys and the sufferings of their lives, thereby freeing themselves from hidden fears and anxieties. And then there are even more dramatic situations, perhaps in the neighbourhoods where we live, or in the shadow of our bell towers, where sick or elderly people can no longer walk or move and are no longer able to lift a glass of water to their mouths.
Their relatives, unfortunately, for hours, for days, and even for years, are at their sides with heroic patience. But if they are poor, if they have to go out to work, if they cannot pay a person to look after their relatives, they are forced to leave them on their own, or, if they are lucky, entrust them to the kindly feelings of a neighbour. But if they are alone and cry out like Jesus on the cross ‘I am thirsty’, who will offer them a glass of water? If Jesus promises a reward to those who have given just one glass of fresh water (Mt 25:1), how much more will he reward people and generous hearts that listen to the grief-stricken cries of very many suffering infirm and thirsty people! If we then widen the horizon to poor countries which suffer from a shortage of water, for example in Africa where in villages distant from the great cities I have personally seen, when visiting our missions, women with large basins on their heads walk five miles on dirt tracks and barefoot to go to a well and draw water, and this at least once a day and for the whole of their lives! Looking at those sad realities, I was ashamed of myself, resolving firmly to never complain about anything, but above all not to leave the tap running in the sink when this is not needed.
Lastly, when above all during Advent or Lent you happen to see references to the building of wells in the third world, see them as urgent and valuable initiatives, and commit yourselves to cooperating in a generous way. As long, however, as these are not isolated gestures and the local populations are involved in all the stages of the planning, building and maintenance of the wells that are built. ‘Let us give them fish, but let us also teach them how to fish’.