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The River In Drought, Or the Ocean in Flood? – 9/11/2016

One of the contradictions of life in a desert, is the crucial need for salt. Sweating in the heat causes the body to lose that essential mineral, and so humans and other animals have to make up for that loss somehow, even as they face the more obvious struggle of finding water. There’s a scene that addresses this in a movie from the 1970s about life in the Namib Desert in southern Africa. Although the film was marketed as a documentary, it’s clear the film-makers weren’t deeply concerned with accuracy and authenticity – so don’t take this story as fact, but here’s the scene:

One of the Saan people, the folks who are indigenous to this section of Africa, one of the driest places in the world, has a hunk of rock salt, but what he needs most is water. A monkey watches him taste the salt and recognizes what it is, so the man devises a plan. He digs a small hole into a termite mound, just large enough to wedge the salt inside. Once he goes far enough away, the monkey comes over to retrieve the salt. The hole is big enough for its hand to get into the mound, but one it has its fist around the salt crystal, it can’t get it back out again. This gives the man time to catch the monkey, help it escape from the trap, and treat it to all the salt it could want. The man is happy to share, you see, because now the monkey is very thirsty, and once the man releases it, it leads him right to a hidden trickle of water which it has been drinking from. First the monkey had no salt, and then too much. First the man had no water, and now he has the monkey’s.

Each September, we renew the cycle of our life together as a congregation with the Water Communion. Water is so essential to life on earth, it seems natural enough that this should be the symbol of our coming together into community. But this summer – which looks to have been the hottest ever recorded by humans – has been marked by tragic extremes of water. Drought, which has mostly just been a hardship for our gardens and farm lands here, has been deadly in California, as dry brush and rainless weeks let forest fires rage. While in Louisiana, an excess of water has proven just as destructive and deadly, with whole neighborhoods submerged, houses destroyed, lives forever changed. And this past week, the people of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota drew national attention as they confronted the prospect of an oil pipeline – now, thankfully, put on hold – which would intrude on their sacred lands, and, in particular, endanger their water supply.

We live in a world shaped by the extremes of too much, and not enough. Our country suffers from an excess of consumption – of food, of oil, of just about everything – yet, it also suffers from insufficient food, insufficient shelter, insufficient safety and dignity, for too many of us. The drive for more and more leaves us with less and less; of material things, some of us, but just as often of the immaterial qualities of purpose and meaning.

This weekend marked the official beginning of the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to the city of Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, which all Muslims are commanded to undertake once in their lives, provided that they have the means and the physical capability to make the journey. That pilgrimage entails a number of rituals and ceremonies, several of which are drawn from the story of a woman who is called Hajar in the Qur’an and Hagar in the Hebrew Bible – one of many figures who appear in both books, and in both traditions.

This is the way the story goes: Hajar was left, alone, in the desert, trying to keep herself and her infant son, Ishmael, alive. They had no water left. She ran back and forth between two hills, searching the dry earth for water – very soon, the pilgrims in Mecca will re-enact this story by making seven circuits between the hills of Safa and Marwah; just shy of a two mile walk, all told. That trip once took place outside, but the need to ensure the safety of so many pilgrims has led to substantial innovation: today the procession between the two hills is made through a beautifully-appointed building, with wide hallways, air conditioning, and a special express lane set aside for the elderly and the physically disabled.

Hajar scoured the desert around her, but she found no water, and eventually she had to set her son down – perhaps because she had lost the strength in her limbs to carry him any longer. Once he was set down, Ishmael kicked at the ground beneath him, and where his heel struck the earth, water sprang forth. So much water, in fact, that Hajar had to spring into action to rescue her child from the flood. She called out to it, “Zome! Zome!” – stop, stop – and from this phrase comes the name of the well of Zamzam, another site visited by pilgrims making the hajj.

The close of this story is that while Hajar and Ishmael were alone in the desert for a terribly long time, just after the spring appeared, so too did a group of travelers. And Hajar, who had been so thirsty that she thought she would die, immediately called out to them, inviting them to come, and share the fresh water. She was not concerned about how much there was, or how many of them there were.

The hajj is a time of celebration in Islam. Beginning tonight, and stretching through most of tonight, it will have its apex in Eid al-Adha, which is Islam’s single biggest holiday. And this time of joy intersects this year with the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, the day of suffering and violence that has so vastly effected our national psyche and the course of world history over the past decade and a half. For fifteen years, the predominant American response to an episode of profound unsafety has been an all-consuming demand for safety as an absolute, a guarantee. Fleeing from not-enough safety, racing towards too much, at all costs.

In her story, Hajar also goes from not enough to too much of something that she desperately needs. But her solution is not to keep scrabbling for more – she doesn’t keep digging for more wells after the first, nor does she hoard up what the ground puts forth. Instead, she shares what she has, as freely as she can. The earth is now too hot, and our civilization, too cold, for us to allow ourselves to be constrained and defined by too little and too much, racing back and forth between those two poles like the pilgrims between Safa and Marwah. What we need now is the determination that what there is is to be shared; without first counting the amount, or the number to be divided between. We must offer what we have to each other, and be determined to better understand one another, to overcome the fear of what we do not have, and the emptiness we already have too much of.


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