03/23/2011 10:49 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

World Water Day 2011: A Sermon

World Water Day grew out of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro. The goal is to recognize the central importance of water to life on earth and to recognize the way competition and lack of water can be a source of conflict and suffering.

In recognition of World Water Day 2011, an inter-faith consortium of American religious leaders belonging to a group called Faiths For Safe Water wrote a collective 'sermon' to emphasize the religious importance of water and the access to it.

A Sermon For World Water Day 2011

We Don't Honor God when 4500 children die every day. But they do ... from the lack of something so simple, each of us takes it for granted each day -- a clean glass of water. 4500 children -- that means every 20 seconds, one child dies, that little life extinguished. But you've probably not heard that tragic statistic because the lack of safe water is the greatest under-recognized global humanitarian crisis we face and its impact is staggering. 4500 children really do die every single day from water-related illnesses, and that is just the tip of this very unhealthy iceberg.

Almost a billion people do not have access to safe water globally and 2.5 billion lack the dignity of basic sanitation. This lack of access translates into more staggering numbers: 80 percent of all disease is related to a lack of sanitation and at any given time, half of the world's hospital beds are occupied by patients suffering from water-borne diseases. We are acutely aware of the plight of starvation and all too familiar with the heart-wrenching pictures of distended malnourished bellies. But did you know that 50 percent of that malnutrition is due to a lack of safe water -- 50 percent! This water crisis kills more children than malaria, AIDS, and TB combined, resulting in a catastrophic 2 million, mostly preventable deaths, every year. Think about it this way -- we fight against malaria but poor sanitation increases breeding in malaria-carrying mosquitoes. We work to make sure HIV/AIDS patients get the anti-retroviral drugs they need to sustain life, but already susceptible to disease, they must take these drugs with unsafe water. Not prioritizing the global water crisis defies logic.

This pervasive level of illness prevents productivity and increases poverty. And inequality -- especially for girls and women because water is a woman's burden around the world. Not only can women spend up to 60 percent of their day walking to collect water, their bodies quite literally break down from hauling the heavy forty-plus pound water jugs every day, sometimes along desolate and unsafe paths, so their families can have something to cook and clean with and drink. Even if it is dirty and unsafe. Girls are denied education when forced to leave school to help their mothers with this heavy burden. And when there is no gender appropriate sanitation facilities to take care of their personal needs, they often drop out of school.

Access to safe water even impacts war and peace: the potential for conflict over water rights, and more importantly, the potential for negotiated peace. Here's perhaps the greatest shame of all: This problem is solvable.

And our religions are already a part of the solution. Secular and nonsecular water development field work is happening around the world. But these projects need to be dramatically ramped up with far wider, sustained support.

Here's one more number: Every U.S. dollar invested in safe water and sanitation sees an economic return of $8. But let's put a face on all these numbers. 261 faces in fact ... they're the students at the Ndururi Primary School in Northern Kenya. During the rainy season, they have rainwater but had no safe storage system and in the dry season, they often had to walk three kilometers each day to fetch water from a polluted stream. Plus the school had sub-standard pit latrines and no clean water to wash their hands which resulted in frequent bouts of illness.

8000 miles away, on a Sunday school field trip, eight middle school and 20 high school students from Kansas learned about the world's water crisis and decided to do something about it. With guidance from a unique nonprofit called H2O for Life, which partners U.S. schools with schools around the globe, these students came up with some clever ideas to help. From sending home empty water bottles with church members -- challenging each person to drop a nickel in the bottle each time they used water, especially each time they flushed a toilet -- to auctioning off a donated toilet from a local plumber, these industrious kids raised $6950. H2O for Life got a donor to match 100 percent, and $13,500 later, a lot has changed for the kids of Ndururi Primary School. They have roofs and gutters on the school to capture rainwater which goes through bio-sand filters and into a permanent rainwater catchment tank. The boys and girls now have four separate latrines each, plus hand-washing stations with soap. Teachers note a dramatic increase in attendance due to decreased illness, and lots more time in classes because students no longer have to walk long distances mid day to fetch water. The school's improvements led to water and sanitation improvements in the students' homes and hand-washing facilities throughout the community as students shared their educational awareness about the importance of sanitation with their families.

So why is this crisis still so enormous and development work only a literal drop in the bucket? Because what's missing is not the know-how or technology, and certainly not the need, but the sense of urgency and leadership. And who better to take the lead than the religions? Water is a central shared symbol among every world religion. Water cleanses the body, and by extension purifies it, and these two main qualities confer a highly symbolic -- even sacred -- status to water in religion. Water is a key element in many ceremonies and religious rites.

  • Hindus imbue water with powers of spiritual purification all Hindu temples are located near a water source, and followers must bathe before entering the temple. Many pilgrimage sites are found on river banks; and sites where rivers converge are considered particularly sacred.
  • Shinto is Japan's indigenous religion and worship, whether public or private, always begins with the all important act of purification with water. Inside the many sacred shrines troughs for ritual washing are placed. Waterfalls are held sacred and standing under them is believed to purify.
  • In the New Testament, 'living water' or 'water of life' represents the spirit of God, that is, eternal life. John 4: 1-42 tells the story of Jesus and a Samaritan woman to whom he offers living water so that she will never thirst again, in other words find eternal life through him. Walk into the smallest Catholic Church or largest Cathedral in any corner of the world, and the first thing one does as a Catholic is to bless oneself with Holy Water. After Jesus' resurrection he commands his disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19-20). All of Christianity intrinsically links water to baptism, a public declaration of faith and a sign of welcome into the Christian church. The sacrament has its Christian roots in the Gospel, where it is written that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. In baptism, water symbolizes purification, the rejection of the original sin.
  • But baptism goes much further back to the ancient Jewish mikveh, the ritual bath used for cleansing to restore or maintain a state of purity. In Judaism ritual washing is intended to restore or maintain a state of ritual purity and its origins can be found in the ancient Torah. In Judaism and Islam, hand-washing before and after meals isn't just a good idea, it's obligatory within the faiths.
  • All mosques provide a water source for ablution because in Islam, Muslims must be ritually pure before approaching God in prayer. In Islam ritual purity (called tahara) is required before carrying out the religious duty of salat (worship).
  • At Buddhist funerals, water is poured into a bowl placed before the monks and the dead body and as it overflows monks recite "As the rains fill the rivers and overflow into the ocean, so likewise may what is given here reach the departed."

Human existence is about much more than water, but never about less. From birth until death, the faiths share this recognition in ritual, symbol, and need.

In its 2000 Millennium Declaration, the United Nations set eight goals for development, called the Millennium Development Goals or MDGs. These goals set an ambitious agenda for improving the human condition by 2015. One of the key targets is to cut in half the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. But here's the current assessment:

Water: Much of the world is on track to meet the drinking water target, however much remains to be done in regions of sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Asia and Latin America. Accelerated development efforts are going to be needed to bring drinking water to all rural households; and that all important sustainable access to a safe water supply remains a challenge in many parts of the world.

Sanitation: With half the population in developing regions living without sanitation, the 2015 target is out of reach unless development is dramatically accelerated. Disparities between urban and rural sanitation coverage remain daunting and improvements in sanitation are bypassing the poor.

Here's an acronym you need to know: "WASH".

WASH stands for WAter/Sanitation/Hygiene. It's the world's religions that can and must make "WASH" a household word and bring much-needed support to this central problem -- and keystone solution -- to health, nutrition, poverty, gender equality, even peace. Religious water is never neutral and passive and no longer can we be. It has powers and capacities to transform this world, annihilate sins, and create holiness. And so do we. We possess some of the most powerful collective voices in the world, we have development work in place around the world -- and together we can give life to hundreds of millions of people throughout the world. The place to start is here at home: through policy advocacy, fundraising in our congregations to increase our development work, engage service learning projects through youth groups where kids help kids just like themselves around the world, and by educating and supporting faith leaders in developing countries who can influence everything from prioritizing WASH policy to changing hygiene behavior.

Certainly in today's age no child should ever die for lack of a clean glass of water and a toilet. I ask that each and every one of you joins our growing interfaith effort around WASH -- WAter/Sanitation/Hygiene. From pulpit and pew, add your voice to increase awareness of this global crisis and support for water development work. Together the religions have a sacred opportunity to impact hundreds of millions of lives and be a monumental example of interfaith cooperation at its best. No, we don't honor God by allowing 4500 children to die every day, but together we can accomplish greatness -- by making water a source of life and health, for all.

There are plenty of ways to get involved:

A. Support your faith's WASH field work -- publicize it, donate to it, volunteer with it.

B. H2O for Life links youth to a school in need. Our kids will see their creative support directly impacts kids just like themselves.

C. From March 21 - 25, donate your Facebook or Twitter voice for the cause at One Week For Water.

D. Let your Congressman know that when it comes to foreign aid, this is the #1 priority.

E. Contact Faiths for Safe Water for more information on how to get involved: Susan Barnett, Project Director,

Sermon written by:

Jack Bemporad, Executive Director, Center for Interreligious Understanding (New Jersey) and Professor, Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Rome); The Very Reverend Dr. James A. Kowalski, Dean, The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine (New York); The Most Reverend Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, Armenian Church of America and immediate past president National Council of Churches (Washington, DC); Imam Syed Rafiq Naqvi and Mrs. Anjum Naqvi, Chairman, Islamic Information Center (Washington, DC); Leila Muhammad, African-American Muslim Church, Church leader and daughter of W.D. Muhammad (Chicago); Fr. Dennis McManus (Archbishop Dolan) (New York): Rinchen Dharlo, Representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama of the Americas and President of the Tibet Fund (New York)