Water Carriers—Every One of Us
September 1, 2020 – David R. Weiss
We were barely noticed as we made our way along Summit Avenue. Three friends, masked and walking with a hardly remarkable purple aluminum water bottle, save for the mix of blue and white ribbons streaming from the top.
Most cars, bikers, even fellow pedestrians would’ve never guessed the weight of our steps. I’m not sure we did until our two-mile trek was well underway. Becky, Deb and I had met on the church lawn about 9:15 in the morning. We gathered alongside the shrub that had marked our spot on the lawn from Sunday evening’s gathering. We paused there and each of us said a brief word about our morning’s mission. And then we walked.
We were, echoing a motif in our own faith tradition, three magi—three wise ones—coming from the east. Carrying with us not three gifts, but one. Still, that one gift is decidedly more valuable than any collection of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. You see, the purple water bottle was filled with 16 ounces of Nibi. Water.
Nibi (pronounced nih-bee) is the Anishinaabe-Ojibwe word for water. For sacred water. In early August this water was ceremonially drawn from the Headwaters of the Mississippi in northern Minnesota. And yet it isn’t sacred on account of the ceremony. For the Anishinaabe there is no water that is not sacred. Every bit of it is essential to the whole of creation—interwoven with life at every level. It is at once—in every instance—both mundane and sacred. We carried holy-ordinary water.
Since early August this 16 ounces of Nibi has been making its way across the state, carried by Native and non-Native persons—on foot, by bike, by boat, horseback—in the Relay for Our Water. At each leg of the relay one group passes it on to the next group of water carriers, the water poured reverently from one container to the next, to the next, to the next. On the twenty-seventh day it reached us.
Each day as the water moves it raises awareness about the threat posed to Nibi by Enbridge’s proposed Line 3. The new pipeline would carry tar sands crude—the dirtiest oil there is—from Alberta, Canada across Anishinaabe lands in northern Minnesota … crossing or running near to more than 200 wetlands, lakes, streams, and rivers, including the Mississippi Headwaters … until it reaches Superior, Wisconsin.
Line 3 would disrupt or destroy large tracts of pristine land, violating treaty rights that guarantee Anishinaabe access to healthy lands even beyond their tribal reservation boundaries. It would threaten lands that grow wild rice—a truly sacred food in Anishinaabe culture. It would only fuel our society’s thirst for oil at the very moment when we need to breaking this deadly addiction, investing instead in jobs that promote a just transition to green energy—not further indebting our wellbeing to fossil fuels.
And Line 3 promises to poison Nibi for generations to come; promises because it isn’t a matter of if but when the spill(s) happen. Enbridge pipelines have had over 800 spills in the past fifteen years—including the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010. No wonder the Anishinaabe have been fighting Line 3 for six years. The wonder—the shame—is that more of us haven’t been fighting alongside them. The Relay for Our Water invites us to do just that.
So that’s why we carried the water on August 31. The night before we’d welcomed it from a group of Youth Climate Strikers who carried it to us at the edge of the lawn outside St. Paul’s United Church of Christ. Once poured into our container we wrapped it in our Sacred Circle liturgy, a simple service that uses gratitude, grief, enlarged vision, and active hope to meet the dire challenges presented by climate crisis and other entangled injustices like Line 3. We prayed and read and sang and listened in a light rain, as though Nibi itself had joined us in a most holy-ordinary collaboration of sorts.
This morning three of us returned to the exact spot where the Nibi rested yesterday evening to carry it from there to the next stop on its journey, the Twin Cities Friends Meeting House near Macalester College. It was midway between these two spots that the ordinariness of it all overwhelmed me.
Nobody noticed us as we walked along. And this was likely true for most of the miles the Nibi had traveled. We water carriers are nothing special. Ordinary people carrying ordinary-holy water on a journey across the state. But the weight of this barely noticed work is to join peoples and generations in care for Nibi and in solidarity with our Native siblings. Not just the water, the work as well is ordinary-holy—both mundane and sacred in every moment.
And then something else hit me. So, you didn’t get to carry Nibi in the Relay? Well, on average our bodies are 50-60% water by weight. Each of us, all day long, carries not just 16 ounces but between seven and fifteen gallons of Nibi in our own bodies. Sacred water because there is no water that is not sacred. It is at once—in every instance—both mundane and sacred. We carry holy-ordinary water in ourselves.
And the water within us? No less than the Nibi in the Headwaters of the Mississippi, every bit of it is also essential to the whole of creation—interwoven with life at every level. Within us … among us … indelibly part of us, each human being is host to some 100 trillion microbes. Tiny creatures that aid in our digestion, play key roles in our immune system, and carry out other duties essential to keeping a person alive. They don’t “help” us live—they are wholly interwoven with our living. We live through them as they live through us, on undulating waves of Nibi. An unending refrain of the cosmos … and the sacred.
We are bound to one another, to creation itself. The same water enlivens us all. Beings of every sort and kind. Nibi is under threat. But we are water carriers—every one of us. So carry on. And carry well. Holy-ordinary in every moment.
* * *
Learn more about the issues at stake in Line 3: www.stopline3.org/issues
Learn about action steps you can take: http://bit.ly/RfOW_Act
Follow the Relay for Our Water: www.facebook.com/Relay-for-our-Water-629502024372144
A recent online story on the Relay: www.stcroix360.com/2020/08/river-relay-connected-by-water
David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at email@example.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.