One of the joys of reading fiction–especially good fiction–is that in the midst of the narrative which keeps you turning pages, turning, turning to find out what happened next, you are suddenly stopped short by something you read, turned away from the narrative and into your own life. This can happen in a deep and profound way as the novel helps you see or understand something really significant about your own existence. But this sudden stop can also be caused by an ordinary observation. Near the end of the last novel of his Border Trilogy, Cities of the Plain, Cormac McCarthy gives us a final look at his cowboy hero Billy Perham. It is the beginning of the second millennium and he is now nearly eighty but still wandering and sleeping out under the stars. One evening he stops for the night and discovers a spring beneath a cotton wood:
There was a tin cup on the stob and he took it down and sat holding it. He’d not seen a cup at a spring in years and he held it in both hands as had thousands before him unknown to him yet joined in sacrament. He dipped the cup into the water and raised it cool and dripping to his mouth.
Reading this I was transported to the early fifties when I was nine or ten years old. Once every summer, I rode the bread route with my cousin Glenn and his dad, my Uncle Con. We meandered about southwest Minnesota stopping to deliver Edgerton Bakery bread at all the little grocery stores and restaurants in all the little towns–Ruthton, Fulda, Avoca, Chandler, Hadley. The route had certain rituals for us boys: Here we had a bottle of pop. Here we played the jukebox. Here we ate a hamburger. But the thing I remember best about those trips was the stop we made along the side of a road somewhere–I’m not sure now which road we were on–to get a drink of cold, bubbling spring water. There was no cup, only a pipe pushed into the earth and water bubbling out of the pipe. “The best water in the world,” my Uncle Con called it.
I doubt that anyone within a 250-mile radius of that spring in southwest Minnesota drinks directly from a spring today. Oh, I suppose it’s possible that people in the area can still drink safely from a deep spring, but I’m not aware of it. Drinking water directly from a spring is one of life’s little joys, one of God’s good gifts, that we have sacrificed to something–I’m not quite sure what to call it–some abstraction like efficiency or increased production.
In that same 250-mile radius one can find thousands of water fountains that provide ice cold water at the push of a button and hundreds of thousands of plastic bottles filled with water. Many people would say that the loss of a few natural springs is insignificant, especially when we have the convenience of these ubiquitous water coolers and plastic water bottles.
I disagree. For one thing, no one could look at a water cooler or even a plastic bottle that claims to contain fresh spring water and think of it as a sacrament dispenser. But hardly anyone, at least any Christian, could bend down to drink from a fresh bubbling spring without momentarily lifting her heart in praise to the Creator. And she might also, like Billy Perham, sense a sacramental communion with the others who have drunk from the spring.
The water of a spring is the water of life. The Psalmist (104) says that God “makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains. They give water to the beasts of the field.” Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that whoever drinks of the water that He gives shall never thirst again but that this water shall be a well of water springing up into everlasting life.
So pure water that we drink and bathe in becomes a symbol of the cleansing and new life we experience in Christ. It is a potent symbol, and we would make the connection between our quenched thirst and the satisfaction we find in Christ–even if Jesus and the prophets had not made it first.
But polluted water, poisoned water, is also a potent symbol, a symbol not only of death but also of the greed which so distorts our national values that we continue to permit businesses small and large to dump far more corruption into our lakes and streams than is healthy. Sadly, it will go on as long as there is money to be made by doing it.
Yes, somewhere there is a river whose streams make glad the city of our God, but meanwhile… .