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Water, Water Everywhere

“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink,” is a phrase familiar to most of us, though we may not remember that it comes from the Samuel Taylor Coleridge epic poem, Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In the poem and in modern-day vernacular, the quote references a situation where one is surrounded by an abundance of something, but unable to benefit from it. Quite literally, the phrase describes what nearly all Memphians experienced just prior to and following Christmas Day. Despite sitting atop a sand aquifer spanning nearly 7,500 square miles, residents of the city were ordered to boil water because it was no longer potable because of broken mains caused by sub-zero temperatures.

When the things we take for granted-like water-are snatched from us, we are rattled, frustrated, and even panicked. But every upheaval in our lives produces varying degrees of suffering that depend in large measure on where we live and the resources immediately available to us. For certain areas and neighborhoods in Memphis, the water crisis was a step above an inconvenience. For others, the crisis was nearly a life-and-death situation. Those hardest-hit zip codes tended to be in low-income, minority neighborhoods – a fact that is consistent with other water crises throughout the country in places like Jackson, Mississippi and Flint, Michigan to name two.

Compared to North Memphis and parts of Southeast Shelby County, the impact on Orange Mound was not as severe. However, we have often written about the poor housing situations of some of the women at My Cup of Tea and the lack of insulation and basic amenities in the places where they live. We have also communicated how some lack reliable transportation and how all live in a “food desert.” Combine these factors with an almost week-long water crisis and the living situation of many becomes perilous.

In the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the Mariner impulsively decides to slay an albatross that since its appearance has ushered in warm winds and calm seas. That selfish, impetuous decision leads to a voyage of tragedy and suffering and dooms the Mariner to tell his tale to anyone who will listen. The actions and consequences of the Mariner are not all that different than those who have decided over decades across our nation’s cities to neglect the infrastructure that brings drinking water to the homes of our poorest citizens. The difference is that those making the selfish decisions weren’t affected by them. Thankfully, City of Memphis leaders have recently made a multi-million-dollar commitment to upgrading this infrastructure, though it will take many years.

Decisions have consequences. For the women at My Cup of Tea, most will tell you that decisions they made in their lives resulted in the often dire circumstances in which they have found themselves. Yet, even with a good job, steady income, the support of co-workers, access to food and water, reliable transportation, and medical care, the goal of escaping poverty remains elusive because of the decisions of others. Water and electric infrastructure, redlining, poor housing stock, and environmental hazards are just some of the obstacles not created by poor people that prevent them from becoming economically self-sufficient.

Over almost 8 years, we’ve learned that these barriers slow the wheels of progress to a wearisome grind. But we are still moving forward. At first it may seem ironic that the perseverance required for the My Cup of Tea women to continue striving when a new challenge is lurking around every corner to bash any semblance of success comes from water. It’s not the water we survived without through the holidays, but the water we share with each other from Scripture daily – Living Water.

In John 4, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well,

“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” – John 4: 13-14

It is our hope in that spring of water that satisfies our thirst even when the pipes are broken and water is everywhere, but without a drop to drink.