Carrying the Water

Carrying the Water

"Keeping the acequia clear and flowing is a useful metaphor for interdependence and cooperation. Keeping the acequia clear—both the actual acequia and the acequia of humanity—bears learning how to do well."

In Hindu lore, Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge and art, was born out of the Saraswati River, the invisible river that carries the waters that sustain all life. Her name means “the one who flows.” From the earliest times, the invisible river sustained our natural resources as well as our human and spiritual resources, carrying actual water and the water we have come to know as truth and love.

Saraswati’s ageless counterpart is the serpent-demon Vritrasura, who is driven to hoard all the water on Earth. And so the endless struggle was set: whether to be one who flows or one who hoards. In the Rigveda, the sacred collection of Sanskrit hymns, we are given a profound instruction. With help from her brother Ganesh, the provider and remover of obstacles, and Indra, the god who connects all things, Saraswati killed the demon who would hoard the Earth’s water. It is eternally true that working our way through obstacles until we can connect all things helps move us from being one who hoards to being one who flows.

Those who would carry the water and those who would hoard the water keep appearing, again and again, within us and between us, so that we have chance after chance to learn this lesson well. This is why we wake one more time. Unspoken or not, aware of it or not, we take incarnation to earn our way back into the lineage of those who would carry the water, one more time.

In the Haitian tradition, a story called “The Chief of the Well” speaks of a time of drought when the streams are dry and the wells are parched. There’s no place to get water. The animals meet to discuss the situation and decide to ask God for help. God creates a well that will have unlimited water, as long as one of the animals serves as the caretaker and welcomes all who would come in need. The lizard Mabouya volunteers. But, intoxicated with his newfound power, Mabouya becomes a gatekeeper, not a caretaker, and sends everyone in need away. Eventually, God replaces the lizard with the frog, who croaks to all, “Come! This is God’s well! The hole in the ground is yours, but the water belongs to God.”

In each generation, we are challenged to be the caretaker of resources that outlive us. In each generation, we are called to discover what is ours and what is God’s and to learn anew what turns the caretaker in us into a gatekeeper.

The acequia is a good model for caring communally for resources. An acequia is a sluiceway or gravity chute that flows down a mountainside, providing water for a village. The Spanish word acequia, which means “ditch” or “canal,” comes from the Arabic al saqiya, which means “water conduit.” Late in the eighth century, the Islamic occupation of Spain brought this technique of irrigation to southern Europe.

When Spanish explorers came to the Americas, they found indigenous acequias already in use. In the Andes, northern Mexico, and the American Southwest, acequias exist as the outgrowth of ancient systems that carry snow runoff to villages and distant fields. Many South American villages settled around the mouth of an acequia that begins high and out of sight in the crags of a mountain. There, the source-water collects all winter near the top, and with the thaw it streams into the village.

In Peru, entire villages climb their acequia each spring to clear rocks and tree limbs and snake nests, which during the winter block the path of water the village depends on. On the east side of Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Acequia Madre winds itself through the city for seven miles and eventually ends in the village of Agua Fría. The Acequia Madre, or mother channel, is the third-oldest acequia in the United States.

Keeping the acequia clear and flowing is a useful metaphor for interdependence and cooperation. Keeping the acequia clear—both the actual acequia and the acequia of humanity—bears learning how to do well. This all begins by clearing your own personal acequia, the course of flow between you and the Source of Life, which can be filled with the debris of memories, wounds, expectations, regrets, assumptions, and conclusions.

Yet when we can let the common good flow freely between us, we can feel the presence of all those who’ve come before us, as well as those who will follow. Holding ourselves open to the lineage of the common good lets us know our place in the human community over time.

And so, it follows: When we clear the acequia of our heart, the heart of humanity fills us. When we clear the acequia of our eyes, the kinship of the world fills us. Everything we encounter is part of the one water we call the common good. We are born in it. We are cleansed in it. Great love and suffering return us to it. We purge ourselves of pain in it. We drink from it. When we honor the one water, we live together and work together and love together.

This excerpt is from Mark’s recent book, More Together Than Alone (Atria, 2018).

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