“The direct service of providing filter pitchers and the organizing work of bringing demands to our alderpersons, health department and mayor all lead us back to the font, where we stand with people at the holy water that makes us God’s children and sends us out to serve God’s justice.”
If we don’t listen carefully to Jesus’ words, we might think of him as meek and mild-mannered, the patient and perfect willing sacrifice, who admonishes his followers to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile. Some might even think we are called to be docile and, at times, subservient. In many forms of American Christianity, believers are encouraged to acquiesce to their circumstances, to accept their lot in life with, if not good cheer, at least indifference. In fact, for some Christians, protest or rage must be reserved only to chastise “sinners” for their “immoral” ways.
If there is a story from the Gospels that challenges this picture of Jesus and Jesus’ followers, it may be the story from this week’s reading of Jesus clearing the temple in Jerusalem. The man who would stand reserved before Pilate here is described by the author of John’s Gospel as angry, wielding a whip and overturning tables. Clearly, even for the normally peaceful Son of God, there are some things that are too much to bear in silence.
The temple was the center of worship for the community in Jesus’ time. Here, the faithful would gather for holy days, as Jesus did in the story, or to offer the required sacrifices. The temple was also a center of commerce, with merchants selling wares to travelers outside the court. Because Roman money bore the likenesses of Roman leaders, it could not be used in the temple and needed to be exchanged to pay the temple tax, a fee assessed on all who entered.
There is some debate about the fairness of the moneychangers. While some writers claim the moneychangers were greedy or predatory, others note that, in general, the moneychangers at the temple dealt fairly with their customers. In any event, they were a necessary fixture at the temple, as were the merchants selling animals for sacrifice. Wealthy Jews would purchase sheep or cattle whereas working-class or poor Jews would opt for cheaper animals, such as doves. To say that the system was necessary is not to say that it was fair. Even if the moneychangers did not engage in outright exploitation, the temple tax was especially felt by people living in poverty, for whom even a half shekel would have been more than they could afford. When added to the cost of sacrificial animals, the financial burden for people in poverty was high.
What drove Jesus to fashion a whip and erupt in anger was not the mere presence of commerce — after all, both the tax and the animals were necessary — but the unequal burden borne by the very people for whom the temple should have been caring. What inspired Jesus’ rage was not the temple or trade but the way these two systems combined to leave people in need at a disadvantage, day in and day out. This injustice is simply too much for anyone to remain docile. Docility in the face of injustice is complicity.
Still today, an unequal burden continues to be fostered by systems and structures that leave many communities bearing the marks of injustice — sometimes in the very bodies of the people.
We’ve known for decades the dangers associated with lead, a metal that for many years was used in plumbing and paint. This hazardous metal can cause severe, long-term effects, including stunted brain development, anemia and kidney damage. As older pipes corrode, lead can seep into drinking water, and particles from paint in older homes can be inhaled. It can become part of the very water we drink and the air that we breathe, making it hard to keep adults and children safe. Over the last decade, lead contamination has been found in water systems in Flint, Michigan, Newark, Detroit, Baltimore, Chicago and many other cities, both large and small. It has been found in homes, hospitals and schools and has been recognized as a national problem across the United States.
But that is not to say that the burdens of unsafe water are shouldered equally by all communities. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have found, African American children are nearly three times as likely as white children to be exposed to lead. Some studies have found the prevalence of lead poisoning in some Black and Latino neighborhoods to be as high as 90%, which means that as many as nine in 10 children have tested positive. Children living in poverty are also at higher risk, with higher rates of exposure and fewer means to address lead poisoning to prevent long-term consequences. This can create a vicious cycle. Families living in hunger and poverty are more vulnerable to environmental risks that can lead to high health care costs, illnesses that keep adults home from work, and developmental delays that can inhibit children’s education — the very stressors that contribute to long-term, generational hunger down the road.
At Hephatha Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, Wis., a city with high rates of both poverty and lead exposure, leaders are working hard to keep children safe. The church, with support from ELCA World Hunger, provides lead-free kits with water filters, tape and mops. The tape can cover lead paint that is chipping, and the mops clean up dust from the paint so that children don’t inhale it. The church also helps adults learn about the dangers of lead.
But filters, tape and mops can go only so far. The issue of lead — and the crisis of unsafe water, more generally — is an issue of justice. Environmental policies, housing regulations and health care access are all woven together when it comes to keeping people safe from lead poisoning. That’s why Hephatha also worked with neighbors to start an advocacy group to talk with legislators about keeping the community safe. At a deeper level, access to clean water is not just a matter of what comes out of our taps but what goes into our laws. It’s about the community we live in and not just the water we drink.
Pastor Mary Martha of Hephatha links this work to the calling of the church. Advocacy and education “[lead] us back to the font, where we stand with people at the holy water that makes us God’s children and sends us out to serve God’s justice.”
In the Gospel reading, Jesus recognizes the necessity of institutions such as the temple and commerce. But he also believes these same institutions should be held accountable for how people in need experience them. In Milwaukee, God is at work through a community driven by hope that things can change — and guided by the wisdom that what we need is not just clean water but justice.
As we continue in our Lenten journey, learning about the tools we will need to share in God’s work of ending hunger, the story of God at work in Milwaukee reminds us that the future we seek is a world where “justice will roll down like waters” — clean, safe, lead-free and life-giving waters accessible to all.
- Think, share or journal about a time when you felt that something was unfair or that you were at a disadvantage. How did you react? What did you do to try and change the situation? What powers resisted attempts at change?
- Jesus’ display of anger in the temple is often categorized as righteous anger or anger over mistreatment, insult or the malice of another. When can anger or even rage be a productive emotion?
- How can you identify anger that is helpful and not harmful? How can you use anger in a productive way, to help your neighbors in need?
- Where is there a need for justice in your community? What will a “just world” look like in your neighborhood?
Gracious and loving God, at the font you wash us in water and the word, and name us all your beloved children. With that love, inspire our prayer, work and generosity, that all people may have an abundance of clean, safe water. Amen.
Learn more and follow ELCA World Hunger’s 40 Days of giving throughout Lent by visiting ELCA.org/40days.