“We think its arsenic poisoning.”
This was the conclusion the doctors came to after examining a boy with a strange lumpy skin rash. His parents brought him from their provincial village to the Mercy Medical clinic in the city which is known as a place that cares for the poor. As the boy’s brothers and sisters have also been unwell the best advice they could give was for the family, and in fact the entire village, to stop drinking the well water.
I have since discovered that there are places in Cambodia where the ground water is contaminated with up to 30 times the accepted ‘safe’ level of naturally occurring arsenic. Over the last few decades with a growing population and increasingly scarce and polluted river water there has been an explosion in deep tube well drilling. Well drilling projects by charitable organisations encouraged the widespread use of well water long before testing revealed that in many areas the water contained high arsenic concentrations.
Arsenic has no taste or smell and it takes years of slow build up in the body before symptoms appear. It can cause cancer of the skin and internal organs, respiratory disease, mental slowness, hearing loss in children, low birth weights and impaired skin sensation. Children are at greatest risk and the damage is irreversible.
Improving access to clean and safe water in Cambodia is essential for the people and the country’s future. Seventy four percent of all deaths in Cambodia are due to water borne diseases. It’s tragic, therefore, that well drilling projects aimed at improving the health of villagers by providing the much needed water inadvertently ended up poisoning them.
This fact got me wondering about other ways the things intended to bring life to us and those around us unintentionally carry instead disease and death. What if that which is flowing out from us is not always the ‘living water’ that Jesus promises but something more stagnant? What if the light within us is in fact darkness? Do our particular theologies, our forms of church structure, our organisational culture, our models of leadership, or our acts of service bring the life and freedom Jesus intends? These are concerning questions as we seek to serve, teach and be ambassadors of Christ.
For us here in Cambodia it is becoming clearer that in our own understanding or in our own ambitious plans and programmes we may easily, like those wells, do more harm than good.
In Jeremiah 2:13 the Lord reveals the sins of His people. They have forsaken their dependence on Him, their source of living water, and have instead dug their own cisterns, thinking their own plans will be safer and better. But the Lord declares that their cisterns are broken and they can not hold water. Only He can be for them the life that is truly life.
May we return constantly to a humble reliance on ‘Christ in us’, the Holy Spirit, who is the spring of living water, remembering the promise of Jesus that whoever follows him would never walk in darkness but have the light of life (John 8:12).