Outside Sasabe, Arizona
We read the Bible in the desert whenever we can.
One of the pastors in our group volunteers to lead the last meditation, which we time to line up with our visit to a Humane Borders water tank in the desert. She speaks about the Samaritan woman at the well and her conversation with Jesus.
We’ve crossed over the border again, back into the United States, and are in the region where migrants most frequently travel: the west desert around Tucson.
The water station is simple and unassuming. In other locations, these stations have been torn apart and vandalized by angry residents who resent the migrant traffic that comes through the area. But this one is intact: a simple tank with a spigot of clean water that people can fill their bottles with before traveling on.
Humane Borders, a group of Tucson citizens, are responsible for installing and refilling the water stations. The group is mostly made up members of Tucson churches. It formed a few years ago because of the alarming amount of deaths that were occurring due tp dehydration in the desert.
About ten years ago, before Border Patrol stepped up its operations, blocking off the more “hospitable” crossing points (in southern California and in Texas), there were few documented deaths in the desert, maybe one or two.
U.S. border policy, which had before been to ignore the increasing flow of traffic, now became to close off the biggest traffic areas. This, according to Border Patrol and government officials, would stop Mexican immigrants from coming.
But the plan never seems to have aimed to stop Mexican immigrants from coming. It aims to channel them the most inhospitable parts of the desert, the parts farthest from the nearest city.
The walk from the border near Sasabe, Mexico, to Tucson is about a four-day, seventy-five mile walk, with no sources of water, few places to hide, and where temperatures can soar to well over 100 degrees and drop to well below freezing.
The change in policy never stopped immigrants from coming. But the number of deaths from dehydration or exposure has increased every year. In 2006, there were over 250 documented deaths in the desert. No one knows how many others might not have been found.
Humane Borders volunteers mapped out locations of deaths on a map of the desert and took donations to install these water stations, each marked by a tall, blue flag for greater visibility, in places where the greatest amount of deaths were occurring.
The wind whips the blue flag as we read aloud the passage in John about Jesus and the Samaritan woman.
In this passage, Jesus, despite his philosophizing about living water, is very human. He’s been walking. He’s thirsty. He needs a drink of water.
The pastor in our group focuses on the Samaritan woman. In the story, she is the outcast, the lawbreaker. But she notes that we are often quick to blame the Samaritan woman, to call her a sinner, when we know nothing about her. Perhaps she had been abused, coerced into her multiple marriages. In any case, she was voiceless.
She is the one Jesus talks to, but she is not the person the story ends with. The Samaritans tell the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”
The wind whips my hair, and even though I’ve just drunk half of my Nalgene bottle full of water, I’m thirsty again.
I’ve always thought it is essential to experience things firsthand. Despite the reading and research I do, nothing can match the experience or impact of standing here beside the whipping flag and the simple water tank marked only with the Spanish word “agua” and the English word “water.” I can’t blame the Samaritans for wanting to see and hear Jesus for themselves.
But, the pastor in our group asks, it because she’s a Samaritan woman that they doubly want to see and hear from themselves? Can we trust the storytelling of a woman (and an immoral one at that)?
Can I trust what our immigrant brothers and sisters say about not being about to make a life for themselves and their families in Mexico? Or am I skeptical, thinking that maybe, just maybe, it’s because they’re blowing their money on beer or drugs or gambling?
Do we think that they are somehow to blame for their poverty? Do we listen when they tell us their stories?
Even after we stand in silence after the closing prayer, the questions don’t have answers. As we pile into the van, I raise my bottle to my lips and drink.