Photo: Matthew Hendzel, SJ

By the time Martha looked upstream the dove was just a mote in the sky and the words “my beloved” were trickling off beyond perception like a rose petal on the face of the River Jordan. What it was exactly, she couldn’t say, but she had no doubt that something very real just happened.

Martha could tell this by the sudden strangeness that seemed to shroud everything, especially the river, which eddied around her thighs dark like blood. Not the blood of death and horror, but the blood of music and life. The clothes she had just spent her morning beating clean against the river rock now appeared pitifully soiled. She turned around to find the other washerwomen, also one-third submerged in the flowing blood, each beside other piles of wet, discoloured cloth. Downstream, the blood itself looked sickly and spotted. The oil and ash cooked into soap left poison trails running this way and that in the ponderous current of the Jordan.

For the first time in her adult years of responsibility, Martha stopped and stared, inside and out. Her voice, partly swallowed, asked her own ears, “Are we killing the river?”

With a tunic dripping from lifted hand, she called out to the nearest woman, “Is what we wear more important than who we are? Who cleans the outside of the cup and leaves the inside filthy? Or even worse, who dirties the water first with the outside grime then in the same pollution tries to wash what never was sullied? Sister, we are fools!”

“Sister, you’ll fool yourself right out of a job if you don’t make white those Levite shirts!”

Words that would have bent Martha in fear to her work were caught by the soft babble of the stream and ferried harmlessly away. What did it profit a woman to purify all the fabric in the world and by doing so lose her soul in the murder of a river, the very source of purification? Martha had always known how to labour, and outworked the sun most days. Now, in a flash of revelation, she recognized all her toil and duty as chasing wind in the wrong direction. Vanity of vanities—to make beautiful the small patch while defiling the entire robe.

Martha dropped the tunic on the rock. To the woman who had tried to fright her, she announced with a conviction she had never heard her throat contain: “Sister, you worry about many things. There is only one thing needed: friendship with the good and the pure. Go and wash no more.”

Martha then turned again upstream from the smirking, cynic’s face and saw a man glistening in the sun, the dark lifeblood swirling around his body in the same song that encircled hers. She knew at once that this was the river’s anointed one. The river spirit itself. The spirit of the river. His wet skin shone like the purest linen. Inside Martha vowed all her energies to him and to the spring of his anointing. From this moment on she would work and pray without ceasing for the well-being of water.

Greg Kennedy SJ is a Jesuit priest working as a spiritual director at the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph, Ontario. His prayer often takes the form of poetry. Care of creation is central to his vocation.

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