Written by Brett Bymaster | Images by Brett Bymaster and Bobby Neptune | Compiled by Bonnie Hanna
It was, by far, the strongest neck I’d ever seen. It was attached to a young woman walking down a road that seemed to go forever into a sea of green. She was carrying a 5 gallon jerrycan on her head with another few gallons in her right hand. In the world I come from, it might have been seen as a circus trick, with a lively introduction by a deep throated ring master, “The world’s strongest necked woman carries an ungodly load upon her head”.
But for this woman, it was no trick. Rather, it was her daily grind. It was more than 10 years ago in Zambia, a dozen or more miles from the nearest pavement, and she was simply one of the millions of nameless, faceless women who spend their days walking for water. To where she was walking I wasn’t sure, but it was far, it was hard, and it was hot. My heart broke.
A few weeks later I got on an airplane, with a ticket worth ten times her yearly wage, and I came back to the land of the wealthy. My daily walk for water is no more than 10 feet, it rushes out of the faucet on command. I felt guilty for a week or two, then I forgot about her.
Three years later, I remembered. She became part of my family. Not the same woman, but the same neck. Martha is a Sudanese refugee who joined our family as a teenager along with her younger brothers. She too was a walker, she walked miles, daily, for water as a young girl; she walked hundreds of miles to escape a brutal civil war that has ravaged South Sudan for more than 50 years. The nameless, faceless women from three years before now had a name and a face.
Martha grew up in a refugee camp in Uganda, where Water Mission has more than 50 active projects and nearly 30 staff members. In 2015, I walked in the Silicon Valley Walk For Water for Martha, and for her people.
But there’s more to the story. I’m the youth director for The River Church Community, a middle class church in San Jose, CA. The words of Jesus in Matthew 25 have always haunted me. It’s prophetic, a passage of judgment where Jesus sorts the good from the bad, the sheep from the goats.
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.
Martha’s story, and that image of the strong necked Zambian woman on the long road, came into sudden focus … “you gave me something to drink”. It’s not an easy command to live out in a country where resources are so abundant; it’s almost as if we live in a bubble. Our wealth insulates us from the truth and makes the gospel of Jesus hard to understand.
So I didn’t just walk for Martha. I walked for my Church. I walked that they might know the goodness of Jesus’ gospel. I brought almost 100 adults, youth and children from The River Church along with me. We sold water bottles and chili and collected children’s dimes and nickels. Our students asked their classmates for donations. We hosted bake sales, and garage sales, and dinner parties. And then we walked. What an incredible life changing experience to see these uber-athletic, rough and rumble teenage boys struggling to carry a couple gallons of water a mile or two. The neighbors along the route didn’t have to water their plants that day; most of us couldn’t make it.
It is a profound act of solidarity to try to walk like the strong necked woman I first saw 10 years ago, to try to walk like Martha. I’m all the more humbled by their walks, and all the more motivated to rally our Church to provide the Living Water to “the least of these.”