Stories of Agua Viva (Living Water)

By Rev. Rachel Ringlaben, Misión Latina Mesa Abierta

“Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” – John 4:14

“Pastora, we’re not going anywhere for a bit. While we wait for work, would you share a Bible story with us?”

I take out my smartphone and begin reading from Luke 5: Jesus’ first encounter with his disciples at their place of work. Nets filling to the brim with fish. Boats sinking from the overwhelming weight of grace. The call to leave what is familiar in order to follow a mysterious call.

I say to my brother day-laborers, ones who are familiar with leaving so much behind, “The same Jesus who sought out Simon Peter and his friends still seeks us out today to fill our nets, to fill our hearts with a Love that is too powerful to contain; a Love that overwhelms us and sets us on a new path. Whatever we leave behind is small in comparison to what we gain at Christ’s side.”

They nod their heads. Some share prayer requests, others talk about what they think of the story, and others begin quoting scriptures to me that bring them encouragement.

“Pastora, we want to hear more. Next time you come, tell us another one.”

“I will,” I say before I pray with them and bid them well for a day of work…

I get back in my car and as I drive away, I begin singing praise to God. Why? For the last two months, I have been praying about when and how to introduce the Word in my weekly water ministry with my brother migrant day laborers. This day’s conversation was an answered prayer just showing up out of nowhere, like grace often does.

This is all gift. This is mission development. This is the work of the Spirit.

I wrote that journal entry just about two months ago. I wrote it upon returning to my office after my weekly water delivery ministry with the day laborers in our community. Five months ago, we had only planned on doing a one-time water delivery as part of the ELCA’s “God’s Work, Our Hands” day of community service. But then we decided to deliver water again about two weeks later…

agua viva 1“We’ve been looking for you and waiting for you to come back,” the day laborers said to us as we arrived. “We thought you were going to come every week.”

And that’s how Mesa Abierta’s Agua Viva water ministry started. We just kept showing up. What started by just showing up has now taken the form of a weekly gathering in parking lots across the New Orleans area.

When I think of Agua Viva, I think of the faces of the day laborers I meet with weekly. I think of Javier who moved to New Orleans from Guatemala ten years ago. He, like so many of them, literally rebuilt the New Orleans area that was decimated by Hurricane Katrina. They call themselves “re-construction” workers.

I think of Martín who fled Honduras to escape being killed by the gangs that were ravaging his town. I think of how he caught a ride on the train “La Bestia” (“The Beast), clinging to the roof for days in blistering heat and in brutal cold. His teenage hands clinging to the train and to the hope of a familiar promise: “I sought the Lord who answered me and delivered me from all my terrors” (Ps. 34:4).

I think of Igor, a skeptic who always asks questions, one who is baffled by the idea of grace. He asks about God’s love and in the same breath he asks if we will pray for his family back home in Central America. He wonders how much longer life can continue the way it is if he works so hard, yet sees so little progress.

I think of Cesar, a quiet Mayan who listens with his head bowed as I read a scripture or a Bible story off of my smart-phone app. He is one who seldom speaks, but one whose words are profound. “God longs to be compassionate to us,” he says to the group after I finish reading Psalm 46 aloud. “We tend to live life oblivious to God’s love, but when we stop and think about it, we can’t do anything without God – not even breathe.”

I think of Omar, a former gang member haunted by his past, who shuts his eyes tight in prayer when we speak of the hope found in a forgiving God.

I think of how often we are honest about the violence that plagues their home countries and our own city. I think of how some of them have grown up in church but have been hurt by legalism and hypocrisy, so they have chosen not to find a church home in this place. I think of how I cannot take for granted the welcome given to me and the others who help me deliver water. Poco a poco, little by little, we are granted trust – simply because we show up, week after week.

agua viva 2Some days I get questions about why I wear a collar. Sometimes I get asked how I can be a pastor if I am woman. Most days I get asked what a “luterana” is since a Lutheran is a foreign concept for most of these recent migrants. Sometimes I get asked if God still loves even the “worst” of sinners. And these questions can only be met with gentleness.  Some workers take ownership of this new weekly gathering, yelling out “Agua Viva” as they lift their water bottles. Some simply receive their water and then watch from a distance to see what this following Jesus thing is all about.

In New Orleans, there is a tradition of “second-lining.” It comes from old brass band parades where after the main line, or the featured band, finished holding the parade, a “second-line” would be started by those who would grab their instruments and dance to follow the parade. It is as if the second-line says to the crowd through their music, “We’re here, too, and we’ve got gifts to share, too.”

Every week Mesa Abierta gathers in parking lots with reconstruction workers, forming a proverbial second line – a testament that no one is invisible to God and that these reconstruction workers have gifts to share with the New Orleans community, too. Their fingerprints are all over this remarkable city that refuses to be drowned out or silenced – much like their own stories that refuse to be shut out.

Many of these workers might not ever step foot into a church building. But that’s okay.  Some days we have over 60 people, while other days we only have 5. But that’s okay, too. Because as long as our brothers are gathered outside and welcome us into their space and into their stories, we, Mesa Abierta, will come to them. We will pray for them.  We will remind them again and again that they are loved by God.

That is what our Agua Viva gatherings are all about – simply reminding people that they are not invisible to God nor are they invisible to God’s church.

I wish I could say that this water ministry was something Mesa Abierta strategized or carefully planned out after months of discernment. It wasn’t. It was simply asking the Lord of the harvest, the Lord providing workers, and the Spirit planting us in that field…or rather that parking lot (Mt 9:38). This was just about being obedient in showing up and in seeing the potential for God-moments where many others would have just seen loitering workers in a parking lot.

But then again, our God is likened to One who buys a vacant lot in order to plant unexpected treasure in its soil (Mt 13:44).

Perhaps that’s the miracle of the Kingdom drawing near: treasure bursts forth when we are faithful to the essential risk of showing up.

For wherever two or three show up in God’s name, there God is in the midst of them.

Your co-laborer in the Kingdom,

Pastora Rachel
Misión Mesa Abierta/Open Table Mission

*Names of the workers in this post have been changed as a courtesy to our Agua Viva participants.

*Misión Mesa Abierta is a bilingual mission start serving the greater New Orleans area. We are anchored in the gospel of Christ and transformed by His love for the world. If you’d like to donate funds or water for Misión Mesa Abierta’s “Agua Viva/Living Water” ministry, please contact Pastora Rachel, 504.469.6772.