An unquenchable thirst for change brought about Britain’s first public drinking fountain, and it saved countless lives.
But few Londoners understood the full implications when thousands dressed up in their best clothes for the new sensation’s official unveiling on April 21, 1859. They just knew the fountain was a clear difference from the brackish water of the River Thames, which was polluted with human waste, dead animals and harmful chemicals.
Things were so bad that, when Queen Victoria tried a pleasure cruise on the Thames, she ordered the boat to turn back because of the putrid smell. One journalist complained the Empire could “colonize the remotest ends of the Earth” but not “clean the Thames.”
By that time, cholera had killed tens of thousands. Some blamed the stench in the air, but Dr. John Snow suspected water was the problem.
So, during an outbreak, he went door-to-door, mapping infection information that showed ground zero was a well in the affected area. He removed the pump handle to stop people from using the well and the outbreak died down. Snow is now known as the father of epidemiology.
The doctor’s work led to creation of the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association, headed by Samuel Gurney, a wealthy member of Parliament. Though public fountains date back to ancient Nepal and imperial Rome, Gurney built the first British one near the front door of a church near Newgate.
Daily use soon soared to 7,000 people. So the association built hundreds of other fountains, but not just because of cholera.
Mid-century, boiled drinks, such as tea and coffee, were expensive and clean water was hard to come by. So, many of the poor — including children — drank cheap, homemade beer and spirits.
Alcoholism was a serious problem, and it led to the temperance movement, which immediately embraced the new public fountains. Installations were built in public places, beside churches and outside pubs to provide a free alternative.
The campaign didn’t eliminate alcoholism, but it did set the standard for the worldwide provision of safe drinking water. Before long, fountains were everywhere, often with a tap for people, a trough for horses, and sometimes a lower basin for dogs.
Safety improved again when businessman Simon Benson installed 20 fancy fountains across Portland, Ore., each with multiple spigots for water that bubbled up from below ground. The Benson Bubblers had a more sanitary arc projection, and metal guards were later installed to stop users from putting their mouths on the spigots.
And it all went back to a simple English fountain at a church, both of which are still there.
How fitting that the Anglican church — Holy Sepulchre — takes its name from the resurrection story. After all, the essence of Easter is the Christian conviction that Jesus was the Son of God who gave himself on the cross for our sins, then rose on the third day by the power of the Holy Spirit, known in scripture as “the Living Water.”
Before His death, Jesus told a woman at a well, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.” (John 4:13, 14)
Though there are many beautiful things in this world, the sad truth is, our lives are polluted by sin which, in the broadest sense, is just a lack of love. It leads to a whole list of spiritual ailments, including anger, envy, greed, pride, jealousy, and injustice.
The trouble is, most people are oblivious to the threat, or — when alternatives seem hard to come by — they keep going back to the same old well, or resort to attitudes and behaviours that are just as harmful.
The sacrifice of Jesus was designed to shut down the source of the problem and provide an alternative free to everyone — the “living water” that quenches the universal thirst for meaning, significance, and satisfaction.
“Anyone who’s thirsty may come to me! “ He said. “Anyone who believes in me may come and drink! For the scriptures declare, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.’ When he said ‘living water,’ he was speaking of the Spirit who would be given to everyone believing in him.” (John 7:37-39)
As Jesus said earlier in John, the living water gives eternal life. But the purpose of the cross was not just to secure for us a timeless place in the presence of our Father. When faith works the way it’s supposed to, it brings peace with God, inner serenity, and a purpose-driven gratitude that should make us want to change the world, one kind gesture at a time.
Jesus said, “God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied.” (Matt. 5:6)
That, therefore, is what we’re here for; to point people to the Fountain, share the spiritual safety and satisfaction found in Jesus, and keep the cross relevant by making a refreshing difference in the world around us.
Anything less will make the whole notion of faith hard to swallow.
Share your thoughts with Rick Gamble at email@example.com A former TV reporter, he pastors a non-denominational church in Brantford, Followers of Christ (www.followers.ca), and teaches media at Laurier Brantford.