Up until a few years ago, I barely understood the concept of Lent… I mean, I grew up Baptist. Relationships, not rituals. In my mind, purging on Tuesday, ashes on Wednesday, and fasting until Easter Sunday was just another “Catholic thing.”

It was only several years ago that I finally understood, when I noticed that quite a few of my friends — Protestant, non-liturgical friends — were giving things up for Lent. Coffee, chocolate, meat… even Facebook. So I read about it. I contemplated it. I wasn’t sure what to think… isn’t grace enough? Does God really care if you refrain from checking your Twitter feed or grabbing a Starbucks? Doesn’t he want us to enjoy life?

Then I felt it. Not in a “God told me” dramatic sort of way, but a little nudge inside.

“Give up coffee.”

Um, sure. Very funny. I like my beans, but I’m not addicted. I can quit anytime I want. Freedom in Christ, yo.

My friend Jeff decided to give up meat. Not that he was a really big meat guy anyway, but he was going to live the life vegetarian for 40 days. “It’s not about what you give up,” he said. It was about sacrifice and self-denial. He’d been practicing the Lenten sacrifice for years.

“Give up coffee.”

Well… it kind of made sense. But I wasn’t sure I was ready.

Then I read this and it made even more sense:

“And lately I’d been noticing how Easter kept sneaking up on me. Suddenly it was there, without warning…which never happens with Christmas. Christmas never sneaks up on us, because we begin preparing for it as soon as we get the dishes washed after the Thanksgiving meal. I realized that was the role the Lenten season played: it made me anticipate the coming of Easter, which made the celebration of the resurrection that much more meaningful.”

On Ash Wednesday, I was driving home from work, so tired I honestly thought I’d fall asleep. I stopped by Starbucks and picked up a coffee. Normally no big deal, but I felt that little tap on the shoulder again, that little vague notion that Easter did sneak up on me. Every year. It would again. It always did.

So I gave up coffee for 40 days. And then I understood.

Because that’s the thing: anticipation. Sacrifice. Forty days in a self-imposed wilderness. Oh sure, giving up some luxury you could live without anyway isn’t exactly bread and water. When you think about it, it’s suffering lite compared to… well, anything Jesus went through.

But it shifted something in me. It wasn’t about the coffee or even really the giving up. It was about looking forward to a celebration. Waiting. Expectancy.

On Easter morning, I arrived at Sea World way before dawn for the annual Sunrise Service to volunteer, greet people and collect offerings. I had never in my life been so elated to see one of those silver pots of liquid goodness. And let me tell you… for this not-morning-person, it was the best coffee ever.

But when we were there, thousands of us singing in the face of a new day breaking, I knew. In the tears and the shouts and the wild, crazy hope, I knew.

And it wasn’t about the coffee.

This is my third year observing Lent, a practice that has transformed the way I look at Easter. Normally, I’d be simply swapping my cup of java for a cup of tea, but this year, the “nudge” is in a different direction, this time, looking toward Africa and the work of an organization called Blood:Water Mission.

B:WM was founded in 2004 with the mission to promote clean blood and clean water efforts in sub-saharan Africa, building wells and sharing hope in some of the world’s poorest nations. They host a number of projects and campaigns throughout the year, but one of the biggest is 40 Days of Water, a nationwide campaign that coincides with the Lenten season to not only raise awareness for the clean water crisis in Africa, but also raise funds to do something about it. It’s about giving up all beverages other than tap water and donating the money you save to B:WM who will in turn use it to build wells.

A dollar can provide clean water for one African for a year.

A year. For less than the cost of one typical drink eating out.

And imagine the dollars and efforts of many put together. It’s sobering and inspiring all at once.

So, starting today, it’s water only, with hope and knowing that redemption is happening, even now. That is the truest story of Easter.

I’d love it if you’d consider joining the effort, or perhaps, consider donating what you can to B:WM. One dollar, one African, one year… makes anything sound possible, doesn’t it?

Further reading:

My writer friend Charles Peters, who offers editing assistance and sarcastic Twitter banter when I need it, wrote a lovely post for his new blog about the importance of community in our religious practice and the value of B:WM’s work. (In fact, it’s mostly his fault I’m doing this. :)) If I weren’t already signed up for 40 Days, I think I would be after reading this.

Earlier this week, Rachel Held Evans offered 40 practical ideas to make Lent a more meaningful, spiritually rich experience (including suggesting 40 Days!) This is a great list of questions, rituals, and readings to help shed some light on the meaning of this season.