Performed by Pastor Kimberley Debus and Lauren Sisson – below is the original version by Ma Muse
I’d like to begin with a story by Christopher Buice (from A Pocketful of Dreams):
Once upon a time there were two rivers flowing side by side. Both rivers liked to argue about who was the best.
“The water in my river is better than the water in your river!” said one.
“No, the water in my river is better than the water in your river!” said the other.
The two rivers would flow along all day arguing about which river was the best. Both were quite sure they were the greatest.
“Doesn’t my water make a joyful sound as it runs over the smooth, polished pebbles on my bottom? And look at the way the sun reflects off the ripples and eddies that form around the granite boulders at my edge. These things are so beautiful. Surely, I am the best river!” said the first.
The other river replied, “Ah, but look at all the fish that swim in my clear, cool water. And have you heard the frogs singing at night? They live in the reeds and lilies that grow at my banks. I am home to so many wonderful creatures. Surely, I must be the very best river!”
The two continued to argue until, one day, something strange and unexpected happened. The rivers rounded a bend, slid down a small falls, and suddenly saw that they were flowing toward something much bigger and greater than themselves. Up ahead were big, crashing waves, and water everywhere for as far as they could see. They continued to rush, faster and faster, until the water from both rivers churned together into the vast and enormous ocean.
Then a sound came from the sky. It came from a cloud that chuckled for a moment and then said, “Now you see how foolish you have been arguing about who is the best. There is no highest or lowest. There is no greatest or least. All things are one and all are joined together like rivers in the sea.”
That’s the beauty of water. It is so willing – eager, even – to find its kind and blend and make something more. Sometimes the blending is nearly invisible – two similar rivers, like say the Mohawk and the Hudson near my home upstate, merge as though they were always one. Others, like the Rhone and Arne rivers in Switzerland, the Mosel and Rhine in Germany, or the Jialing and Yangtze in China, are so different, because of sediment or pollution, and so the places where they merge look almost impossible. But mere yards below the initial junction, you can see the blending begin to merge, like a slow motion science experiment. Because water is so eager to blend and make something more.
And so it’s not surprising that humans, who are over 60% water, feel that too We are all so different – we might think of our sediment as experiences, personality, interests, and beliefs. Yet we are, time and time again, eager to blend and make something more – in this case, a religious community we call the First Universalist Church of Southold.
But where the blending rivers metaphor fails us, of course, is that we don’t – or should never – lose our own character in the blending. The fact that nearly 40% of us is NOT water helps – our bodies can’t literally subsume one another, so we remain distinct. And so it becomes even more important that as we are compelled to blend, we retain that which is unique to us.
The challenge, of course, is that being distinct and unique creatures, we can be like the two rivers in Christopher’s tale – not seeing each other as equally unique and distinct and inherently worthy, but measuring ourselves against each other, looking for hierarchies of place, class, power, goodness, holiness. When that happens, we fall into judgment – either we see ourselves as better, or – as more often happens, we see ourselves as worse. We struggle to measure up, to be as good or confident or green as those who surround us.
Neither attitude is good. Because the truth is, we are all coming in, with our own experiences, our own pains and sorrows, our own joys and accomplishments, all making the water richer for it. All making this a place where the river will never run dry. Halleluiah.
Now I want you to take a moment and contemplate the water you’ve brought – whether it’s the actual water you brought or a small Dixie cup of water that represents where you’ve come from.
Think about the journey of the last few months that has gotten you here. You might have traveled for work or vacation or family business. You might have gotten a new job or retired. You might have had a change in your family and relationships. Or you may have gone on a bit of a spiritual journey, considering anew your faith.
Journeys are rarely completely free from stress, angst, pain, sorrow, trouble, or crisis. Even the joyful ones – like going to see beloved family members – often include a hassle at the airport, or an inappropriate question from a cousin, or seeing how sick an aging aunt has become.
Other journeys, even taken up in a spirit of joy – like retirement, or a fitness regimen – will often be colored with uncertainty, frustration, or other unexpected pitfalls or injuries.
And of course, less joyful journeys – like getting through the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a job, or the struggle of illness – are bramble-filled paths, with treacherous conditions and hazards at every turn.
And while we may seek help from family, or friends, or doctors, or therapists, or ministers – we often find ourselves carrying some part of the burden alone. Perhaps we think “people are suffering more than me, I shouldn’t complain about my inconveniences” or we worry that “people will think I am falling apart” or “if I tell them, they’ll think I want them to fix it” – or worse, “no one will ever understand what I’m really going through.” And so we keep some of our burdens to ourselves.
That’s natural. We are taught to be strong, to suck it up, to think about suffering conditionally. And so we tend to share only those things with our friends and fellow worshippers that we think they can handle hearing about without making us look weak or whiny or needy.
For everything else, we do our damnedest to get rid of it. We work hard – really hard – to make changes, to solve problems, to heal.
But the beauty of religious community is that don’t have to do it alone. We truly can lay our troubles down by the water of those we celebrate, worship, learn, and grow with – in this place, where the river runs dry.
Take a look around this room. We all come with our varying pains, sorrows, and troubles. We all have burdens to carry. Sometimes the load is light, sometimes it’s soul-crushingly heavy.
But for all the burdens, there is also hope here. Hope and joy and love and commitment to one another. For every hard journey our individual water represents, there are lessons learned, good experiences, loving moments too – all which will be blended together in our shared vessel.
Now as Unitarian Universalists, we talk a lot about being a religious community, making and keeping covenant with one another, working toward common purpose to nurture our spirits and help heal the world.
But sometimes we need to see it – hence our water communion this morning.
Water communion was first devised in 1980, when two Unitarian Universalist women—Carolyn McDade and Lucile Schuck Longview—were asked to create a worship service for the Women and Religion Continental Convocation of Unitarian Universalists.
As they shaped that service, McDade and Longview wanted to create a new ritual “that spoke to our connectedness to one another, to the totality of life, and to our place on this planet.” They included a new, inclusive symbol of women’s spirituality: water.
“Water is more than simply a metaphor. It is elemental and primary, calling forth feelings of awe and reverence. Acknowledging that the ocean is considered by many to be the place from which all life on our planet came—it is the womb of life—and that amniotic waters surround each of us prenatally, we now realize that [this worship service] was for us a new story of creation… We choose water as our symbol of our empowerment.”
The November service, held in East Lansing, Michigan, was called “Coming Home Like Rivers to the Sea.” As its creators, McDade and Longview enacted their ritual in the liberating space of a semicircle around a large earthenware bowl. They asked eight different women—each coming from distant places —to bring water, and they did: water from the Rio Grande and Assiniboine Rivers, rain water from Maryland, water from the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and others were poured into the earthenware bowl as each bearer described its significance.
“As the ritual is continued,” says Carolyn McDade, “water deepens in meaning for us, just as water deepens during its long and winding journey to the sea.”
So now, I invite you to come up and add the water you have been so patiently holding – to blend our journeys together and affirm our commitment to be a place where the river will never run dry.
words of Victoria Weinstein, edited
The waters are tranquil…. When we affirm the interconnectedness of people everywhere;
When we express our commitment to this community and to the earth in ways that call forth beauty and generate strength;
And when we minister to each other with compassion.
May our waters be peaceful and our sailing smooth.
The waters rush…when we embrace our imagination and our creativity, our power to unveil our old ways of thinking and to create new visions.
May we ride the waves with a sense of joy, freedom and fun.
The waters shine… when we question and doubt, when we challenge ourselves to understand ourselves and the world around us.
May our waters sparkle, inspire and illuminate.
And when the waters storm…
We bless our energy and loyalty, to signify that we place ourselves –hearts, minds and hands — at the service of something larger than ourselves.
May we be held and nourished in community through every condition, journeying together from shore to shore, held as one people in the great element of Love.
So may it be.