At the start of the new UU church year – typically the Sunday after Labor Day – the center of the Sunday morning worship is a water ritual. Called a “Water Ceremony,” or Water Ingathering, it started in the 1980s and has found a home in many congregations. At First Parish, the ritual started 16 years ago: folks are asked to bring water from some part of their summer experience – perhaps travels, perhaps your kitchen tap, even your garden hose and join it together with the water of others, that it will be made into holy water to be made of use in congregational life in the coming year.
You can read about its general denominational history here and about some of the more complicated aspects of it here or here – how long it can take for everyone to participate, how sometimes it can seem like a game of show-and-tell, or worse yet, brinksmanship of economic privilege when folks reveal the source of their water (“Our water is artisanal-sourced and comes from the furthest place in the world from the most celebrated holy person who gave it to us personally filtered through the palms of their hands…” – okay, that last bit of snark is totally made up, but I hope you get my gist.)
There is a big, big bowl at the front of the sanctuary into which folks put their water, though it is first seeded with water from last year, which was seeded with water from all the previous years. To address the two challenges mentioned above, First Parish has established that you can say one word (two, tops) when you add your water to the bowl – and it can be the water’s source, or it can be what it means to you (a feeling, a memory, an experience). Amazingly, and as repeated acts of generosity to each other, that is exactly what happens (more or less).
Though each word or phrase may be evocative for the person saying it, and sometimes for those who hear it, the true power of this ritual is in its collective character, in the coming together to enter into yet another year as a covenanted community. In honor of this impulse, the web master of the congregation has a tradition of creating a Wordle from all the words spoken from this part of the ritual. Here is this year’s:
This morning, in addition to reading a poetic story to the kids about the life cycle of water, I got to stand next to the water bowl and hand emergency replacement symbolic water to those folks who had forgotten to bring some (which is me, every year I have taken part in this ritual at my home congregation). This meant, in addition to hearing the spoken words, I also got to see the myriad vessels in which people brought their water: plastic toiletry bottles of all hues, metal water bottles, crunched up plastic “disposable” water bottles, small Tupperware-like containers, and even what looked like a test tube. There was something delightful in these containers and the stories they might tell, if they weren’t inanimate.
In some UU congregations, this ritual is called Water Communion, like in San Juan, Puerto Rico or in Chatanooga, Tenneesse. Termed like that, it brings to mind the lyrics of Carrie Newcomer’s (yes, a Quaker, but beloved by so many UUs) song, Betty’s Diner:
Here we are all in one place
The wants and wounds of the human race
Despair and hope sit face to face
When you come in from the cold
Let her fill your cup with something kind
Eggs and toast like bread and wine
She’s heard it all so she don’t mind
Yes, that is the best part of congregational life: coming together in one place, despair and hope (and grief, and confusion, and contentment, and loneliness, and fear, and gratitude) sitting face to face and side by side. While we don’t serve bread and wine (or eggs and toast), we are a place to come in from the cold, filling up the world with blessings of kindness, compassion, and gratitude.
Here’s to a great year to all!