Engaging the Waters

Sermon presented by Rev. Diane Rollert, 7 September 2014

How do I begin?  It is always hard to restart after a summer elsewhere.  This Sunday always feels like such a big moment.  Here we are, back together again, pouring the experiences that marked our summers into these communal bowls of water:  all our joys, our moments of tranquility, our moments of sorrow and grief, our transitions as well as the experiences and feelings that remain unnamed.  

Years ago, the water communion was a ceremony created by a group of women who had travelled long distances to be with each other.  They were each invited to bring a small flask of water to represent the places they had come from.

How do I begin?  It is always hard to restart after a summer elsewhere.  This Sunday always feels like such a big moment.  Here we are, back together again, pouring the experiences that marked our summers into these communal bowls of water:  all our joys, our moments of tranquility, our moments of sorrow and grief, our transitions as well as the experiences and feelings that remain unnamed.  

Years ago, the water communion was a ceremony created by a group of women who had travelled long distances to be with each other.  They were each invited to bring a small flask of water to represent the places they had come from.  

“I bring you water from the ponds of Massachusetts.”  
“I bring you precious water from the deserts of New Mexico.”
“I bring you water from the St. Lawrence River.”

It made sense for a group travelling from many lands to pour water from the diverse places they called home into one communal bowl.  This was how they marked the beginning of the time of deep sharing that they knew would unfold before they turned around and went home again.  

The idea caught on within Unitarian Universalist circles and the tradition developed pretty organically.  We UUs do this.  We may not have set liturgies across our movement, yet when a good idea works, it gets passed on.  We are constantly building our own traditions.  That’s how we came to see the chalice as our symbol of community.  That’s why we celebrate a flower communion.  Something in the action speaks to us and we share it.  As the water communion developed in many congregations, it became a way to mark the first Sunday back from the summer break .  

In each congregation I’ve been involved with, I’ve experienced a water communion, and I would often find myself feeling both inspired and uncomfortable.  As the tradition developed, people would name the location of their summer experiences.  

“I bring you water from my summer home in Nantucket.”  
“I bring you water from the Ganges River.”  
“I bring you water from the Seine in Paris.”  

Too often it became a travel log of privilege, leaving those who had been unable to travel over the summer feeling they couldn’t possibly be welcome in such affluent communities.  What if mine had been a summer filled with the loss or illness of a loved one? What about the loss of a job, a friendship or the end of a romance?  What if it had been a summer filled with anxiety or depression? How could I pour water into a bowl filled with sunsets over the ocean, or cool refreshing mountain springs, or fireworks over Venetian canals?

Those who had abundant, exciting summers shared their stories, while others remained silent.  Of course, there were the exceptional moments: The stories of the wonderful care received in a hospital after an unexpected fall in a foreign land, the water from the tap because the plumber finally showed up and fixed the leak, and so on.  For those who loved to speak or felt comfortable speaking, it was a great moment.  While those who were more introverted said nothing – and when people don’t speak, their discomfort goes unnoticed.

A few years ago, I finally found a solution to my own ambivalence.  A colleague generously shared this beautiful water communion she had created.  I loved it and adapted it for us.  The first time we did it, we poured water four times:  Once for experiences of rest and renewal, once for joy and happiness, once for grief and sadness and once for change and transition.  After the service, someone mournfully said to me,  “But none of the categories worked for me!  I couldn’t pour my water!”  And it was true. There was no place for anger, or disappointments that are neither grief nor transition, or love that may not be joy but something else.  So the next year we added a fifth category:  The waters for all that remains unnamed.  I’ve never asked anyone why they choose to pour the fifth time, though I admit I’m really curious to know the range of responses.

Several years have gone by since we started to do our water communion this way.  There is something  moving about watching people rise to pour out the water of their life experiences.  Some years, it seems as though the majority of us have experienced loss, while the following year it may be only a few.  One year, I remember being totally amazed by the number of people who had experienced transitions.  It seemed as though we rose up together, a huge body rising into the unsettled … incomplete … unknowns of change.  

It’s like taking the temperature of the congregation as a whole.  Some years we seem more joyful, other years more pensive.  So now that we’ve shared this collective experience, what do we do now that we have some sense of this year’s congregational temperature?  Do we need more joy, more love, more quiet, more noise, more distance or more closeness?  Standing up here and looking out at all of you, I can’t answer that question.  I can’t possibly hear from all of you, but you can hear from each other.

For a while now, I’ve been feeling as though I’ve needed something more.  This is year nine for me. Our ninth homecoming Sunday, our ninth water communion together.  What a run it has been.  There was so much on the horizon when I first arrived.   Many were predicting that mainstream religion was on the way out and that religious fundamentalism was dangerously on the rise.  Nine years later, we can confirm that they had a point.  

Nine years ago, UUs were struggling to define themselves as “other”, trying to weave together the humanists, the UU Christians, UU Buddhists, UU Jews, Pagans -- you name it -- into one whole cloth that could withstand the tension as its threads were pulled in many directions.  We have definitely lived through that!  Last year, as I returned in September, I wondered where we would go together.  What could I possibly offer week after week in these services?  And then the Charter of Quebec Values came – which was laid to rest as quickly as it appeared.  Yet I know that we will continue to have work to do to build bridges of religious understanding and tolerance, while taking a stand for our principles as Unitarian Universalists.

This year, we’re embarking on an adventure together, focusing on one theme each month.  This month we will wrestle with the question:  What does it mean to live a life of engagement?  It’s a big topic, as wide open as you want it to be, and yet I think it calls us to really think about how we live our lives, how we choose to be engaged with each other as a community. Where is our passion? How do we become truly present to our lives and present to each other?  It’s as much an inward-looking topic as it is an outward-looking topic.

Since I sent out materials about engagement for you to ponder, I’ve gotten some interesting responses.  I’ve said that Unitarian Universalism isn’t about “anything goes.”  What does that mean?” someone asked.  What it means is that this journey into monthly themes is really about the overarching question we’re asking this year: What does it mean to live a life of …?  What does it mean to live a life of engagement, of awe, of courage, of story, of hope, of love, of surrender, of awakening, of character, or of beauty?  How do we take our Unitarian Universalist principles and actually apply them in our lives?  We have always upheld individual freedom as a pillar of our faith.  But to be individuals, without accountability to each other, is to deny the spirit of this venerable tradition.  We have values that call us to act justly in this world, to honour the stranger and ourselves, to respect this earth and all living things, to responsibly search for truth and meaning because, in doing so, we can make a difference in this world.

They say that we are living in an age of disengagement, where we no longer find the time to participate in real relationships or real community.  Some of our elders have said to me that they are wondering if they are ready to disengage, that they no longer have the energy to change the world.  But I know that you are very engaged by the caring you do for others, by your very presence as teachers and role models in our midst.  You have built this community and you have kept it alive.  We love you so much for being in our lives.  Slowing down, readjusting priorities and focus, is far from disengagement.

Young or old, in body or in mind, however we see ourselves, I know that many of us are thirsting to go deeper.  I remember what coffee hour was like before I became a minister.  It could be lonely and terrifying.  It was always the hardest part of Sunday morning, and rarely a place I was able to make connections.  I often joke I became a minister so I’d always have someone to talk to in coffee hour.  Honestly, I found my heart and my home as a UU when I got engaged in small groups where I found my voice and I got to hear others speaking from their hearts.  To this day, I am amazed at what I learn each time a challenging question is thrown out to a small group and one by one each person shares their own take on something I thought I had already figured out.

Yesterday, during our leadership retreat, I asked the members of our board and council to share something that made them feel truly engaged this summer.  There were stories of unexpected accomplishments, moments of letting go, laughter, surprise, forgiveness and also sadness and disappointment.  When we hold a space for each other to share, the answers we hear become gifts of new vision, inspiration, or something to take home and chew on.  This becomes the strengthening centre that then enables us to take meaningful action in the world.  

So, when you see Prue Rains with her sign-up sheets for Exploration Groups, or go to our website or Facebook page, take a risk!  Sign up to join a group. Exploration Groups are simply monthly gatherings of about ten people each, led by terrific facilitators, to share thoughts about our monthly themes.  I’m inviting you to get engaged with this community, to build community in your life.  The more we know of each other, the more we can support each other, and the more we can accomplish together.  And if you just can’t possibly join a group, stay engaged by sending me your thoughts or any resources you’d like to share.

Today, we have poured our many summer experiences into one.  We have come home.  My heart is full seeing you all here.  I believe we have an incredible opportunity before us to do what is really counter-cultural.  We can create a place of engagement that welcomes all ages, that expresses itself in many languages, that dares to hear many perspectives, and calls us to our better selves.

Someone said to me yesterday that my latest communications in the newsletter and through e-mail have sounded as though I was genuinely looking forward to seeing all of you.  “Not the usual blah, blah, blah…” she said.  “Not my usual blah, blah, blah?” I laughed.  “I didn’t mean yours!” She laughed back.  “Just not the usual blah, blah, blah,” she clarified.  

She’s right.  I am genuinely glad to be back.  The way I see it, year nine at the Unitarian Church of Montreal is going to burst with energy, like glorious fireworks over these flowing waters.

So may it be.
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