Ingathering: Water Communion 2020


as preached for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston’s September 6, 2020 online worship service

Like a deer crying for water,
my soul cries for You, O God;
my soul thirsts for God, the living God;
O when will I come to appear before God!
My tears have been my food day and night;
I am ever taunted with, “Where is your God?”

I open my reflections with these ancient words from the 42nd psalm. They bespeak to me something of the feeling of the hour–the necessity and difficulty of connection during this time of pandemic and calamity. For the humanists amongst us, God, I wish to remind you at the outset, is a metaphor for the infinite all of which we are a part and do not fully understand. Depending upon our perspective, we might name that infinite all in humanist terms and call it the universe or we might pick theistic language and describe it as the divine. Or might choose another sacred language–invoke Buddhism or paganism. The words matter less than the truth–there is something larger than any of us of which we are all are a part.

Now, I do not know about you but right now I find myself more than a little worn down and exhausted by well… everything. Like the psalmist, I find myself frequently more longing for than experiencing connection. What about you?

Today is our annual ingathering service. It is normally an invigorating time–an opportunity to see old friends, maybe begin to make new ones, hear the choir in its full glory, and celebrate life together.

We are starting our program year online. Rather than gathering for hymns and hugs we are keeping our digital distance–but, oh, how my soul thirsts for you.

And our experience of separation is one that is found throughout our society. Many Houston area school districts are starting the year online. A lot of colleges and universities are doing the same thing. Many of us continue to practice social distancing in our personal and working lives. The nation’s political crisis and the pandemic have us all coming apart as much as coming together.

Depression is on the rise throughout the world. In part, because, alongside everything else, even trips to the grocery store are now replete with rituals of disconnection. Yesterday, I found myself in a checkout line. Between the cashier and me was a plexiglass shield. The cashier and I each wore a mask. And he was trying to talk to me. He did not have anything particular to say, just the sort of chit chat that in the before times would have been completely normal–“What do you plan to do with those mushrooms?” “This is a nice-looking artichoke.” “I think you will like this bottle of wine.” “Have you had this brand of tinned fish before? We have just started carrying and it is pretty good.”

The thing was, between the mask and the plexiglass, I could not understand a word that he was saying. We both grew increasingly frustrated. A routine interaction–something that often leaves me feeling more connected–became an instance of disconnection, a source of frustration, a reminder of the difficulty of the hour. Has this happened to you? Is it happening to you today, as you participate in our ingathering? Or throughout the week when you move through your daily routine? The situation is exhausting.

Why so downcast, my soul,
why disquieted within me?

The ancient psalmist continues. At such moments of collective exhaustion, it is the function of religious communities like ours to attempt to foster a sense of connection that might help us all make it through. In our Unitarian Universalist tradition this sense of connection is not to be found by reaching out for salvation in some ethereal hereafter. It is to be discovered in what I have called in the past the resurrection of the living–that sense of waking up to the glories of the world.

The resurrection of the living, a recognition that we are all part and parcel of each other. “We are all connected: to each other, biologically; to the earth, chemically; to the rest of the universe, atomically,” the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson reminds us. The resurrection of the living, an admission that even in these difficult hours our lives are suffused with miracles.

The naturalist Loren Eisely defines a miracle as something that suddenly appears and then disappears “within the natural order.” Such a definition, Eisley admits, includes “each individual person.” Within the great span of cosmic time we–bundles of atoms and energy–spark in and out of existence like fireflies blinking at night. And yet, we miracles are each connected to each other and to all–across the stretches of time and space through the immutable law of physics, the universal sum of matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed.

Like a deer crying for water,
my soul cries for You, O God.

Our need for connection is fundamental. It is like the cooling drink of water, necessary for our lives to continue. On this ingathering Sunday–as we commence our program year–the question of how to find it, and how to remain connected to each other, how to quench our thirst, seems particularly important. Now, I could simply direct you to our many online programs. We have discussion and reading groups and opportunities for meditation and religious education. The choir is starting back up, albeit in virtual form.

And I know that these are a help. Somewhere between one hundred and fifty and two hundred of you participate in them each week. Like viewing our online services, taking part in such groups is part of our practice of virtually gathering. Such a practice, Unitarian Universalist Association President Susan Frederick-Gray has recently observed, reminds us, “no matter the distance… of our enduring connections. It helps us feel the ways that we are held by and lifted up in beloved community.”

But I also know that however connected you feel to this church, our congregation, and our ministries through our online programs that sense of connection is not enough to replace the feeling of community that came from gathering in person. And so, I want to suggest a spiritual practice that might help you feel more connected not to this church but to the all that is–a spiritual practice suggested by the central ritual of today’s service, our annual water celebration.

It is a simple spiritual practice–mindfully drinking water. It is based in the wisdom that our relationships extend beyond the human. The theologian Martin Buber taught that community comes “into being” from the reality that everyone is “in a living, reciprocal relationship to a single living center and… in a living, reciprocal relationship to one another.”

Like a deer crying for water,
my soul cries for You, O God.

The psalmist uses water as a metaphor for the divine. But many other religious traditions–particularly indigenous and animistic ones–see water itself as divine, as the ultimate source of life. One of the slogans of the water protectors at Standing Rock a few years ago was, “water is life.” Speaking of the Missouri River, threatened by the placement of an oil pipeline, one of them said, a woman named BraveBull Allard, “Our people are in that water.” And, she continued, “This river holds the story of my entire life.”

In his account of his organizing at Standing Rock, the Sioux scholar Nick Estes wrote about how his tradition taught him to understand water and his community’s connection to the river, “water is animated and has agency; it streams as liquid, forms clouds as gas, and even moves earth as solid ice–because it is alive and gives life.”

Here is what I suggest you do, to experience a deeper sense of connection to our community, to the rest of humanity, to the all that is. Pour yourself a glass of cool water. Lift it up to the light. Look at it. Meditate take on it. You might then say something like this:

This water I now drink,
has flowed through the world’s rivers,
it has nourished the great cycle of life,
it connects me to friends
who are absent in body,
but present in spirit,
it connects me to my religious community–
each of its members must drink water
just as I must drink water–
it connects me to those who came before
and it will connect me to those who come after,
it connects me to the all of life
and even the vast cathedral
of the universe itself,
when I drink it,
I am not alone.

Then take a sip of water.

The connection we long for is never missing. It can sometimes just be a challenge to wake ourselves up to it. A simple ritual like drinking water–and toasting absent friends–might stir that sense of connection.

So might, the admission, that when we are in grocery stores or worrying over political discord or economic disruption we remain part of the same larger narrative. We are connected in our frustrations–the shared frustration that the cashier and I had in our difficulties communicating. We are connected in our dependence on the good Earth, the starry firmament, the wetness of water, and the whisper of the wind. We are connected in our hopes–an end to the pandemic, peace, and enough to survive upon. Watching this, though absent in body, you become part of the shared story of this congregation, the shared story of this region and this country, and the shared story of our human species.

This year, as we gather, let us remember what our water celebration teaches us, year after year, we are all part of a larger whole. This year, as we gather, let us recall the spiritual practice of drinking water and wake ourselves up to the experience of connection available to us in the everyday–no matter how isolated we might feel.

Why so downcast, my soul,
why disquieted within me?

Have hope, give praise, and remember that our connections to each other, our community, the possibility of the resurrection of the living, waking up to the all that is, remains ever present.

Amen and Blessed Be.

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