Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. ––John 2:7
Tomorrow the Anchorage Unitarian Universalist Fellowship will observe a ritual that we call “Gathering the Waters.”
Also known as “water communion,” the ritual is practiced in many Unitarian Universalist congregations in September, at the beginning of the church year. Here’s how the UUA’s website describes water communion:
Members bring to the service a small amount of water from a place that is special to them. During the appointed time in the service, people one by one pour their water together into a large bowl. As the water is added, the person who brought it tells why this water is special to them. The combined water is symbolic of our shared faith coming from many different sources. It is often then blessed by the congregation, and sometimes is later boiled and used as the congregation’s “holy water” in child dedication ceremonies and similar events.
At least one source points to a women’s retreat in 1980 as the origin of this ritual, and it seems that congregations began adopting throughout the next decade.
Any UU tradition accumulates controversy, and water communion is no different.
It can feel like a competitive version of “what I did on my summer vacation,” with each participant vying for the most exotic, most exciting adventure, a practice that adds to UU classism.
Depending on the size of the congregation, water communion can be the same kind of barely-controlled chaos that made many congregations do away with spoken joys and concerns. Each year at about this time, UU ministers blog about the strategies they’ve employed to make water communion more, well, worship-full.
Gathering the waters, as part of an Ingathering Sunday, also reinforces a UU pattern of slowing down, and even shutting down for the summer.
Invariably, I forget to bring water from my summer adventures. When I choose to participate, I have to join a whole host of people contributing “symbolic water” from the fellowship’s kitchen sink, rather than water actually gathered elsewhere.
Part of what makes a ritual work––what turns water into wine, so to speak––is repetitive practice, year after year, week after week, or day after day.
For me, many UU rituals still feel more like water than wine. Some of this is because I am relatively new to Unitarian Universalism. But it’s not just that.
Unitarian Universalism is itself new––fifty years past the merger of the Unitarians and the Universalists. And we are often more fond of innovation, than we are of tradition.
For those of us who came to Unitarian Universalism from various forms of Christianity, and those raised UU who never lost their connection to Christianity, I believe that there is a longing for deeper experiences. Dare I say sacramental experiences?
The rituals we create echo discarded sacraments of bread and wine, water and spirit. We walk forward with our gathered community to give and receive, to pour and celebrate. It feels partly the same. And significantly different.