Changes to Water Service Bring Deeper Meaning

By Donald E. Skinner

The annual water service, sometimes called a "water communion" or "Waters of the World," is beloved by Unitarian Universalists (UUs).

The water service is a UU ritual, usually conducted in the fall when friends and members return from their summer travels. They are invited to bring a sample of water from their travels or water that has other significance for them. All of the samples are poured into a common bowl or vase to signify coming together again. It's a way of symbolizing that many are one, and a way of getting reacquainted.

But it can also be troublesome. In some congregations so many people want to share that the service goes long. Some people try to squeeze in a travelogue as they pour their water, using more than their share of time. And to some, the ceremony hints at classism since not everyone can travel to the Danube River or the Mendenhall Glacier.

Pat Rodgers, of Mission Peak UU Congregation (104 members) in Fremont, CA, says, "In September we had 72 people come forward to contribute waters and to say a few sentences about them. Even with no sermon, and encouragement to be brief, all these contributions put the service 20 minutes overtime. When we grow a little more a ceremony that has seemed welcoming and fellowship-building may become too long and even tedious. We're wondering how we can do this so it still has meaning, but doesn't wear out our patience."

The water ceremony at First Parish in Medfield, MA (122), changed about five years ago when the Rev. Bob McKetchnie arrived. "People liked doing the service because it engaged the children, and other folks liked hearing where everyone had been," he says. "But some people thought it was classist and competitive and that it excluded first-time visitors."

So the ceremony was changed and is now done in different ways. One year the water was collected from people at the door and McKetchnie and others read water-related poetry and readings and talked about the importance and the spiritual significance of water. Between the readings, the collected water would be added to a large bowl. Afterward the children of the church helped McKetchnie return the water back into the earth.

Another year people were invited to bring a sacred object from their summer experiences. An altar was made to hold photos, seashells, stones, feathers, etc., and the sermon was on sacred objects.

And some years people are invited to come up and silently pour their water in a communal bowl. There are paper cups of water for people who forgot theirs. Some water is saved each year, frozen, then thawed and boiled for use the next year, illustrating the continuity of the community.

McKetchnie said the changes reinvigorated the ceremony. "We learned that some people had been avoiding the water communion," he says, "but after we started to make changes the word got out and people started coming back. It's been a different experience."

At Mount Vernon Unitarian Church in Alexandria, VA (378), there is a homily rather than a sermon on this particular Sunday. During the musical reflection after the homily people are asked to write on water-drop-shaped pieces of paper about the water that is significant to them. They then deposit the drops in a bowl up front. Immediately after the service the drops are posted on a large bulletin board for two to three weeks so people can read them.

These creative methods can work for other services as well. Mount Vernon used a similar approach for Memorial Day, asking people to write the name of a loved one on a small scroll-shaped piece of paper, then come up and silently light a candle. The scrolls are posted on a "memorial wall."

"People say they like the way we do these ceremonies," says the Rev. Louis Schwebius. "It's gone over very well."

About the Author

Donald E. Skinner

Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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