Water Communion: Departing from Travelogues

The Water Communion has changed since its 1980 inception, and as Unitarian Universalists adapt the ritual. In recent years, however, many UU congregational leaders have observed that without mindfulness and intention, the Water Communion can turn into a meandering travelogue—that is, a recitation of vacation sites with little connection to the deeper values that knit us together as a people of faith.

In the words of Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern, this focus on summer travel "can make the ritual obliviously exclusive of those who don’t have summer homes, summer vacations, the money for airfare, or the luxury to stop working." An open microphone, moreover, celebrates individualism rather than the "merging" at the center of this ritual.

How might Unitarian Universalists acknowledge the special (or even sacred) sources of people's water without creating a parade of privilege and/or centering the ritual around an open mic? The following are some emerging models:

  1. At the entry to your worship space, display a world map on a bulletin board and invite people to place pins or stickers to indicate the source of their water.
  2. In the weeks leading up to your Water Communion, invite people to send photos of their water's source, and create a slide show of those pictures to use in worship, either during the ritual itself or as part of an instrumental.
  3. Leaders at the First UU Church of Nashville have rebranded this occasion as a "ritual of reconnection," doing away with the mic and creating four stations around the church where people go and pour their water at the same time. Leaders call the waters from the four directions, and respond by singing "Holy Waters." The congregation then processes out to their columbarium, pouring the water onto the ground while naming those whose ashes are interred there.

If you're not reading to do away with the microphone, Morgenstern offers the following guidance to help UU congregations and leaders focus on the meaning inherent to this ritual:

  • Do provide a way for people to share the significance of the water they’ve brought, and have a leader rephrase people’s descriptions in a way that honors the most important aspects, while downplaying the others. (For example, if someone writes, “This water comes from our family’s summer home on Cape Cod, where I’ve gone since I was a small child visiting my grandparents,” the leader might share, “Water from a multigenerational family gathering.”)
  • Do model modest origins for your own water: a home tap or garden hose, for instance.
  • Do make reference to the water’s many sources, symbolically or literally, and choose the direction/element accordingly.
  • Don’t: just pour the water down the drain. While keeping it in the water cycle, that doesn’t honor the sacredness of the ritual. People are bringing something of themselves when they bring that “water from a special day at the beach” or “tap water from my great-grandfather’s house,” so it’s important to let them know that it will be treated with due reverence.
  • Do use the water for something meaningful. For example, carry it out ceremoniously after the service and water a special tree; bless it and invite everyone to put it on their foreheads / hands / feet / hearts; invite people to bring some of the mingled water home and encourage them to use it mindfully.
  • Do frame the ritual in terms of its larger meanings (of which there are many).
  • Don't emphasize to church members, in June, that they should bring their water back from special travels. There’s no need to mention travel at all. (The reminder in your bulletin can simply say, of the Water Communion, “We bring water from the places of our lives.”)

Note: Rev. Jason Shelton's "Holy Waters" is also available as SATB score and as an OOS insert.

A blue, watery field with the words in slinky cursive, "coming home" and "like rivers to the sea"
light plays on the ripples of water's surface, up close