What Will You Bring to the Feast?

Based on a folktale from Africa and China.
Printed in Doorway to the Soul, ed. Elisa Davy Pearmain (Pilgrim Press, 1998).

Themes: cooperation, gratitude, sharing, generosity
Roles: 5* for rehearsal; 9 more characters can be briefed by phone or email
Preparation: moderate

This humorous folk tale about trickery at a royal feast provides a fresh lens for our Unitarian Universalist tradition of Water Communion (also called Gathering of the Waters). As we begin a new congregational year by mingling the water from our summers, each of us must answer this question: Will I contribute the best of myself to this beloved community? Will I share my gifts, adding to our abundance, or will I hold my gifts back for my own use?

Roles (*= needed at rehearsal):

  • *Storyteller
  • *Worship Leader
  • *Village Elder (in this service, the Elder is described with masculine pronouns. The role could just as easily be played by a woman, with pronouns changed.)
  • *Youngest Council Member
  • *Council member’s wife (or husband, or partner, or assistant)
  • Nine additional Council Members

To prepare for this service, you’ll need to:

  1. Gather ten pitchers, vases, and jugs, assigning each to a Council Member
  2. Set up a large bowl (like a punch bowl) on a central table; this might be the same bowl that you use for the water communion in the second half of the service.
  3. Publicize the fact that this service includes a food offering, when canned goods will be collected for a local food bank.
  4. Invite people to bring water from their summer to merge in a common vessel. It’s a good idea to have a pitcher of water next to the common bowl, so that people who forgot their water—or who are visiting—can participate.
  5. Print the words to “How Does Our Garden Grow?” get printed in the order of service.


Story Introduction–Storyteller

Imagine a land far from this one, and a time much different than our own.
Imagine that you are the Village Elder, who owns many fields and stables full of livestock.
Imagine that your harvest this year has been the most successful ever, and that you’re grateful to the Powers That Be in the Universe for this bounty.

What would you do to celebrate?
How would you express your gratitude?

Invite suggestions from the congregation.

Those are wonderful ideas, each with its own story. In the story you’ll hear and see this morning, this Village Elder...

Village Elder stands to greet the congregation

...will have his (or her) own idea about how to celebrate. You’ll meet the Council members of his village, and you’ll hear how they taught their village an embarrassing and important lesson. What could it be? We’ll find out soon after our worship begins.

Welcome and Greeting–Worship Leader

Good Morning! Thank you, Storyteller (or name), for weaving our tale this morning, and thanks to all of you for joining our community on this Ingathering Sunday, our homecoming into a new congregational year. I welcome you warmly to <name of U.U. congregation>, and to this worship service for all ages. I’m (name), your worship leader this morning.

We are a beloved community of all ages that sings its songs, tells its thoughts, asks its questions, and searches together with courage and with love. We are always seeking to enlarge our community with fellow pilgrim souls, and so if you are new to us or seeking a spiritual home, we hope that you’ll find a warm welcome here.

Meet visitors, issue an invitation to coffee hour, and/or make necessary announcements...

Now that we’ve met each other, we enter into our annual Water Communion service (or Gathering of the Waters): we symbolize our coming together after a summer of traveling and rest; we celebrate all that is life-giving, and that which has restored our spirits. Our Water Communion is a visible sign that, no matter where we go and for how long, the love of this community – and the love from this community – draws us back in, warm and welcoming. May we also consider what it is that we bring to this community on the cusp of a new year together.

Chalice Lighting

Hymn #131, “Love Will Guide Us”

Story, Part 1–Storyteller

Let’s return to our story. In that land far away, in that time so different from ours, it had been a glorious harvest year for the Village Elder, the richest person in the valley. He was grateful for his many fields of grain, and for his stables full of livestock. As an expression of gratitude, he decided to share his riches with all the people of his valley: he would hold a feast for all of his neighbors!

But the Elder needed help with one aspect of the feast. To get that help, and to issue the invitation to the feast, he called the council of ten elders together.
All ten Council members gather around the Village Elder. This could easily be done by having them sit in the first two rows of one section of the sanctuary, so that they stand or lean forward and listen as the Village Elder approaches them.

Village Elder: I have had a great harvest this year, and my stables are full of livestock. There’s much to be thankful for, and so I shall hold a great feast for all the people of this valley. I will provide all the food; I will provide musicians and jugglers; I will provide the space for this feast. I will do all of this, if you will provide the wine.

All Council Members: Of course, of course!

(Any) Council Member: We shall each bring one jug of wine, and pour them into a common vessel. Thus shall we share, even as we partake of your generosity.

Storyteller: With that, the council members returned to their homes, dreaming of the great feast to come.

Food Offering–Worship Leader

Just as the Village Elder responded to the abundance of his harvest with gratitude and giving, so too do we recognize, and give thanks for, all the blessings in our lives. Like the Village Elder, many of us have more food than other members of our wider community, and so we share our overflow of food with them. Please bring forward your canned goods (or give them to a child to bring forward) for the food offering as we sing “From You I Receive.”

Hymn #402, “From You I Receive”

Story, Part II–Storyteller

The Village Elder had just announced his plans to hold a great feast. Before returning to their homes, each of the council members in the village had agreed to bring one jug of wine to contribute to the common pot. As soon as they had parted, however, the youngest was already cursing himself for having agreed to part with one whole jug of wine. He didn’t have much wine in his stores, and he didn’t want to spend money. He returned to his wife, and they sat down to discuss the problem.

Youngest Council member and his wife take center stage.

Youngest Council Member: An entire jug of wine? Are we to give up so much, when we don’t have as much as others? There must be another way.

Storyteller: Suddenly his wife had an idea.

Wife: My dear, the other nine elders will pour their wine into the common pot. Is that not so? Could one small jug of water really spoil so much wine?

Youngest Council Member: Hardly so, my clever wife! What a plan! Thus will we keep our wine for ourselves!

The couple goes off to prepare their jug of water.

Storyteller: While the youngest council member and his wife had been crafting their plan, the people in the valley had received their invitation to the feast with great anticipation. Finally the evening of the feast had arrived. As the villagers dressed in their finest clothes, so did the youngest council member—and then, as planned, he surreptitiously filled his jug with fresh water from the well.

This can be acted out as simply or as elaborately as you wish.

He and his wife carried their jug to the party, meeting the other council members and all the townspeople along the way. When they arrived at the estate of the Village Elder, everyone was greeted by the sound of music playing, and the delicious smells of food cooking.

Village Elder: Welcome to this great feast! Thank you for bringing your wine. You may pour your jugs of wine into that great clay pot in the courtyard, and then take your fill of food.

Council members each come forward and pantomime pouring the “wine” from their pitchers and vases into a large bowl, which is situated prominently on the altar or chancel. Over the following dialogue from the Storyteller, the Village Elder and all of the council members should each pull out a cup or glass, as described below.

Storyteller: And so the village council members each emptied his or her jug into the common pot, including the youngest, and then made ready for the feast. And what a feast it was! First there was dancing and entertainment. Then the bell was rung and the guests were seated. The elders sat together at the head table. Everyone’s cups had been filled with wine, and everyone was anxious to taste the fine, refreshing wine.

Village Elder: Before we share this meal and drink this wine, let us give thanks.

We give thanks for the work of the earth and sun, as they ripened the fruits of the earth to fill our bellies.
We give thanks for the hands that have prepared this food, so that we might eat it.
We give thanks for the company gathered here: all those who make our village a place of abundance, especially by bringing their gifts to share with us in generosity.

Worship Leader: We, too, pause to give thanks—for a summer filled with both work and rest, for adventures and play, for our safe return home. We give thanks for this congregation, and all those in it: those with a welcoming spirit, those with a questioning mind, those with embracing arms, those with a prophet’s vision. Let us sing our thanks, as we turn to hymn #1010 and sing “We Give Thanks.”

Hymn #1010, “We Give Thanks”

During the next section of dialogue, the council members and the Village Elder act out the scene as described.

Storyteller: The crowd had gathered, the food had been served, thanks had been given. Finally, it was time to eat! After the Village Elder’s blessing, every guest at the feast lifted his or her cup, and then brought the cup to their lips. They sipped, and sipped again. But something was wrong. What they tasted was not wine but water.

Youngest Council Member: (Sotto voce, to his wife, as if to prevent others from hearing him) “One jug of water cannot spoil a great pot of wine.” So we told ourselves, and so we filled our jug at the well. But clearly, every council member had the same thought! Each of them filled his or her jug at the well! And so instead of sharing our wine to suit this great occasion, we have done nothing but embarrass ourselves.

Storyteller: All of the council members looked at each other sheepishly, avoiding the eyes of the Village Elder, and then continued to drink as if it were the finest wine their lips had ever tasted. The next day a new saying arose among the people of the town, a saying that spread around the world: “If you wish to take wine, you must give it also.”

The actors return to their seats, with thanks.

Worship Leader: As we reflect on this story, and its lesson, please join me in the sung response, “How Does Our Garden Grow?,” printed in your order of service.

Hymn: “How Does Our Garden Grow?”

(Tune: Terra Beata)

How does our garden grow, this community of love?
We each plant seeds that blossom forth, and harvest the fruits thereof.
How does our garden grow? With stewardship and care:
Our hearts and spirits take their strength from our gifts freely shared.

Reflections—Worship Leader

Wisdom can arise independently, and often does, in different parts of the world. The story we just heard has been told by cultures in both African and China. Sometimes similar stories are created by people in different lands, which is the human family’s way of signaling that the story contains an important universal truth. Hearing this story today, we can appreciate its truth, too: when we share with our community, it is truly felt and appreciated; but when we try to withhold from our community to keep something all to ourselves, it can hurt the community.

Do you remember what the Council members in our story were asked to bring to the feast?

Allow someone(s) to say wine.

Unlike them, you were asked to bring water to this worship service. How many of you remembered? How many of you might need to use the water here, in this pitcher?

For the past several weeks, we announced this day as our Ingathering Sunday: the time when we merge the waters from our summer. Traditionally, this ritual is celebrated in Unitarian Universalist congregations across the country in a similar way: people bring forward their water and name its source, or what that water represents – often a destination from their summer vacation.

Today, our Water Communion will diverge from that tradition in a small but significant way. Here’s why: We’re thankful for all of you who experienced the joy of learning about a new place in the world, or who revisited a familiar and well-loved place, over the summer. We’re thankful that—as you traveled by car, by airplane, by boat and train and trolley – those travels brought you home safely.

We also recognize that not everyone has the resources, or the ability, to travel to faraway lands. We recognize that, although it’s interesting to hear where people have traveled in past weeks, that practice is a looking back and a looking outward. Our Water Communion calls us to a higher purpose: that of looking forward, and committing ourselves to the common life of this congregation—just as our individual samples of water combine in this common vessel. An even bigger question is how we each contribute to the larger community, making it stronger, more peaceful, and more friendly.

In our story this morning, the ten council members were asked to bring a small amount of wine to the feast. As you heard, each of them withheld their wine, and instead brought water; each of them believing that “one jug of wine” could hardly spoil such a lavish feast. From that story, we learned the importance of each person’s gift, and each person’s willingness to share those gifts.

What is it that you bring to our community?
What will you share, from your heart and your spirit, in the coming year?

These are the questions at the heart of our Water Communion.

I invite you to come forward, row by row, and form lines at the common vessel. When you pour your water in, rather than naming the source of your water, please name one gift that you bring to our new congregational year. Perhaps it’s a desire to attend worship more regularly, or to listen to others more carefully. Maybe you bring the gift of patience (always valuable, especially in committee meetings)! Maybe you bring a musical talent that you’re willing to share, or a commitment to teach religious education. (Parents, take a moment to talk with your families about what gifts you each bring to this congregation, or to the larger community.) As you pour in your water, tell us the gifts that you bring, willing to share with others.

It might be helpful to play music softly for a minute or two, for people to frame their thoughts. You can have people speak as individuals and families, but some congregations have chosen to make the pouring in of water a silent act, instead asking people to share their story with the person next to them.

When the Water Communion has concluded:

Silent Meditation and Prayer–Worship Leader

Here, mingled together, are the shared gifts of our lives. These waters represent the promises and aspirations that we make to one another, members of this beloved community. As we enter into a space of quiet, let us consider the part of ourselves that fears giving out love freely. In this quiet, let us resolve not to withhold our love, but to follow love’s path and its progress where ever it leads.

Source of All, who embraces and sustains all life,
This water, which we have collected and shared,
holds the mystery and miracle of love.

May this water be blessed with the love of this community.

May our own bodies, filled with rivers of breath,
be blessed with life-energy, with wellness,
to carry us through our days.

May our home, this blue-green planet,
with its mountains and seas and icecaps,
be held in sacred keeping,
blessed through our stewardship and care.

As we strive to bring our gifts to this beloved community,
and to this difficult, beautiful world,
Let us never doubt the strength of our hearts,
nor the depth of our love for each other and our world.

Hymn #1064, “Blue Boat Home”

Sharing in Stewardship–Worship Leader

We take an offering each Sunday, to give of our material resources with generosity and gratitude. No matter how much money you put into the basket, the act of giving is a symbolic reminder that giving is just as important as receiving; that sharing what we have is how we live out our value of generosity.

Hymn #368, “Now Let Us Sing”

Benediction–Worship Leader

Sing to the power of the faith within—
Sing to the power of our deep love,
Our strong hope, and bright joy.
But flex the power of these gifts, too—
put your faith and hope to use;
share your joy and love more freely than you thought possible,

For together, we use these tools to carve out
lives of wonder, and purpose, and service.

Go in peace.


lip of a water jug

Story, Song and Spirit

By Erika Hewitt

From Skinner House Books

These multigenerational worship services offer new ways to celebrate the beginning of the church year, Christmas, coming of age and Earth Day, as well as services for any time, to engage children through elders.

Buy This Book