What I Did On My Summer Vacation…or Why Water Communion Makes Me Uncomfortable

Well now that the church year has started for most of us, I thought it was just as good a time as any to bring this up.

Can anybody explain Water Communion to me in a way that doesn’t make it seem like it’s a glorified Show-and-Tell and another example of how classist UUism can be?

In a lot of ways I’m extremely lucky…my home church did it as a ceremony after the regular church service (although that changed this year) and the church that I’m interning in does not do it, so I don’t have to deal with it.

But I have to tell you, whenever I’ve been at a church that has done it, it has made me more than a bit uncomfortable. Isn’t there some other way to get across whatever you’re trying to get across?


18 thoughts on “What I Did On My Summer Vacation…or Why Water Communion Makes Me Uncomfortable

  1. I really enjoyed our Water Communion this past Sunday as an expression of our congregation’s adventuresome spirit. We’re Alaskan UUs, and many of us love the outdoors. Water came from near and far, from places costly to visit, and places in our backyards (sometimes literally). The most poignant moment? Water from the part of SW Alaska where Park Service employees are still missing after a plane crash in August.

  2. I more or less agree with you, and have been glad that my congregation does not do water communion. But… as a UU child I loved it – I saved water all summer to contribute. I wonder if there’s a way to preserve the meaning without the classist overtones. I’ve toyed with the idea of adapting it so we ask people to bring water from their homes (and NOT from their travels), with the symbolism being that we are building a home together at our church, rather than providing a platform for people to brag about how far across the world they traveled this year.

  3. At my church, our minister has always emphasized two things: 1) that the water need not come from far away — it can come from your kitchen tap if you wish — and 2) that it’s important to think about what it represents symbolically in our life’s passages. So I can see that it can lend itself to the sort of unintentional class divisions you speak of, but handled properly and with sensitivity it doesn’t have to.

    After my first marriage broke up 7 years ago, I took an apartment just a block away from Lake Michigan, and for that year’s water communion fetched some water from the lake. It meant a lot to me to be able, in that safe place, to add it to the water others had brought and say that it was from Lake Michigan, a block from my new home, and that it represented tears, healing, and the start of a new life for me. And this year I put in water from our rain barrel and spoke about how our family (thanks to my wife, the gardener) has come to gain much more of our food from our own garden.

    So… I don’t dismiss your point at all… and I certainly agree it’s something to be sensitive. But I’d hate to see us throw the, erm, baby out with the bathwater on this point…(Sorry, couldn’t resist that in the end…)

  4. I like thisgirlremembers idea, as I saw variations all the time when I was in YRUU and in YA worships now. I’d love to see it adopted for a large congregation.

  5. I hear you. This Sunday, when I poured in some water and talked about my journeys, this is more or less what I said:

    “I’ve been some places this year, but the journey I keep making is out to housesit my friend’s trailer in the country and his cats. He’s in jail, waiting to go to prison, unjustly, where he will be brutalized by design. There’s nothing to do for it now but to help him endure.”

    I looked in the audience and saw some faces change as I talked. They were expecting mostly happy things, I guess. (After the service was over, as I expected, one person asked me about my friend. Two people asked about his cats. That’s a topic for another day.)

    We had quite a few people talking about getting their water while at GA, or at our district retreat, and that was fine with me. A couple of older members had taken trips with partners now in failing health, and I was glad to have that. We also had some people who went on and on about all the places they’d gone, which wasn’t so fine.

    A little self-control on peoples’ parts would go a long way toward improving water communion for me.

  6. Oh, yeah. I forgot one part from the end:

    “These journeys are making a change in me. I’m growing much more intolerant of the casual cruelties inflicted on people.”

    I should’ve said “the cruelties, both casual and systematic,” but I hadn’t really planned out what to say.

  7. The problem isn’t water communion — the problem is a lack of awareness regarding classism and privilege.

    The situations where water communion seems like a summer vacation show-and-tell are merely a symptom of a deeper problem.

  8. I like the way we’ve developed the water ceremony over the years. It is not a travelogue or an exercise in how much more privileged some are than others. Read my latest blog post, if you haven’t already. I put the whole thing up there. I have shared your feelings in the past; I always avoided it at my home church. Now I feel it’s truly a spiritual experience for me and for others.

  9. Of course, there is no inherent reason why the water has to be attached to a personal narrative, privileged or not, that is not clearly related to the life of the congregation. These words concluding my talk on how I became a UU, presented on Sunday (not at a Water Communion service) to my Teaching Congregation, show just one way to approach the mingling of waters in a way that has nothing to do with our non-UU narratives:

    “The symbolism of water has washed over much of Western religion throughout the ages. But I would like to refer quickly to one fictional water image. In Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, the Fremen, a desert people living on an important desert planet, have the saying that a person’s flesh belongs to that person, but the person’s water belongs to the tribe. When I became a Unitarian Universalist, I remained my own opinionated person. I didn’t gain any instant insights. No flashes of light. But at the same time, part of me merged into the whole. My water, the element that lubricates cells and floats ships and follows the lay of the land to the unity of the sea, this part of me flowed into the stream of which you too are a part. My water belongs to the tribe.”

    Why not remodel the water communion, the mingling of the waters, into more a ritual of expressing our (re)commitment to the gospel UU offers? instead of just a recognition that we bring our differences of experience into the same bowl of fellowship, which, when you think of it is something of a duh.

  10. I think it depends on the situation. I can definitely see your point about classism. On the other hand, in my tight-knit congregation of about 140 people, we mostly know (or at least recognize) everyone, and since many people are away in the summer, it’s really nice to have a service that gathers everyone in and gives people a chance to say just a couple of words about where they’ve been recently. We care about each other and enjoy hearing what the familiar faces have been up to. Sp I’m on the fence, because it can be classist and it does provide something meaningful and lovely to most of our parishioners.

  11. I tend to think that people inclined to yak on about their vacations and the virtuous things they are doing that connect to the water (I’ve done that one) are going to do it anyway. The water ceremony doesn’t do anything for me personally, but I see it as harmless.

  12. I think water communion is a useful ritual/sacrement. I have been a Christian since about 1959, but am no longer confortable partaking of communion as it is sometimes denied to those who condone abortion.

  13. I’ve shared many of the feelings presented here. I’m glad that our minister has retooled the ceremony so that it is more about the mingling of the waters than about personal stories. He combines readings and music while people line up and come down the aisle. He explains that the water includes some of what was saved from the previous year and then much of it is poured into the memorial garden. But before we start to mingle the waters, he asked people to turn to a neighbor and share from where they brought the water or what the water symbolizes. It allows everyone to share without holding us all hostage to the travelogue and brings us back to a sense of worship and communion.

  14. I have always loved ingathering, more for the ceremony and reunion of “church family” after a long summer of not attending services for fear of melting in the AZ heat. It’s been quite a while since my congregation was small enough for people to show & tell. I remember it being that way when I first joined about ten years ago, but for quite some time people have just added their water to an urn and softly said where their water came from. This year my minister had about six urns and asked us to gather in small groups and share our names and where our water came from or symbolized, and what it meant to us, which I really enjoyed.

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  16. I resonate with what DairyStateDad, Steven Caldwell, and Ms. Kitty posted.

    I’ve done water communion at a number of churches, and I’ve seen it done all kinds of ways. Mostly, I’ve seen it at its best: not a “what I did on my summer vacation” but a ritual of life’s passage.

    Even if you call it a “ceremony” instead of “communion” (I know some folks make that argument, to which I have some counter-arguments), I think it has meaning. Water communion is one of the things that brought my wife more fully into Unitarian Universalism. As a lifelong UU, for me, I took it for granted. As a religious professional, I also had to live with the tension of worrying about folks going over the aloted time for sharing, worrying about someone saying something inappropriate (especially since it is usually a multigenerational worship service), and so on and so forth…which definitely diminished my appreciation for it.

    But then my wife re-introduced me to the ritual. For her, it represents people coming together on a human-to-human level. When I think of the things that she appreciates about it, actually, it seems to invoke the spirit of early Christianity. Very community-centered, and it helps contextualize our lives religiously.

    There is a beautiful Spirit Play presentation on water communion. It is the story of water, really. It is the story of this very substance of our being that continues on and on. The same water that represents one person’s tears after the loss of a loved one or one person’s daily walks at the pond in the park is the same water that rained over dinosaurs at one time. I’d be happy to share that lesson some time with you if you want.

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