Water, River, Sap, Breath, Life: A Sermon for Opening Sunday, 2000
Here I am, I am thinking, in the fifty-fourth year of my life, the thirty-first year of my marriage, the twenty-ninth year of my ministry, the twenty-seventh year of my parenting, the thirteenth year of my ministry here at First Parish, and the first year of my being an in-law. What are the years for you and what would you list? It is the beginning of something today, I can feel that, perhaps an opportunity to stand up on the tip of our toes and peek down the sliding year into who we will all become next year, as individuals, as families, as a congregation.
One of the many books I read this summer, this one thanks to a loan from Ross Harris, was River-Horse, by William Least Heat-Moon, a story of river travel across America, two portages only, this native American, this philosopher, guiding us both across the continent and also somehow guiding us into our own lives and souls and spirits. Somewhere in the upper Missouri River valley, he lays back one afternoon along the shore and reflects on who he was twenty months before. “Could he- the me of that moment [months before] ,” he says, “could he and I sit down together, he would want to know what I knew and absorb what I had experienced, and he would regard me enviously…Our physical components change every seven years, so our brains are continuously passing along memories to a stranger; who we have been is only a ghostly fellow traveler.”
And then he asks, “What might I learn from him who laid out the voyage or from all those others I once was?” For him it is “the eighteen-year-old who wanted to write, the thirty-year-old who wanted to teach, the waiter who wanted a paycheck, the sailor boy wandering Port-au-Prince, the callow kid who nearly fainted the first time a girl really kissed him, the boy too old to be afraid of sleeping alone in the wood but who was. What a report I might deliver to them about where they have sent me! And how they could remind me of first kisses…They could redraw the faded lines on the long map of my journey here, point out clearly where it was I took a road other than the one they intended, and they could tell me whether they liked that [choice] or not, whether they found it a good one or rankly stupid. Were human memory total and perfect, perhaps I’d be only one person from start to finish, but forgetfulness cuts me off from who I’ve been so that hourly I am reborn.”
It is with these thoughts that I invite us to begin this year of sermons and singing and silence, prayers and protests and planning. Who have we been? Where are we going? As much for our own selves as for this tribe of people we have become, eating and laughing together, teaching our children, remembering our dead, celebrating love and the seasons, the holidays and holy days of our lives. And so I began with the litany of my years, as I invite you to silently list yours, remembering who we have been, each of us, the choices we have made, a conversation with our past selves and how far we have come.
It is early September in this year we have numbered 2000, and some among us have brought water today, a basic element, water gathered from many places and memories, commingled now in this basin, to be purified and used to dedicate our children this year, a symbol of purity, we say at the time of dedication, as in, “I touch you with this water, which is a symbol of purity, and with this rose, a symbol of your unfolding life.”
I think of my own past summer, my own time apart from the usual routine, and I have spent much of my time by the water: first, the Cumberland River, as it winds its way through central Tennessee, my home for three years, the self that was me then, my self becoming a student of theology and divinity and reflection and coming to know people and touching their lives in new ways. I spent some time this summer in Sweden, in a farm right on the Baltic Sea, and I traveled all one day on a boat into the Baltic, departing with a group as a stranger, returning as a friend. Elizabeth and I spent time in a long familiar place on Sebago Lake in Maine, watching the lake through both its violent storms and also its “true blue dream of sky,” as e.e. cummings put it.
I have hiked along the Sudbury and walked around Walden Pond. We have been with family on Great Pond in the Belgrade Lakes, with friends in Brewster on the inner Cape, and thanks to friends, right on the water of the South County in Rhode Island, looking out through much fog at the shape of Block Island. I am drawn to the water, and this summer, I have wondered at its meaning. Please keep me now from analyzing all this to death. I believe the meaning of water is more than chemical, more than biological, it is spiritual.
First, a reminder of the readings, from Jan and from Kathy, the first reading from the aforementioned River-Horse, William Least Heat-Moon along the Ohio River somewhere below Wheeling, West Virginia. The Osage people, he says, use the same word for “water”, for “river”, for “sap”, for “breath“, for “life”, itself. “The sea is the wind made visible,” he says, “a river is the land turned liquid…A river- with its attendant cascades, eddies, boils, and whirlpools- is the most expressive aspect of a natural landscape, for nothing else moves so far, so broadly, so unceasingly, so demonstrably, and nothing else is so susceptible to personification and so much at the heart of our notions about life and death.”
And the second reading, long a favorite of mine, from Loren Eiseley’s The Immense Journey. He wades into one of the early tributaries of the Platte River, and then he says, “I lay back in the floating position that left my face to the sky, and shoved off. The sky wheeled over me. For an instant, as I bobbed into the main channel, I had the sensation of sliding down the vast tilted face of the continent…Moving with me, leaving its taste upon my mouth and spouting under me in dancing springs of sand, was the immense body of the continent itself, flowing like the river was flowing, grain by grain, mountain by mountain, down to the sea…I was water and the unspeakable alchemies that gestate and take shape in water.” Then he says, “I tottered as I rose. I knew once more the body’s revolt against emergence into the harsh and unsupporting air, its reluctance to break contact with that mother element which still, at this late point in time, shelters and brings into being nine-tenths of everything alive.”
This has always been more poetry than science to me, this bobbing out into the main channel, this sliding down the face of the continent. We speak of water, but we are speaking, too, of the river, we are speaking of the sap that flows in the spring, we are speaking of the breath of all beings. We are speaking of life itself. The Osage people knew this. Our own spiritual forebears knew this. Those who wrote and gathered the Psalms knew this, choosing for Psalm One these words, Revised Smith translation. “Happy are those whose delight is in the teachings of God…They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.”
Or these words we may have known since childhood: “He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.” And I am thinking of paintings by Doug Baker, one over my desk in the office downstairs, capturing the waves and the sky and the color, a restoration of the soul for me as much as the times we have watched the lake in the early morning, watched the river as we picnicked by its banks, watched the waves hit the shore, almost hypnotically watched the waves and the tide and the water. Something holy and ineffable touches my soul, restores my soul, in those moments. Has this been true for you?
And the Christian scripture, too, the teachings of Jesus and John and all the rest: being born of water and of the spirit in order to touch the kingdom of God, they said. The holy ones, says the Book of Revelation, “are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Should you now be struggling with all this theologically, please stay with whatever it might mean to you to dip into the springs of the water of life, and now the meaning of water is literal, figurative, and metaphorical, a grand slam of imagery. This spring of living water, this fountain of water, is at the heart of the first of three understandings I have gained in all these reflections and readings. Water is first a source of power and potency.
Irving Friedman, writing in Parabola a few years ago, says “water satiates the thirst of all forms of life, irrigating the earth. It is then evaporated by the fire of the sun and completes its cycle by descending again, as dew, as gentle rain, as torrential downpour. Quenching the eternal thirst of the earth, it becomes a symbol for what satisfies spiritual thirst as well. A source of fresh, running water symbolizes a source of life- physical or spiritual.” Look where we are in this town: where the Assabet and the Sudbury Rivers flow together. John Hanson Mitchell calls Concord “a centering place”, from the Hopi people, “the place where you belong, the spiritual core of the universe.” Water has power.
Water is also a symbol of purity. It cleans us, literally and metaphorically. Friedman says that the Jews in the Middle Ages, when the name of God was to be transmitted “from a master to his pupil required their prior immersion in water. ‘Then both must stand up to their ankles in water, the teachings dictate, and the master must say: “The voice of God is over the waters!”’” The Christian Gospels record the story of John the Baptist, one who baptized Jesus himself, and Matthew says when Jesus came up out of the water, “suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove.” The Christian sacrament of baptism has kept the water central, either by touching on the head with water or by full immersion, “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Water purifies.
And finally, and this leads to a poem and the final hymn, water somehow contains intuition. We see in water our reflection or what we want to see. Water is fluid in all senses of that word. One author says it “merges with its medium.” We float and we take what meaning we can. We sit by the sea and watch the water, and we meditate. We empty out old thoughts and welcome new ones. We watch the waves, the current, the stillness, and we find there what meaning we can. Water contains intuition. It is evocative. It is more than H2O. Water has power. Water purifies. Water allows for imagination.
And so, I leave with you a poem, entitled “First Lesson” by Phillip Booth. Spencer sent it to me by e-mail. Kimi read it to us at a clergy meeting on Wednesday. Something there is that wants me to pay attention to it. The poem reminds me of my own childhood, at the Maine coast, out in the water, with a brother or a parent, floating on my back with a gentle hand under me, and then the hand letting go, and I still floated. If I thrashed, I sank. If I lay still, I floated. Oh my, says William Least Heat-Moon, what we could learn from the “me” that came before, a lesson forgotten. If I thrashed, I sank. If I lay still, I floated.
First Lesson by Phillip Booth
Lie back, daughter, let your head be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you.
Spread your arms wide, lie out on the stream, and look up,
laugh at the gulls.
A dead man’s float is face down.
You will dive and swim soon enough where this tidewater ebbs to the sea.
Daughter, believe that when you tire on the long thrash to the island, lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you and let go,
Remember when fear cramps your heart what I told you:
Lie gently and wide to the light-year stars,
Lie back and the sea will hold you.