by IDA SILKENAT
While scientists are still working to figure out the precise mechanisms through which this spectacularly improbable thing called life came to be, there is a general consensus that
the chemical processes which led to the formation genetic material, which became organised into cells and the earliest living organisms, took place in water. It is hypothesized that
life on Earth existed only in water for millions of years before evolving to move onto land. This watery planet is the only one known to host life, and when scientists search for life
elsewhere in the universe, they focus on areas where there is evidence of water in some form, either now or in the past. Ellen Stofan, former Chief Scientist at The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, has said, ‘We think water is key to life as we know it.’ I have read that water is both a polar molecule and a solvent. I don’t claim to understand exactly what that means, but for reasons that surpass my admittedly limited understanding of science, these
properties are apparently what make water critical to the chemical reactions that promote life. All this to say that water is, quite literally, the source of life.
We come from the water. Even now, as land dwellers, when new human life grows inside a womb, it develops in a sac filled with amniotic fluid, of which water is a primary component. We are made of water. When we are born, our bodies are around 75% water. The average human adult body is composed of 50-65% water. We are constantly reminded to drink more water, to stay hydrated, as water is vital to almost all of our bodily functions.
The first civilizations developed around water, in Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in the Indus River valley in what is now Pakistan and northwest India, along the Nile in Egypt and the Yellow River in China. The development of agriculture was the key to humans’ ability to shift from a nomadic way of life, to settle down in one place, and form societies. Understanding the water cycle was essential to farming. Harnessing water power and developing ways to transport it efficiently over long distances led to the spread of civilization. Water brought humans together into settled communities.
Given these rather academic scientific and historical connections between humans and water, it is no wonder that water has become so significant to us symbolically, metaphorically and spiritually as well. We are intuitively drawn to water. In our offices, we slip away from our desks to ‘gather round the water cooler.’ When we have time to get away from the daily grind, we often head to beaches, rivers, lakes and ponds as places for recreation, relaxation, renewal, and
connection to nature. Some people find that listening to recorded sounds of water helps them to fall asleep at night. We refer to the flow of our thoughts as a ‘stream of consciousness.’ We speak of the tides of life with its ebbs and flows. We are said to have a thirst for knowledge,
understanding or meaning.
One of the most obvious uses of water in religious practice within our own society is the Christian spiritual cleansing of baptism. As Unitarians, we pay homage to our Christian roots
when we use water in baby blessings. Ritual cleansing is also important to Muslims who wash certain parts of their body before praying or handling the Quran. In Buddhism, there is a
story in which Buddha is thirsty and asks his disciple to go to a nearby lake to fetch him some water. When the disciple arrives at the lake, he finds a bullock cart driving through it
and churning up the mud from the bottom of the lake. The disciple returns to Buddha and explains that now the water is unfit to drink. Sometime later, Buddha sends the disciple back
to the lake to fetch some water, but the disciple finds the water still too dirty to drink. By the third time Buddha sends the disciple back to the lake, the sediment has settled and the
water is clear. Buddha tells the disciple that our minds are like the lake. Sometimes they get agitated like the churned up muddy water, but if we allow them to settle, they will become
calm and clear again. In Hinduism, every temple contains a large reservoir of water, a temple tank. Many religions hold certain bodies of water as sacred and attribute them with special cleansing or healing properties.
But just as water has the power to cleanse, heal, and restore, it also has magnificent destructive powers as well. Tsunamis, floods, and hurricanes can wipe away entire towns. Recently we have witnessed the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey in Texas. South Asia is accustomed to the monsoon season, but this year it brought unusually high levels of
rainfall resulting in flooding and many deaths. Three weeks ago, torrential rains in Sierra Leone triggered a massive mudslide, killing hundreds and leaving thousands homeless. Some of the flood deaths in Pakistan have been attributed to electrocution as floodwater in urban areas became electrified.
As I was preparing for this service last year, the news was filled with pictures and stories of refugees, including small children, drowning as they attempted to cross the water in unsafe vessels in search of a better life. The same rain we need to water our fields and fill our reservoirs can also destroy our homes and take our lives. And when water doesn’t come, we suffer from droughts; too little water causes as much harm as too much. As much as we can find serenity in water, we can also be left feeling broken and powerless.
This duality is in keeping with the nature of life and spirituality and plays out clearly in the Book of Genesis. Water features prominently in the creation story which opens the Bible. God
hovers over the waters; he creates a vault between the water to separate water from water; he gathers the waters under the sky in one place to create the land and the seas; he ‘created
the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it;’ and at every stage, he saw that it was good. But at some point, parts
of his creation, namely humans, cease to be good, and only a few chapters later, God uses the same water which was good in the beginning to wipe out much of what he has made in a
The language of human difficulty is also filled with water metaphors. We may be inundated with work or tasks or difficult things to deal with. When we are frustrated or stuck, we may feel stagnant. Or perhaps we are feeling depleted or uncreative because our well has run dry. If we are lonely and isolated, we may feel like an island, surrounded by water, separate, cut off from others. When we feel grief, we may cry rivers of tears.
But even the destructive powers of water have left behind natural wonders and places of great beauty. Rivers and glaciers have carved out the land and made magnificent canyons, valleys, and rock formations. Similarly, painful experiences which wear away at us when we go through
them, can leave in their wake beauty, peace, and deeper understanding. These are the canyons of our soul.
And finally, after the storm, there is the rainbow, nothing more than light shining through water droplets lingering in the air, but a source of beauty and awe, and a symbol of hope.
Copyright Ida Silkenat used by permission.
Given in St Mark’s on 3 September 2017. Ida Silkenat is a member of St Mark’s.
CHRISTINA HAMILTON contributed the Chalice lightings words. A number of people brought water from places significant to them, and, during the service, explained why these places were important and special for them.
CHRISTINA HAMILTON, Each day I contemplate how my Unitarian faith brings me closer to understanding the web of life, our being interconnected with each other, with animals, with nature and the elements.
I thought about one of those elements, water, a lot this week, and about this morning’s service. I’ve always enjoyed it as one of my favourites in the UU calendar. We are so fortunate to be able to bring water from our summers away, lakes and rivers close to us, and from our own kitchens. It is a joy to present our water at St. Marks as snippets of memories we’ve made or the lives we lead.
In other respects, water, especially this week has been front and centre in our minds and in our hearts.
Today I light the Peace Candle for those in Texas, Mumbai, and other places in the world who have watched floods wash away their homes, belongings, businesses, and seen the water take lives of loved ones and strangers.
For the children who are scared and don’t understand what’s happening, and the elderly who have lost all they worked for to be faced with nothing. For the disabled and ill who feel trapped and afraid.
This devastation has reduced many thousands of us interconnected human beings to other kinds of floods:
Floods of tears. Tears of sadness at the shock and horror, and glimmers of hope when we see tears of joy from families finding a loved one safe.
May the light of our Peace Candle reach around the world and into the hearts of all souls affected by floods and may our flame of peace and love help light the way for those around the world who are suffering.
MARY McKENNA’s offering gives a flavour of what other people shared. The water was poured into a communal vase, and was used after the service, by the children, to water the indoor plants in the sanctuary.
MARY McKENNA, This water is from the River Forth, once our gateway to the world.
Today John and I have the privilege to walk across the latest bridge to span our river, the new and very beautiful Queensferry Crossing.
As Unitarians, we prefer to build bridges rather than to build walls.
We are interested in breaking down barriers, facilitating communication and seeing things from
We appreciate the beauty of nature, and using science and technology to enhance our world, rather than to threaten it.
The new Queensferry Crossing is a good example of this:
it complements its neighbouring bridges from previous centuries and aspires to serve our
communities in Edinburgh and Fife for many years to come.