WATER AS A METAPHOR FOR COMMUNITY
By Rev. Kit Ketcham, Sept. 13, 2009
Picture this, if you will: seven young women, all teachers or about-to-be teachers, standing on the shores of Dillon Lake, a huge reservoir in the Front Range of Colorado which supplies the Denver metropolis with water, seven young women gazing with mixed fear and anticipation upon seven small Sunfish sailboats pulled up on the shore.
None of us had ever sailed before and the prospect ahead of us was daunting. We were going to have a race across the reservoir in two days, each of us alone in a boat, sailing to three different checkpoints where our leader would note our time of arrival and send each of us back out again on the course.
Dillon is big----over 3000 acres---and it’s at about 9000 feet of elevation. We were small, and on our Outward Bound rations of cheese and hardtack and raisins, we were getting smaller. But we were also getting stronger and we were past the point of believing we were weaklings who would fold at any challenge. When our leader told us we could do this, we almost believed her!
But first we had to learn to sail! Luckily, the weather was fine---warm and sunny---and we quickly became fairly proficient at the tiller, at dodging the mast as it swung about, and even at tacking to take advantage of the mild breeze. Two days of this and we were ready for anything!
The morning of the race dawned bright and clear and we snarfed down our instant oatmeal and did our morning routines of cleaning up camp and getting ready to go. We figured we had plenty of time; the race would take about 4 hours and we ought to be back at camp by mid-afternoon.
But we hadn’t considered that the weather might change and in those days before cell phones or mini-computers, we had to rely on our own observations for a forecast. As we launched our tiny boats, a light breeze sprang up, ruffling the limp sails and somebody said, “oh goodie, there’s going to be a little wind” not knowing that just behind the mountain ridge loomed dark thunderheads, clouds we couldn’t yet see.
Isn’t this just the way life goes? There’s always something just behind the metaphorical mountain ridge that we can’t see, throwing us a curve that will surprise and alarm and challenge us to meet it.
We launched in a small cove and as we rounded the shoreline and headed out into the main body of the lake, the wind picked up---and picked up and picked up. Now we could see the clouds building but they didn’t look too bad and we didn’t want to be wimps, so we continued across the lake toward our first checkpoint, the distances between boats widening as the wind strengthened and white caps on the water splashed over our bow.
Storms come up awfully fast in the Colorado Rockies and this one, which seemed tame enough at first, quickly turned into a doozy. Here we were, seven young women in seven small Sunfish boats, with metal masts, and lightning beginning to strike the ridgetops around us.
Now this story doesn’t have heroic rescues or tragic endings to heighten the drama. It’s just a story of how seven young women, who had been together in Outward Bound about ten days at that point with a few adventures under our belts, looked at each other from the cramped safety of the smelly park service outhouse and thanked our lucky stars that we were alive, that none of us had capsized in that stormy water, that nobody had been struck by lightning, that our boats had conveyed us through the wind and waves to safety on the shore of the first race checkpoint.
The significance of the story has to do with the growing sense of community and camaraderie among seven young women on a challenging and unfamiliar journey because of their shared experience.
That’s what we have here at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Whidbey Island: shared experience. Our connections, both here within these walls and in the larger community, form a bond between us that makes us more than just fellow residents of the island or members of the same gym or service organizations. We are a community in and of ourselves.
When we pool the waters that represent our personal lives and the important experiences of our lives, we signify that we are bringing our deepest selves to this place, that we are willing to share the meaning of our experiences and our being with one another.
Just as we are a community, bringing all we are and all we have into this relationship, watery places too are a community, a biological community, affected by all that it absorbs. Like a human community, the water community must be kept pure, free from pollutants, in order to bring the greatest good to the greatest number.
We depend on water to keep us healthy and functioning as individuals and as groups. We depend on water to keep the earth and all its creatures healthy and functioning. We depend on water to give us beauty and to foster growth. We depend on the cleansing power of water.
We depend on water to work for us---the tide regularly and predictably brings in food, allows us to navigate the waters of rivers and oceans, gives us energy that can be turned into power, and scours the shoreline. We use water in cooking, in medicines, to control fire, to float our boats, and to irrigate our crops.
Water plays with us, inspiring our creativity and offering us joy as we splash in it or scud before the wind as it fills our sails, or thread our way through rapids in our small boats, or depict its beauty in artistic ways.
Water has its cycles: from liquid to solid to gas, cycling from rain to ocean to clouds and again to rain or snow, becoming liquid and then freezing, melting, evaporating and condensing.
Our human community has its cycles as well; folks come and go, visitors become members, members become active leaders, we grow older and more tired and others step in to do the tasks we once performed, people die or move away and we recognize our losses while adjusting to the new circumstances of life.
And, like the human community, water needs balance: too much or too little of it is a problem. Too much means flooding, damage to the land and to its occupants. Too little means crop failure, starvation, devastation of societies.
How do we find balance in our human community? As human beings we are fallible, affected by gossip or accusations or misunderstandings. A faith community like ours makes every effort to keep our communications clear and kind. We encourage people to talk directly to each other about their concerns, not behind their backs. We give each other the benefit of the doubt as much as possible and yet we do our best to uphold standards of behavior that are exemplified in our seven principles.
We strive to keep each other safe in this community. We want to be inclusive, but we cannot overlook behavior that endangers or damages the community. This can be difficult but it is important that our children and our adults all feel safe here. We have policies to fall back on when that safety is endangered or violated.
Our seven principles are our guides to our behavior in community, as they encourage us to be mindful of the worth and dignity of each person and that each of us plays a part in the preservation of the interdependent web of existence, which supports and nurtures us.
As we have brought our contributions of water to this communal container and have listened to Mark and Ken read the words we’ve written to describe what the water means to us, we come together in another moment of shared experience.
Our life together as a community of love and justice now contains all our recent experiences of joy and sorrow, of growth and insight.
But harking back to our story of sudden storms and danger and connection, there’s an important point to be made: whatever the unexpected challenges that you and I may face in our human journey during the coming year, we are not alone. We are not alone. We are together here and that bond will serve us well. We are here to care for each other and for those beyond these walls.
And as we get ready to make our way together through another year, I am reminded of this passage from one of the publications of my first UU church, Jefferson Unitarian in Golden, Colorado:
“We have a congregation where each member is a minister and with each smile, each kindness, each word of encouragement, every offer of help, every hug and touch, every moment spent listening to another, we knit up the rips and tears in the interdependent web of existence and bring each other closer to spiritual wholeness.”
Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that our community is a place of safety and encouragement to spiritual growth. May we strive to live lives of integrity and kindness, speaking our truth in love and respect for each other’s inherent worth and dignity, for it is in this way that we heal ourselves and each other and knit up the rips and tears in the interdependent web of existence, of which we are a part. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.