Sermon: The Bank of The River by Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons

2019 September 8
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

The Bank of the River

Ana Levy-Lyons

September 8, 2019

First Unitarian, Brooklyn


Water is trending. We’re talking about it all the time these days. Too much of it; too little of it. Water in the wrong place at the right time and water in the right place at the wrong time. The people of the Bahamas are suffering a calamity of floodwaters. The people of Newark are dealing with contaminated water. And in other places around the world, people can’t find any water at all. We are so, so lucky that in New York City we get to just turn on a tap and out comes clean, safe water that we can drink and take showers and baths in. Most of us even get to choose how we want our water, hot or cold or somewhere in between. New Yorkers use about a billion gallons of this clean, safe water every day.


Long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue and came to this world that he called the “new world,” because it was new to him, this place was full of life. Where we are sitting right now was covered with dense forests, alive with creatures large and small. The rivers – what we know as the East River and the Hudson River — were teaming with fish – hundreds of different kinds. If you looked in the water, you would see schools of them swimming. And people lived here – the native Lenape people had lived by these rivers for three thousand years. Three thousand years they lived on the banks of these rivers.


The bank of the river was truly a bank for them. It held riches, jewels in its liquid vault – it had abundant food, materials for clothing and jewelry and trading, it was a travel-way to faraway places. The current was currency. Its waters carried minerals and nutrients and gifted them to the soil and the soil was fertile. Water was wealth; water was life.


Like good stewards of a river bank account, the Lenape people used what they needed and saved the rest. Mother Nature supplied the interest and life continually regenerated. Now I don’t mean to idealize the first peoples who lived here – they were flawed humans just like us today and guilty of greed sometimes, just like us. And yet, on the whole, for three thousand years, the humans who lived here lived in balance. When the European colonists arrived, they found amazing abundance. I don’t think I need to tell you how the humans who live here now do it quite differently. You can see it with your own eyes. We’ve all been benefitting temporarily from an overdraw on the account.


We can see it with our own eyes and yet sometimes we don’t see it. Or we forget to keep seeing it. So many of us live in the new world of virtuality these days. So much of our human stuff takes place in the abstracted dimension of the internet. The things we do, we do through words on screens; the places we go, we go through the camera lens; the spaces we share, we share only in our minds. But in reality, we’re always still here. We’re still physical beings. We still live on the bank of the river. By the grace of the bank of the river. We are still dependent on the waters of this world – the oceans, the rivers, the freshwater lakes and reservoirs, the groundwater and springs. Water still is life. There is no substitute. There is no e-water that will quench our thirst.


And so it’s a healthy thing once in a while to notice where we are physically on this planet. Let’s do it now. Let’s locate ourselves in the physical world. If you’re comfortable, let’s close our eyes and feel our bodies. Feel where we are touching the seat, the back, the floor. Maybe we’re touching someone else. Here where this building sits, we’re on a hill. The Lenape name for this hill that we call Brooklyn Heights is Ihpetonga, meaning, “the high, sandy bank.” Notice how high up we are. If we walk to the edge of this high sandy bank to what we call the Promenade, we look out over a spectacular sight – the place where the ocean touches the land. We live by the ocean here. It’s hard to remember that sometimes – the mighty Atlantic Ocean. An ocean so deep in places it’s five miles straight down. An ocean so wide that if we climb into the fastest sailboat, as the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg just did to come to New York, it will take us weeks to cross it. This great and powerful, life-giving ocean kisses the base of our high, sandy bank. It’s a wondrous thing. You can go down and touch it this very afternoon.


If you keep looking from that same spot on the high, sandy bank, you see that two rivers from the north also merge there. What we call the Hudson River brings fresh water down from the hills miles and miles away carrying it out to the open ocean. But the ocean tides flow in at the same time, resisting the outflow, carrying the ancient waters from far away and driving them up into the land. Near us, it’s an estuary, which means that the tides mix the saltwater and fresh water. You can find salt water as far north as Albany. The native name for the Hudson River was Muh-hee-kan-uk, which means “great river that flows two ways.” See the waters as they mix and swirl and dance with each other.


The second river that connects with the ocean here, the East River, is not a river at all – it’s a passageway that connects the Long Island Sound with New York Harbor. It’s completely salt water. We’re on an island here. On a high, sandy bank on an island. And we are utterly dependent for everything we have on the waters that surround us; the lifeblood of this earth. For everything we love, we rely on it. We bank on it.


You can open your eyes if they’re still closed. But this kind of noticing where we are in the world is something we can try at home too. We can take a little time every day to stop and remind ourselves that we are animals living on this earth. We can look around and know the place where we stand has a history. The land has a natural shape. It has high parts and low parts, soft parts and hard parts, water and dry land. And when the rain falls on our little piece of land, it runs one way or the other. Just like when rain falls on our head, the rain on the right side runs down the right side of our face and the rain on the left side runs down the left side of our face. The earth has a body just like we do.


So we human animals sitting in this sanctuary right now, we find ourselves at a spiritual estuary as well– people come together from all over the world here, our ancestors just here in this room represent every corner of the earth; streams of humanity from different places, different cultures and languages, different religious oceans. There is a holy inflow and outflow, mixing and sharing. And in this liberal religious community we celebrate the spirituality of ocean water and freshwater together. The saltiness of religion and the clarity of reason mix here. The ancient deep pools of wisdom welcome the new rainfall.


In a little while, we’re going to share our annual Water Ceremony. This is a ritual we do here at First U to mark the coming together of our community after the summer and to make holy water. Of course all water is holy because it is life-giving. But holy water, for us, is water that sparkles with the energy of a little bit of each of us, a little bit of each of our stories.


We each have some water with us (if you don’t, you can get some from an usher.) When it’s time – not yet – each of us is going to pour some of it into one of the three basins or into this beautiful baptismal font from 1853. The water that results, part salt-water, part fresh water, some chlorine, trillions of microorganisms, … this water will reflect the diversity of all of us. Some may come from exotic vacation destinations, some may come from the tap at home, some may come from the hospital where someone spent time this summer. Combined, it will be something new. And this water we will call holy.


This holy water will be the water we’ll use to bless people. We will use it in our baby blessing ceremonies right from this baptismal font. When we touch that water to a baby’s head, it will transmit the blessing from each of us in this room to the baby. And when one of our gathering is ill or dying, if they would like, they can also be touched with this holy water and receive our blessing. Through this holy water, each of us will be able to lovingly give a part of ourselves.


And here’s the coolest part: we’re going to add this water to last year’s holy water, which includes water from several years before. At the end of this year, we’re going to save a little of our holy water to include in next year’s holy water, so each year will also include molecules from each of the past years. If we do this for the next hundred years, your water will still be there, however diluted, taking part in making the blessing. Babies born to people not born yet will receive your blessing. Elderly people in their final days on this earth will receive your blessing. You may even receive your own blessing back someday.


But there’s one more step. In the spirit of the Lenape people who maintained their river bank account for three thousand years, we are not going to just gather and use holy water for our own purposes. We are going to make a symbolic deposit in the bank. We are going to return some of this water to the cycle, add it back into the sacred mix of waters. After the service I will take some of our holy water and you are all invited to join me, and we’ll walk down to the waterfront and invite the children to pour it back to its source. We’ll make an offering of water to water, with a prayer that we may always take good care of it.


We can also find more practical ways to honor our water, not taking more than our share. We can save water. Of the billion gallons that New Yorkers use every day, we only drink 1%. We could use a lot less water in our showering and laundering and cleaning and flushing. We can avoid buying bottled water and drinks from powerful corporations that often use their strength to take water from poor communities that need it to drink. We can eat less of the foods that use a huge amount of water in their production, like foods that come from cows. And we can use our powers to fight the causes of climate change – the greatest threat to fresh water on this earth. On Friday, September 20, Greta Thunberg and the youth of this world are leading a global climate strike, asking everyone to leave their jobs and schools and show our support for immediate climate action. I’m going to participate in this and I hope you will join me. You can read about it in your orders of service.


On the holy ground of this high, sandy bank and in the sacred space of this sanctuary, I want to offer a prayer for our Water Ceremony today. I pray that our bodies and our hearts might become estuaries. That we might relax our need for solid ground once in a while and allow in multiple tides and multiple sacred streams. I pray that we will become water lovers and water protectors. And that the blessings we give today through the water that we pour will ripple out in this community for generations to come.


I invite you now to find the water that you brought or get some from an usher. Hold the container in your hand and press it against your heart or your forehead or your belly and pour your blessing into it. Picture the energy of your own love infusing the water. First, we’re going to pour some of the water from previous years. Then, when you are ready, please come forward and add your water to one of the four basins at the front of the sanctuary.



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