Sermon: Priming the Pump

2021 September 12
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

A few weeks ago, I went to visit a friend who lives up in Washington Heights. My kids were at camp and I had some time, so I decided to take a CitiBike from my place in the west 70’s. I thought, it will be beautiful. It’s a sunny day; I’ll ride on the bike path next to the Hudson River and basically just take a right when I get there. Had I known that the park where we were meeting has a plaque in the ground bragging that it’s the highest point in all of Manhattan, I might have opted for the subway. But I eventually made it, sweaty and late, and it was fine. And on the way there, heading north, it was beautiful. The bike path was lined with trees and it hugged the river, which looked majestic. Jersey, my homeland, was gliding by on the other side. The GW bridge rose up in the distance and the Palisades beyond. I felt good and strong.


I could almost say this was a perfect moment. Except for one small detail: the West Side Highway raging ten feet to my right. The relentless roar of the traffic, drowning out any other sounds. The air suffused with the aroma of car exhaust. I started worrying about whether it’s actually healthy to exercise next to a highway. And so my moment was a split screen experience – the beauty on one side and the ugliness on the other; the fresh air and the polluted air; the natural sounds and the machine sounds; nature regenerating itself and nature being scorched by burning gasoline, the feeling of health and the feeling of peril. It was so good, except. So good, except.


Isn’t that how life so often is? Even life at its best, when things are going great. So good except for one thing, one irritant, one downside, one nagging worry, one thing that gets in the way of our being able to say, “Ahhh… I have finally, completely arrived.” We still long for it, though. We long for that moment of wholeness and catharsis. Maybe it’s a primordial memory of the Garden of Eden or some preconscious time in our mother’s womb. Maybe it’s longing for a future time when we will feel fully embraced by the universe, fully connected; when, in Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed’s words, we “unveil the bonds that bind each to all.” The a-ha moment when we say, “Wow! We really were one and loved all along!” We look for it in music, waiting to be immersed in the climactic moment when all the melodic themes come together in a swell of emotion. We look for it in relationships, yearning to be fully known, fully loved, with no part of ourselves left out in the cold.


And today. Today was a day when I think many of us were longing for that full catharsis. We probably pictured it many times – I know I did – the day when we would all come back together as one community, no social distancing, no masks, no fear, no questions asked. Our clear voices lifting up and joining as one. Everyone would be here. Everything would be like it was before, but with more gratitude. It would be pure, unmitigated joy. Well, it’s not quite like that, is it? It’s so good, except. Here we are again. So good, except.


Now, I’d like to think we’re doing a little better than a bike ride next to a highway. We are together – some here in the sanctuary and some on zoom with a fabulous new video stream and the ability to chat in joys and sorrows, jokes and commentary. We are singing together. We’re hearing the sounds of harmony that were so hard to come by in the height of the pandemic except through the arduous musicianship and magicianship of Adam who wove together our virtual choirs. Depending on our level of comfort, we can touch: we can shake hands, we can hug. We can make eye contact. And here we are. Maybe a lesser version, definitely a different version; not exactly what we were dreaming of, but here we are. Here we are with abundant gifts. This is what is.


And so the spiritual question, I believe, for all of us is, what now? What do we do with what is when it’s not exactly what we had hoped, when it doesn’t completely scratch the itch, but it’s still pretty damn good? And what do we do with what is when it’s not good at all? This question is not just about here at First U, but in our lives in general. We find in this life so much goodness and so much joy, so much to be grateful for. Dreams do come true. But rarely, if ever, in the way we expected. We rarely, if ever, get all of what we were longing for. And what do we do with that?


One option is, I’m gonna’ take my ball and go home. That’s the old story of the kid who brings his ball to the playground and the other kids don’t want to play the game his way or maybe he loses the game, and he gets mad and frustrated, and he takes his ball and leaves and now nobody can play. I think we all have that impulse sometimes when we wanted something so badly and we really feel like we deserved it and it doesn’t happen and we get mad and we just want to not play anymore. I’m not going to trust any more after I’ve been betrayed; I’m not going to love any more after I’ve been hurt. We sometimes want to withdraw ourselves and retract our gifts from this disappointing world.


The other option is, I’m gonna’ try to find the faith to keep giving. I’m gonna’ try to find the courage to trust again, to love again, to accept whatever goodness there is to be had in this world and send whatever goodness I’ve got back out. I’m going to keep bringing my ball back again and again and again so I can play and you can play and everybody can play. And that’s actually how the game gets better and better and better. When we withdraw, abundance fades; when everybody stays in the game and everybody keeps giving, the abundance can grow. It is ancient wisdom, in fact, that when we make a practice of always giving back part of what we receive, the value of the gift keeps growing and growing. If you want a pump to give you water from deep underground, you have to prime it first: you have to pour some water in first, for the gift to come out.


The native peoples of the Pacific Northwest practiced this in their potlatch gift-giving ceremonies and their gift offerings to the natural world. Gift giving stimulated a virtuous cycle with the land. In their mythology, the other species were nations, like human nations. The salmon lived like people in lodges underneath the ocean and they voluntarily donned fish skin every year to swim up the rivers and provide food for humans. When the very first salmon of the year would enter the mouth of the river, it would be caught and an elaborate ceremony would be performed in the salmon’s honor. The meat would be shared with the entire community, and the bones of that first salmon would be returned to the ocean to reconstitute itself and revive and return to its nation.


Did the indigenous people believe literally that the fish had a condo under the sea? Probably not in the sense that you or I would think of “literal belief.” But reality operates on many different levels, in many different dimensions at once. With any great myth, there is a level on which it is profoundly true. And so the giving back to the fish and the giving back to the ocean at the level of ritual ripples out to shape the practices of a community. And then the community gives back to the land and ocean in countless ways, never taking without also giving.


We have an opportunity to do this ritually here at First U with our annual Water Ceremony. I think maybe in this profoundly imperfect year, it is more poignant than ever. This year it marks our coming together after the pandemic forced us apart for so long. We have each lived by water, and now we will give some of it as a gift to the community. When it’s time – not yet – each of us is going to pour some of our water into one of the two basins in the side aisle chapels or in the two balconies or into this beautiful baptismal font from 1853. The water that results, part salt-water, part fresh water, some chlorine, tap water, hospital water, vacation water, trillions of microorganisms, … this water will reflect the diversity of all of us. It will include the pain and the joy that we’ve each experienced over this time. Combined, it will be something new.


And this is the really special part: we’re going to add to this water 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. So this water is intentionally a mixture, just like life. Some of it will come from pure, sparkling springs and some will come from polluted sources. If we were to drink it, it would probably taste disgusting and make us sick. This mixed water, split screen water, so good except water; this is the water that we call holy.


This is the holy, imperfect water with which we bless people. We will use it in our baby blessing ceremonies right from this same baptismal font (after boiling it, of course). 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 so when you give your gift of water today, know that as this water gets mixed and remixed and passed down through the generations, babies born to people not yet born may receive your blessing.


But there’s one more step. In the spirit of the indigenous people of the Pacific northwest, we are not going to just gather and use holy water for our own purposes. We are going to collectively give some of the gift back. We are going to return some of this water to the cycle, add it back into the sacred mix of waters. Next Sunday, not today but next week, 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 be in a sacred relationship of reciprocity with the land and sea.


Before we begin, I want to offer a prayer for our Water Ceremony today. I pray that through this symbolic act of giving the gift of our water to the community, we can participate in the great reciprocity of life. I pray that this water might hold all of the mixture that is our lives – the disappointments as well as the love, the incompleteness of things, and the hope for things to come. And I pray that the blessings we give today through the water that we pour will ripple out in this community for generations. We’re going to begin by priming the pump with our water from past years.


I invite you now to find the water that you brought. 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 your own prayers infusing the water. Then, when you are ready, please come forward and add your water to one of the basins at the front of the sanctuary. Those of you in our online community, I invite you to pour your water into a bowl and if you’re in town, you’re welcome to bring it to the church this week and we’ll add it to the whole.


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