Water Ritual, 2023

Homily and moment for all ages copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.

The Water Ritual

[introduced by Dan Harper and Kate Sullivan]

The water ritual helps us recognize how our common humanity connects us together. We symbolize that connection when we each pour a bit of water into a common bowl. The water ritual also reminds us that when we come together here in this meetinghouse we can become one in our common humanity.

As you pour your water into the common bowl, think about where your water came from. Then think how your water connects you with everyone else here. Perhaps you brought water from your kitchen sink, precious water in this time of drought, water that connects you with everyone else who lives in this watershed. Perhaps you brought water from the ocean, and it reminds you of how you’re connected to all the creatures that live in the ocean. Think about where your water comes from, and how it connects you to other humans and non-human beings.

Here’s how we will collect the water. Mary Beth will play music for us. When she begins playing, please use the center aisle to come up to the front of the Meetinghouse. When your turn comes, pour your water in the common bowl, thinking about where it comes from and how it connects you to the universe. Then please use the side aisles to return to your seat.

We come from different walks of life, from different ethnicities and races, from different political persuasions. Yet in spite of our differences, we are all connected, we are all one people.

Moment for All Ages

[This is a slightly revised version of my “Connected by Water” — if you want the PDFs for the large numbers, click here then scroll down till you reach it.]

We already heard how when we each pour water into the common bowl, it symbolizes that while we are separate individuals, we are also all connected. Now let me tell you how it is literally true that we are all connected through the changes of the water cycle.

You probably know about the water cycle. When it rains, water falls from clouds onto the ground, and eventually it flows into a river, and all rivers flow down to the ocean. Water evaporates from the ocean and forms clouds, the clouds drift over the land, it rains, and the cycle begins again. You’re in the middle of this cycle because you drink about 2 liters of water every day, and then you sweat or urinate which puts water back into the water cycle. Water is constantly on the move through the water cycle.

You probably know that water is made up of molecules, and that each water molecule is made up of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen. Water molecules are incredibly tiny, so tiny you cannot see them. If you had 18 grams of water, or a little more than half an ounce, that would be about 6 times ten to the twenty-third (6×10^23) molecules. The molecular weight of water is approximately 18, and therefore 18 grams of water should have a number of molecules equal to Avogadro’s number, or 6.02 x 10^23.

This is a fairly large number. I can show you what this number would look like. This would be 602 — [start unfolding the large printed version of this number]. This would be 602 million. OK, if I go any higher, I’m going to need some adults to help me hold this very large number up (I need adults because they are tall enough to hold it up where everyone can see it). [Get three or four helpers to hold up the number.] Thank you! Now you can see this very large number: 6.02 x 10^23, or 602 sextillion.

If you’re a child who weighs about 77 pounds, or 35 kilograms, then you have about 20 liters of water in your body (adults, you can multiply up to figure it out for yourselves). That’s approximately 20,000 grams of water, or 6.02 x 10^26, or 602 septillion, molecules of water in your body if you’re a child. And if you drink 2 liters of water a day, you’re replacing about ten percent of that, or 6 x 10^25 molecules, each day. So if you are 3,650 days old (that’s ten years old), about 2.2 x 10^28 water molecules have already passed through your body. This is an even larger number, and here’s what that number looks like — [start unfolding the large printed version of this number]. Oh, I guess I’m going to need helpers to hold up this number as well. [Get four or five people to hold up this number.]

Because water is constantly cycling around, and because every human being has such large numbers of molecules of water cycling through them, there’s a very good chance that each one of us has at least a few molecules of water that were formerly in the body of Socrates, the great philosopher. We each probably have some molecules of water that were once in the body of Jesus of Nazareth, and of the Buddha, and any number of great and wise people who lived in the past.

Thus when we say that we are all interconnected, that statement is quite literally true. We are all interconnected through the water cycle, not only with each other, but with all living beings past and present. Jesus of Nazareth, Confucius, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ellen Sewall Osgood: you might be literally connected with each of these good and wise people.


The first reading was by Linda Pinti. This is part of what she read during the original 1980 Water Ritual when she poured her water from East Lansing, Michigan, into the common bowl: “…I took my bucket and went out to the Grand River. As I gathered water I watched the river: moving, flowing, changing. I was reminded of an image in depth-psychology which tells us that each of us, each of our beings, is like a well: if you dig down deep enough into the well of our beings, you will hit the ground water that we all share. The ground water which flows between and among us connects us to each other and to the ‘All That Is’….”

The second reading was a poem by Pat Simon from the original 1980 Water Ritual. Pat’s poem can be found on the Unitarian Universalist Women and Religion website — scroll down, or search for “Simon” to find her poem.


Here we are, back together again at our annual ingathering service. And I wanted to tell you just a little bit about the Water Ritual that’s the centerpiece of this annual service.

The first Water Ritual grew out of the feminist movement in the 1970s. At that time, quite a few Unitarian Universalists started asking some hard questions about religion. For example, even though we started ordaining women as ministers way back in 1863, by 1970 almost all our Unitarian Universalist ministers were male: why was that? Another example: in those days, our hymns referred to all of humanity as “mankind” instead of “human kind”: again, why was that?

One of the people who was asking these hard questions was Lucile Shuck Longview, a member of First Parish of Lexington, Massachusetts. In 1975, Lucile Longview decided to challenge the sexist language and attitudes that then existed in Unitarian Universalism. She wrote up a resolution to be voted on by General Assembly, the annual gathering of Unitarian Universalists. She later recalled:

“I conceived of and wrote the [Women and Religion] resolution and sent it to 15 associates around the continent, soliciting feedback. They encouraged me to proceed, and offered suggestions. At First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts, six other laywomen, one layman, and I sent personal letters to members of churches, with copies of the petition to place the resolution on the agenda of the 1977 General Assembly [and] we received more than twice the requisite 250 signatures.”

I met Lucile Longview twenty years after this, when I worked at First Parish of Lexington. She was quite a person. I can imagine her sitting around the big wooden butcher block table in the large pleasant kitchen of the Lexington congregation, talking over the proposed Women and Religion resolution. All eight of those people were parents, and Lucile herself had been the director of religious education for the congregation. All of them wanted to be sure that the children and teens in their lives were treated equally, no matter what their gender was.

I’m going to shorten this story by leaving out some major plot twists. Suffice it to say that Unitarian Universalsits at General Assembly voted unanimously for the Women and Religion resolution. As a result, we started work on a new non-sexist hymnal — that’s the gray hymnal that we still use. And we started supporting all genders to become ministers, so that now less than half of Unitarian Universalist ministers are male, and the rest are women and other genders.

Another result of the Women and Religion resolution came in 1980, when a large group of women gathered in East Lansing, Michigan, for what they called a “Convocation on Feminist Theology.” For the Convocation, Lucile Longview and her friend, Carolyn McDade, developed the Water Ritual to welcome the people who came to the meeting. They asked several people to bring water from wherever they lived. During the Water Ritual, everyone sat in a circle around a big bowl. The women who had been asked to bring water poured the water they had brought from home into the big bowl. Even though everyone shared just a little bit of water, soon the bowl was full, a symbol of how big changes can happen if each person does just a little.

The Water Ritual soon was adopted by almost all Unitarian Universalist congregations. (Somewhere along the way, people started calling it “water communion,” but to honor Lucile Longview and Carolyn McDade I’m going to call it the Water Ritual.) Each year, we have a Water Ritual here in Cohasset to remind us for two reasons: as a way of gathering together again for another year; and to remind ourselves that all genders are equally important.

I feel as though rituals and ceremonies like these are especially important in today’s world. I am deeply troubled by the rise of extremist groups like the Proud Boys, who tell us in their loud voices that women aren’t as good as men. I’m also troubled by the state governments that are passing laws that discriminate against transgender and non-binary gender people. These people do not believe that all genders are equally important, and equally good.

The Water Ritual also seems important when I remember that men still get paid more than other genders for doing the same work. And this is true everywhere, including in workplaces where you would expect equal pay to be the norm. One example is Vassar College, which has long proclaimed itself as being dedicated to equality between the sexes. You’d think that if any employer understands that women and men deserve equal pay, Vassar College should understand it. Yet the tenured professors of Vassar College are currently bringing a lawsuit against Vassar alleging that there has been a pattern of wage discrimination against women professors. Reuters news agency reports the allegations: “The percentage pay disparity between female and male professors on its faculty has grown since the school year starting in 2003 from 7.6% to 10% in 2021….”

And gender-based discrimination covers more than just the wage gap between men and women. Women and other genders are far more likely to be the victims of gender-based violence than are men. Women are far more likely to be victims of domestic violence than are men. Men, on average, have better access to better health care than do other genders. Men are far more likely to fill the highest wage jobs, like being the CEO of a company, than are women and other genders. All this is, quite simply, unfair.

So we Unitarian Universalists need to stand up for the dignity and the equal worth of all genders. Jesus of Nazareth and Rabbi Hillel both taught that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. The old-time Universalists taught that all persons are equally worthy of God’s love. Some of us might talk about the inherent worth and dignity of all persons. Or we might affirm the importance of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called “Beloved Community,” in which all persons are valued for who they are.

Each year when we have the Water Ritual, we are reminded how we are all connected. And the Water Ritual goes beyond reminding us how we are all connected — it also reminds us of the essential equality of all human beings — all genders, all races, all ethnicities have inherent worth and dignity, are all equally worthy of universal love. May we live out this dream in our lives in the year to come.


See: “The Water Ritual” on the Unitarian Universalist Women and Religion website for the original 1980 Water Ritual.

See: “Water Rituals and Ingatherings, Revitalized” on the Harvard Square Library website for a historian’s account of the Water Ritual.

Ingathering water ceremony

The following words were given by Rev. Dan Harper at the annual ingathering water ceremony. As usual, the text below is a reading text. Copyright (c) 2005 Daniel Harper.


It has become the custom in many Unitarian Universalist congregations to hold an ingathering water ceremony each year at the close of summer.

The water ceremony started in the 1970’s, when Lucile Shuck Longview, Carolyn McDade, and other strong feminists wondered about creating a worshipful ritual which would recognize the strength and power of women. They created a ceremony where women got together, each woman bringing a small amount of water to represent some part of her life; and then the waters from each woman were gathered into one communal bowl to symbolize that we are all connected, that we are all a part of life.

Each person here this morning will have an opportunity to come forward, and add a small amount of water to this bowl. Perhaps you read the newsletter or the announcement in last Sunday’s order of service and brought water from some place that is important to you, or from some place you visited this summer. Or perhaps you brought a memory, or an idea of a place that is important to you, and you will use one of the small cups of water up here to symbolize water from some place that is important in your life, or from some place you visited this summer.

One by one, we will pour water into the communal bowl. Each of us is an individual, each of us is important to this community: even if this is your first time here, this morning you are as important to this worshipping community as someone who has gone to this church all their lives. Our worshipping community is made up of the hopes and dreams and aspirations that each of us brings here this morning. We symbolize that by pouring a bit of water, a bit of who we are, into this bowl.

And water connects us with the wider world as well. When it rains, the water tha falls on this church drains into the harbor just down the hill from where we sit, and flows into Buzzards Bay, and out into the stormy Atlantic Ocean: so rain becomes oceans, oceans become clouds, clouds become rain –– become us become the world. Water connects us with each other, and with the whole world.

The original ingathering water ceremony was created in protest and in anger, and some of that remains as we gather together today. Bodies of water around the world are threatened by pollution and misuse. Our own New Bedford harbor is a Superfund site due to years of pollution with PCBs. Fresh water sources are getting contaminated, or overused. Water ties us to everything around us, and so this ceremony also represents a responsibility and a commitment for making the world a better place.

If you would like to add water to the communal bowl, please come forward now, and line up over there (point to my right). One by one, walk up and put your water in the bowl. If you would like to tell us where your water came from, please say your name first, and speak clearly into the microphone. And please limit yourself to one or two sentences, so everyone can have an equal chance to speak –– and so we’re not here all afternoon.

I’ll begin: My water comes from the Fox River in Geneva, Illinois, where I lived up until month ago. The Fox River is a quiet little Midwestern River currently suffering from a severe drought….


So we have mixed water from different places, water of memories and thoughts and emotions. So we come together again as a worshipping community. Rivers and oceans run though us….