An action I saw on Sunday morning made me think about water in religion and how it's important in so many faiths. The priest dipped a branch into a bowl of water, then used the branch to sprinkle the congregation with the water. No, it wasn't an aspergillum and the liquid wasn't called holy water.
The priest, the Rev. Karen Ryudo Do-on Weik, was dipping a broken pine bough into “wisdom water,” and she sprinkled it on the people attending a Jukai, or membership ceremony when initiates accept the Buddhist precepts, at the Great Heartland Buddhist Temple of Toledo. My first thought was of the Roman Catholic Church and its use of sprinkling, and the similarity of the action in the Eastern and Western religions. At the ceremony July 14 when Sister Jennifer Marie Zimmerman recited her final vows as a Sister of Notre Dame, a priest also used a branch-like sprinkler to rain holy water on the congregation.
The wisdom water practice is “handed down to us from our ancestors,” Rev. Do-on said.
When I asked Rev. Do-on the story of the broken pine bough, she gave a very Zen master answer: “All you have to do is go out to a pine tree and try it for yourself, and the story will be there.”
I should bow in apology; instead of going out, I went online and found an essay by the Rev. Joan Jiko Halifax, abbot of the Upaya Zen Monastery in New Mexico, titled “A Broken Pine Bough.” “The broken pine bough brings together the truth of the relative aspects of existence with existence’s eternal ultimate boundless expression, the truth of suffering and the absence of suffering, the truth of the phenomenal world and its emptiness of inherency, and the truth of interconnectedness as well,” she wrote. Though it's broken, the pine bough gives nature and beauty in look, smell, feel, and in other ways.
“Our wisdom is coming through this brokenness,” Rev. Do'on said. When she sprinkles the wisdom water, “it feels just like a moment of freshness, a moment of newness.” She also said it's fun—the children especially enjoyed the rain-like sprinkling. Rev. Do-on spoke of “the joy of it, the surprise of it, and something changes.
“And that's kind of really what Zen is about, is really just being changed by the moment, we are changing, and the freshness of the moment.”
Water is important to religion in most, if not all, faiths. In my own tradition, Unitarian Universalism, many churches have a water ceremony in the fall, in which people bring water they have collected from near and far over the past year, they might tell a story about where the water is from, and they pour the water into a common bowl, so all of the people's individuality and the representation of knowledge gained in other places is brought back to be shared in their midst. Both First Unitarian Church of Toledo (where I am affiliated as a community minister) and Maumee Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bowling Green will have water ceremonies on Sept. 8.
A minister friend uses salt water when he dedicates a child, and he speaks of the sea of life from whence existence began, the sweat of the children of Israel when they were slaves in Egypt, and the tears Mary shed for her son. We don’t normally think of salt water for worship, but the images of life, labor, and sorrow give it a place.
Water is integral to many faiths. Muslims have a washing ritual before prayer services. Orthodox Jewish women still observe a ritual bath in an ancient cleansing practice. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints uses water, not wine or juice, for its communion. And of course, holy water is used to baptize. In Christian churches, baptism, whether by sprinkling water on the head or full immersion, gives a person a place in the congregation.
Water goes back to the beginning of the Christian church. Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, the first miracle recorded in the gospels was his turning water into wine, and in the book of Matthew he’s said to have walked on water.
And don't forget about the flood. The biblical story of Noah and many ancient myths of other faiths say that floods nearly ended life on Earth.
We’re very religious about our relationship with water—at least, when we encounter it in a sacred setting.