I want to be with people who submerge in the task, the task of living full lives. Today we celebrate both those who keep warm the hearth of our common home and those who have journeyed far from their homes as each brings to us a deeper understanding, renewed commitment, and ampler hope. Will those of you who have brought water from your homes, oceans, fields, streams, puddles, and those who will pour from this symbolic pitcher of water come forward now to merge the water of the world at this time of reunion.The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures. It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers. It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth and death, in ebb and flow. I feel my limbs made glorious by the touch of this world of life. And my pride comes from the life throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.
[Rabindranath Tagore]I want to tell you at story. This was from 1987 one of my first Rainbow Gatherings in Nantehala National Park in western North Carolina. I was hiking back into the site and I passed a pickup truck whose bed was filled with a series of huge, multiple-gallon plastic water jugs.
Someone yelled, “Hey, brother, can you lend us a hand?” There’s an unwritten understanding at the Gathering that, if you’re asked for help, and you’re not doing anything else, you’ll help. This is not, I might add, a bad way to behave in general society. I said sure and stepped up.
Eventually about ten of us lined up to help, including one fellow who was naked except for his shoes. Let me explain a little here about the dress code at the Gathering—there is none. It’s not unusual for most everyone to wander the trails naked at one point or another. There’s something freeing about dropping trou and letting everything air out, and it genuinely feels good. After about a day, you stop noticing the nakedness of other people. Still, at least this guy had on sneakers. I was barefoot.
We got all the water jugs off the truck—there must have been two, maybe three dozen—and then we split into several groups and plunged wooden poles through the handles of maybe fifteen or sixteen jugs spaced out at intervals and then we ranged alongside the poles and hoisted. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried lifting water. It doesn’t stay still like something solid. It sloshes and heaves like a thing alive. With ten of us in teams of two and the poles on our shoulders we still needed to shuffle under the weight and stop about every dozen feet to flex our hands and shift position. Let me tell you a little about the layout of the Gathering—once you’re past the barriers keeping people from driving in and most of the alcohol out, you still need to hike another three, sometimes five miles to achieve main camp, which of course was where the water was headed. I don’t know how far it was that year, but if you told me it was ten miles, I wouldn’t dispute it. And I spent the entire trip behind the naked guy wearing only shoes.
So we started off. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. “Wait a minute!” Rest. Hoist. Grunt. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. “Wait a minute!” It went like that for almost the entire hike to main camp, and I will tell you, it may be true that hippie men are more in touch with their feminine side, but it’s also nonetheless the case that not one of us was willing to admit he was ready to quit. A number of people passed us going the same way on our route but no one asked for a replacement.
Much of the way was dry road but it was straight up. There were deep gouges on either side—it was a ranger’s access road—so we were limited to going down the center along a narrow band about six feet across. This may not sound very hard, but imagine it while lugging slippery, sloshing, slithery plastic jugs of water with nine other hippies, none of whom were really paying attention to where he was going. There was much swearing when we’d veer toward one of the ruts on the side and on occasion we had to stop and back up a couple feet to avoid a gash that had opened out of one of the ruts. And it seemed like no matter how much I tried to concentrate on my bare toes kicking up pebbles below me, I focused instead on the very naked hippie bobbing directly in front of me.
Then of course there was the mud. A part of the road was skirted by a stream that crossed the road, making a mud bog about twenty feet across. This bog was further softened and widened by thousands of feet tramping through it for a few days, extending and deepening it so that walking through it was like walking through a deep layer of frosting, complete with little flourishes where our feet broke free and left tall whippets. This was the point at which my bare feet probably came into their own, since it’s easier to slog through such stuff unencumbered by the worry that your shoe will be sucked into the earth’s core forever.
We started out joking and laughing and one or two guys were singing, but all that stopped after about the first half mile. I stopped carrying a watch in 1983 so I have no idea how long it took us to carry that water to main camp but I can vouch that the sun, which was high overhead when we started was hovering somewhere on the horizon. We were dirtier, sweatier, smellier and a lot less companionable than when we’d started. But I can also tell you that it felt really, really good to finally drop those jugs into place by Main Circle. People cheered us and lined up for some life.
There is a direct line between the things we do and the lives we touch. Carry the water, drink the water. Water, like help freely given by people who wear more than just shoes, is something we often take for granted. But it’s as alive as we are.
To take a for-instance: the water we use in the pitcher symbolizing other waters comes from the tap here at UCN. The water comes from our own well which is a part of the aquifer making up the Lake Michigan Basin, a great underground sponge that sops up water from as far east as Lansing, Michigan, and South Bend, Indiana, and as far west as the headwaters of the Fox, the Wolf, the Brule, and the Mishigamme Rivers. The Lake with its forests to the north and the world’s largest freshwater dunes to the south acts as a giant filter. It is so large it has exhibited small lunar tidal effects. Because of its cul-de-sac formation the water in it is in constant circulation, and the amount of time that it takes for water entering the lake to exit the lake is ninety-nine years. If you were fifty and could somehow mark the water you pour into the lake at St Ignace, your great-grandchildren could stand with their children at the port in Mackinaw City to watch it flow back out.
After our service, our children will pour the collected water into our gardens here at the church, but it doesn’t simply end there. It will join the waters of the basin and when it emerges through the Straits of Mackinaw into Lake Huron, it joins the Great Lakes Flow where it merges with water from Lake Superior to pour into the comparatively shallow shells of Lake Erie and then crash over the boulders and bleached bones of failed aquanauts at the base of Niagara Falls into Lake Ontario from which, by the St Lawrence Seaway, from which it will eventually spew through the Gulf of St Lawrence between the provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick to merge with the glacial currents of the northern Atlantic.
But as we speak in our seventh principle, it does not end there. The web of interdependent existence demands that from the Atlantic, you may remember from your sixth grade science class, the water evaporates in the sun, condenses as it rises, forms clouds. The clouds move across the land, across Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, meet with the freshwater condensation over Lake Superior, form larger, heavier clouds, drop their loads of precipitation on the fields of Manitoba and Ontario. The runoff from the fields flow south, meet in creeks and streams and small rivers. Science has explained that there is exactly as much matter in the universe today as there was several seconds after the Big Bang. An altogether efficient system.Another, final metaphor of living water. Take the hand of the person next to you. Get a good, solid grip. Note the jump and flutter of that person’s pulse. The thrum of what lies just beneath the skin. This water that lives within us calls us to come together to feel the life’s blood under the skin. This is why we come to this place.