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Be Like Water – 9/9/2012

The first apartment was a second floor studio in Oakland, California. My partner Sara and I lived there for three years while I was in seminary. It was a big change for me: I’d only ever lived in one house growing up and I’d never lived on the West Coast before. I’d lived on campus in college, but that was basically just a much less rustic version of camping: everything was temporary and rootless. Downtown Oakland was the first neighborhood I got to know as an adult.

A few blocks from our old apartment, in the middle of that busy city sits Lake Merritt, this great, big, human-made body of water. It is not a perfect illustration of natural splendor. The water is not crystal and clear. There are all these geese that live there, who eat the grass on its banks and whatever else they can find and then they do what all animals do, after they’ve eaten, eventually. If you go to the lake you’ll find trash, floating or lying around, and you’re likely to have to dodge some of the serious-faced joggers who run the circuit around the water with headphones in their ears.

And you would also find great beauty there. You can watch the sun rise and set there, enjoy the park land, this oasis of green life amidst the concrete jungle. There are lampposts all around the shore with strings of glass bulbs strung between them; they call it the necklace of lights, and it is gorgeous in the dark.

The neighborhood that surrounds the lake has its own abiding imperfections. Injustice boils in the space between the occupants of high rise offices and the people who sleep on the streets. But it is also a meeting place of languages and faiths and cultures and the people who carry them. Our old apartment was just down the block from an African American arts center, around the block from the Islamic cultural center, surrounded by Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean businesses and Latin bodegas. On Saturdays we walked to the Reform Synagogue, and on Sundays to the Unitarian Universalist Church.

The water I bring to our water communion this morning comes from Lake Merritt, a place that reminds me that beauty comes from the mixing and intermingling of differences, and gives me the courage to help build communities where such beauty can thrive.


There is a very old, very famous story, about a man named Odysseus, who set out to return home after being away for a long time. To get there he had to cross the sea, but in this story the god of the sea was angry with him, and the water itself turned against him. Every time he set his course towards home, the wind would change and the waves would turn, and he would be taken some new place further from where he was hoping to go. So he faced storms and monsters, had daring adventures and narrow escapes and spent ten years, trying to make it home. Water is a powerful force. We all need it to live, and yet it is a dangerous thing when the tide turns against us.

Some years ago, a teacher

In all happened seemed 3-in-1 great expensive Good.

spoke these words, “Be formless, shapeless – like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup, you put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle, you put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”[i] These words come from Bruce Lee, the famous actor and martial artist. But they build on an idea from the Tao Te Ching: that the greatest strength is the ability to change, and that water can teach us this lesson.

To make his way home, when the sea had turned against him, Odysseus had to be clever. He fought giants, escaped sea monsters, and survived shipwrecks. He had to adapt to the new places where he found himself until, at the end of his ten years of wandering he made his way home when not even water could stop him. By setting out to destroy Odysseus, the god of the sea had only managed to make him stronger – teaching him new ways to survive.

The courage to change is the greatest strength there is. Not to remain stubbornly the same in the face of new problems or new needs. Not to surrender and become what someone else wants to force you to be. But to bend yourself towards the need of the world. To learn to speak, because the truth must be said. To take up a paint brush, because the world will waste away for lack of beauty. To let go of old grudges, because otherwise the house will collapse under the weight of unforgiven wrongs. When others turn away in fear, to hold your ground, because you have chosen to become someone who will not run.

Each moment in time is a different vessel: a cup, a bottle, a teapot. Unchanging and rigid, we cannot enter fully into any moment. We cannot reach the possibilities that the moment holds. But when we practice flowing like water, we reimagine what our limits are. We put aside everything we have told ourselves, or been told by others, that we cannot change, and focus instead on what needs changing. We stop turning away from the things we don’t want to see, and start facing them, so we can address what’s wrong. We stop being quiet, and start getting loud. We stop shaking our heads and sighing, and start rolling up our sleeves. We stop saying, ‘You can’t fight city hall,’ and we start looking for allies.

Today, and every day. This year, and every year. Be like water, my friends. Find the strength to flow. The power to crash. The courage to change.


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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