As you have undoubtedly gathered by now, from the music, the scripture reading and the altar, we are celebrating water today. We are paying attention to the transformative and healing qualities of this essential element, and we are focusing more particularly on the importance given to water purification rituals in the world’s many faith traditions. For generations, people from all corners of the world have given water a central role in the way they relate to the Divine. So I am asking the question, why is this so? What is the purpose of the Jewish mikveh or Christian baptism? Who do Muslims practice ablutions before prayers? Why do Hindus wash in the Ganges River? What’s the fascination with water and spirituality all about?
Let’s start with the universal spiritual significance of water. It is a symbol of clarity and purity in every religion. Cleansing by water is part of our collective spiritual consciousness, and even more fundamentally, it is an unavoidable part of existence not only for humans, but for the animal kingdom at large. Some people and animals like to avoid it, but everybody and everything has to get washed sometime. Have you ever thought about this? You know the bird baths you see in people’s yards? They look a little like baptismal fonts, or Holy Water urns! Next time you see birds taking a bath you’re going to think of that! Those birds are getting holy! Especially if they’re cardinals! (Please, don’t throw things at me.) And elephants… we love to watch them bathe, spraying water on their bodies with their trunks! They are self-sprinkling with Holy Water from the jungle! Seriously, though, we can’t get away from regular washing in water if we are living and breathing on this Earth. We do it habitually--it is a part of our physical routine. And we wash the dishes…the wise and venerable Buddhist teacher we all love, God bless him, he was on Oprah last year: Thich Nhat Hanh. He teaches about washing your dishes as a spiritual practice. He says to wash your dishes with gratitude and mindfulness.
So we know a lot about physical washing, or what Jesus called washing the outside of the cup. But what about washing what’s on the inside? I am not referring to a cleanse or a detox! That’s still the outside of the cup; that still falls under physical washing. These water purification rituals we see in the many faiths, these are about spiritual washing. And can we take out our spirit and soap it up? Can we wash it and hang it out to dry? No, not really, so this water purification in the different religious traditions is a symbolic act. We are symbolizing with the water what we would like to experience on the inside of the cup as well as the outside. We are focusing not just on the physical, but on spiritual cleanliness and purity. So then a mikveh, or a baptism, or a river immersion, or any water purification ritual symbolizes washing impurities and things from our past away, so that we can emerge into a new spiritual reality; it is a preparation for, an initiation into a significant spiritual act or commitment. It is symbolic of transformation and new birth.
Let’s look at how we humans are celebrating this symbolic ritual around the world, just to get a glimpse of the richness and commonality of our beautiful spiritual traditions. Let’s take a virtual world tour.
We’ll travel East to West. First up on the map is Japan, the birthplace of Shintoism. The Shinto tradition was created from the way the people of ancient Japan systematized their understanding of and relationship to the Divine. Like so many of the world’s faith systems, this one started with connection to and reverence for the Earth. The people in ancient Japan believed that the Divine inhabited trees, rocks, mountains, springs of water and other natural phenomena. From the inception of Shintoism, each act of worshipping the Divine began with water purification. This is why you will find a trough for ritual washing inside of every Shinto shrine. Waterfalls are held to be sacred in Shintoism, and standing under a waterfall is a powerful purification practice. When I learned this, I was very touched, since standing under a waterfall is a visualization practice I have used from early childhood in moments of stress, and I seek out waterfalls as natural meditation sites now. Again, this comes back to our collective spiritual consciousness as humans. Waterfalls are also used in Japan in practices called suigyo, translated as “water austerities.” These are practiced in Nichiren Buddhism today. Some Buddhists have adapted the ancient Japanese ritual of standing under waterfalls while chanting sacred scriptures. Now, Buddhist monks and nuns practice suigyo for cleansing and purification, by standing in front of basins of pure water which have been blessed by the Sui-jin, the water deities. They sing sacred words from the Lotus Sutra while using water from the basin to purify themselves before beginning their daily spiritual practice. The Lotus Sutra instructs monastics to clean themselves within and without, and these are the particular verses they chant during suigyo.
Next stop, India. We are staying in Asia for the time being. I’m trying to take an efficient route. In India, and elsewhere, Hindus begin the day with morning cleansing by water. This is often done on a river bank, so let’s visualize a river: In a practice called Tarpana, the worshipper makes a cup with his hands and pours the water back into the river reciting mantras. After sipping some water, he may then apply the distinguishing mark of his sampradaya (tradition), and say the morning prayer, samdhya. Sodhana is a word that means “cleansing,” and the name of the Hindu purification practice. Physical purification is a part of daily ritual which can be very elaborate. Every Hindu temple has a pond near it and worshippers are supposed to take a bath before entering the temple. As in Japan, natural sites featuring water are considered sacred in India. Indeed, to Hindus all water is sacred, especially rivers, and there are seven sacred rivers, the Ganges being the one we are most familiar with, and with good reason because it is an extremely important sacred river in Hinduism: In the Ganges the pure are made even more pure, and the impure have their pollution removed if only temporarily. In the sacred water, distinctions of caste are supposed to count for nothing, as all sins fall away. Although Hinduism encompasses so many different beliefs, all Hindus strive to attain purity and avoid pollution. This relates to both physical cleanliness and spiritual well-being, as in all the faiths we are discussing. (Just an aside here, we know that there is a huge pollution problem in India and by Western standards it is very dirty, but when we think this way we should remember compassion and think back to the great pains that Western countries went through as they industrialized, and we should remember the very different history that India has, the multiplicity of faiths there, and the many forces that prevent the sort of universal cleanliness seen in some Asian countries such as Singapore.) Before we leave India, I must mention the first cleanliness requirement I learned from the tradition of Yoga: it is the first of the niyama, the five fixed observances in Yoga, and it is called sauca, the Sanskrit word for cleanliness. Yogis talk a lot about what this cleanliness really is, and how we are to attain it, and while it does have the external aspect of physical purity and orderliness of our surroundings, sauca is about spiritual purity. Here is a short passage from a great book about yogic mysticism and parallels with the teachings of Jesus, Quest for the Kingdom, by John Newman:
The meaning of sauca is not the cleanliness that comes from washing one’s hands before eating; rather, it is about the internal cleanliness that results from paying attention to spiritual cultivation. Several teachings that go back to Jesus speak directly to the first niyama of yoga. The aphorism What Goes In is a direct literal attack on Pharisaic purity codes. Jesus insists that emanations of one’s ego (what comes out of one’s mouth), not the food one eats (what goes in), subvert one’s spirit: “What goes into your mouth will not defile you; rather, it is what comes out of your mouth that will defile you.” Another saying of the historical Jesus criticizes the traditional Jewish purity code of external washing: [and this is in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke as well, but John Newman quotes the Gospel of Thomas] 1Why do you wash the outside of the cup? 2Don’t you understand that the one who made the inside is also the one who made the outside? (pg. 157).
Then the author goes on to explain the insinuation that the Pharisees were neglecting the internal for the external, in his words, “paying attention to what is impure and transient outside of us, and not paying attention to what is pure and permanent inside of us.” (id.) I appreciate these reminders from yogic teachings as well as Christian teachings, to retain constant awareness of the spiritual purity we are seeking, lest we become overly attached to surface purity in our cleansing rituals, neglecting the inside for the outside. That is such an important part of today’s lesson, and it’s a good segue to move us over to our next destination on our field trip: the Middle East.
Let’s start with Israel, since we were just discussing the ancient purity code in Judaism. Generally, the laws in Judaism concerning ritual purity and cleanliness come from the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and also from a much later source, the Code of Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah, which was written in the 12th century. Many definitions of what is considered kosher or not, in Orthodox Judaism, are found in the Mishneh Torah, but for our purposes we will just talk briefly about the purity code in the Torah, because the rules on ritual purity and ritual washing that Jesus addressed are found there, and because some of those washing and sprinkling practices persist to this day in Judaism and of course in Christianity which came out of Judaism. In Judaism ritual washing is intended to restore or maintain a state of ritual purity. These ablutions can be washing the hands, the hands and the feet, or total immersion which must done in 'living water', i.e. the sea, a river, a spring or in a mikveh. A mikveh is a Jewish ritual bath. Only water that has not previously been drawn into a container can be used, and there must be no leakages. In Temple times ablutions were practiced by priests, converts to Judaism as part of their initiation rites, and by women on the seventh day after their menstrual period. Priests had to wash their hands and feet before taking part in Temple services. The ritual washing of hands is performed before and after meals and on many other occasions. We see this same type of ritual washing in Islam, and it is most particularly evident in the ritual washing that is done five times a day before salat prayers. In the washing before salat, the face, hands and feet are cleaned with water, but sand can be used when water is not available.
In Christianity, we are all familiar with the rite of Baptism, which depending on the denomination, is done either by full immersion into water or by pouring a small amount of water onto the crown of the head, which for a baby is often referred to as a christening. Baptism is symbolic of initiation into the Christian community of faith, and of a new birth as a Christian. Many Christians see baptism as a symbol of new life following death. Christians use water in sprinkling rituals as well, and sprinkling is a practice that is also inspired by earlier Jewish practice. Substances other than water were to be sprinkled for various ritualistic purposes, most commonly blood. Blood was sprinkled on the altar of sacrifice as part of the ritual for a variety of sacrificial offerings, and the sprinkling of blood is associated with the ceremony of covenant ratification. Members of the Jewish priesthood were sprinkled with blood as part of their ordination ritual. Blood sprinkling was also done in something similar to what we might call a “house blessing” today. The sprinkling of water for ritual cleansing was indicated under certain circumstances, such as following any contact with a corpse. My favorite reference to the sprinkling of water, in all of the Bible, is found in one of our scripture readings today, Ezekiel 36:24-26, which mentions the sprinkling of water by God onto the people, thereby renewing their hearts and spirits. This verse is so well-loved because it combines the idea of ritual cleanliness with the phenomenon of profound spiritual renewal. This sprinkling referenced in Ezekiel is a washing of the inside of the cup, the heart and the spirit. Following such a transformation, we are able to live from our spirits rather than from the impermanent part of ourselves, the heart of stone referenced in Ezekiel 36: the ego center. That is the understanding of it that makes the most sense to me, and that not coincidentally jives with the practices in the other faiths we are looking at today.
Speaking of these other faiths, before we wrap up this world tour, it’s time to jump over to Africa and then to the Americas, if only briefly. Africa is such a vast continent with practically innumerable tribal spiritual traditions and rituals, water of course figuring prominently in many. In my research for today, one particular ritual caught my eye because it tied into what have learned about the Jewish purification rituals surrounding death. In South Africa, following a funeral the guests are invited to partake in a meal at the home of the deceased. Before entering the house, they must each follow a cleansing ritual, washing off the literal and figurative dust from the graveyard. Sometimes pieces of freshly cut aloe are placed into the water, and this is believed to ward off bad luck or negative energy surrounding the circumstances of the death, and re-center the focus on life rather than death. Again we encounter the concept of a water ritual signifying new life following death.
To end our tour, let’s finish in North America, where we are physically residing at the moment. Native American spirituality is another vast swath of practices and information, so again I have chosen one particular water ritual to describe, and it is from the Cherokee tribe. The Cherokee do something called “going to water,” in their celebration of the first new moon in October. The Great New Moon Ceremony represents the celebration of the new year for the Cherokee, so along with the other ways they celebrate, such as dancing and sharing produce from the fields, they immerse in water seven times to wash away the past and purify themselves for a new cycle. Again, we see here a cleansing of the past, a washing away of the old self to welcome in a new beginning.
Now we can put down our bags, settle into this space and ruminate some more on the meaning of these water rituals. We have seen that water purification rituals are sometimes once in a lifetime events, but many of them are cleansing rituals performed again and again. So, when we wash in the waters, one time, or many times…what gets washed away? We just mentioned this with reference to the heart of stone in Ezekiel. We wash away the old self, the egocentric self, the sick and dying self, the addicted and deluded self, the suffering, separate self. When we wash spiritually, the cumulative effect of spiritual washing (spiritual practice and devotion) eventually works to reveal the brilliant jewel within us, like these shining crystals we see on the altar. We are uncovering the spiritual self, the Essence.
This is an interfaith gathering and an interfaith sermon. So how do we approach water purification rituals in the Interfaith Movement? How and why would we celebrate these, other than the fact of their universality? As a group with a common perspective, we are not hung up on purity laws. We’re not incessantly washing our hands out of fear of spiritual death or damnation. We are supposed to be more enlightened than that, even with our bottles of hand sanitizer. We are working towards the goal of world peace and understanding, shared global values, the realization of Oneness, and the shift in consciousness from the ego to the essence. Supposedly we are the spiritual radicals of our era. What do we have to do with baptism? Well, let’s think about that for minute. What are the first names we hear in connection with baptism? Jesus and John the Baptist, right? Do we have anything in common with those two?
Let’s look at John the Baptist. Most notably, he is the person who first recognized Jesus as the Messiah and baptized him in the River Jordan, and he is known for that. Historically, not much is known about him, other than the fact that he was a pretty radical guy. He was described as wearing wild, caveman-like clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He reportedly survived on a diet of locusts and wild honey and he wandered around, an itinerant preacher, preaching a radical message. He was a sort of ascetic, and is often associated with the Essenes, a Jewish mystical sect from that time period. It’s debatable that John was ever a part of the Essenes, but they, like John, practiced a ritual washing that required a change of heart, a baptism that was focused on the internal rather than the external. This is true even though the Essenes were very caught up in ritual purity for its own sake. John the Baptist was what scholars call an apocalyptic eschatologist. He preached that the end was near and that meant people needed to wake up, right then and there, and get ready for God to act. Jesus is also sometimes described as someone who taught an apocalyptic message above all else, but there are now some scholars who say that he was more of a sapiential eschatologist, meaning that his message was more of a call to create the Kingdom of God on Earth in the present moment, to transform ourselves now and come into alignment with God’s will and God’s heart, rather than focusing on an imminent Judgment Day. In the words of the scholar John Dominic Crossan, author of The Historical Jesus: “An eschatologist is somebody who sees that the problem of the world is so radical that it's going to take some kind of divine radical solution to solve it. One type, for example, is John. God is going to descend in some sort of a catastrophic event to solve the world. There is another type of eschatology. And that's what I think Jesus is talking [about]. I'm going to call it ethical eschatology. That is the demand that God is making on us, not us on God so much as God on us, to do something about the evil in the world. In an apocalypse, as it were, we are waiting for God. And in ethical eschatology, God is waiting for us. That's, I think, what Jesus is talking about in the Kingdom of God. It's a demand for us to do something in conjunction with God. It is the Kingdom of God. But it's the Kingdom on earth of God.”
Jesus said that we have to be born again, and baptized by water and the spirit. We are to become new creatures. And the water alone is not enough—we must also renew spiritually. This is getting back to the illustration about the inside versus the outside of the cup. Jesus and John the Baptist preached very radical, transformative messages. I think these messages are similar to what we are talking about when we speak of conscious evolution and a shift in consciousness from ego to essence, in ourselves and in our world. How much do our current religious systems reflect this type of transformative message? Do they instead uphold old forms and rituals, conservative values, many of which have passed their expiration date? Our current religious systems are also trying to evolve, but in many ways they remain stuck. It is the job of their followers to move them forward. So in Interfaith, what are we conserving and what are we birthing? We want to conserve what serves and wash away the rest. We want to preach the radical message of emergence as a universal human from the sacred waters of the Earth. That is our life after baptism. Like us, John the Baptist represented a departure from the culturally bound local self. We are preaching a message of spiritual renewal and spiritual purity, birthing the transition from the old, egoic self to the new, spiritual self. So we are asking the question, to ourselves and to all people, what kind of world can we co-create when the old ways are washed away? What will we see when we come up from the waters of our rebirth?