Water is so familiar and common that we often forget how extraordinary it is. As a shapeshifter in a constant dance with its environment, it also shapes the land. In its cycles of freezing and thawing, it splits rocks and moves mountains. As vapour, it splits light to create rainbows. At any one time, the human body is 61-75% water. Water is the basis of all known forms of life.

Many human settlements were based on rivers, as they were used for water supply, fishing, transportation, and defence. Rivers are part of many societies and indigenous groups’ cultural, social and spiritual identity. For Maori of New Zealand, water connects the spiritual and physical worlds; the well-being of an iwi (tribe) is linked to the condition of the water in their territory. For the First Peoples of Australia and North America, rivers are the lifeblood and most sacred gift of the creator, as well as the highways and connectors of communities. 

Water is seen as sacred in main religions even in modern forms.  For those of the Christian faith, water is the physical embodiment of the holy spirit; immersion or other interaction transitions devotees into the spiritual family of the church. In the holy books of the Jewish faith, there are frequent references to ‘living water’ and ‘water of life’. In the Muslim community, ablutions are the most regular ritual use of water, in preparation for Friday prayers. The Kumbh Mela is the largest water festival in the world, attracting thousands of Hindus to four sites on the banks of the Ganga for ritual bathing every four years. The Puja, a worship ritual that Hindus, Buddhists and Jains perform, centres around water. Water cleanses, both physically and metaphorically, but can depend on context. Is there a tangible difference in the water if it’s in a bath or a font? Or is it the intangible that matters?

Dr Anastasia Rachel Badder, a Research Associate in the Faculty of Divinity and Cambridge Interfaith Programme, recently completed a study to learn about how religious communities in Cambridge use and value water, and their attitudes to sustainability. Though all acknowledged and appreciated water use in their religious lives, she found a persistent theme was “a disconnect between different ways of knowing, different relations with water, different waters, and sustainability actions.” It was not always easy to see the connections between one’s actions in one realm and another. “What effect could turning off the tap while brushing one’s teeth have on disappearing chalk streams, drying aquifers, or rampant pollution?” The full report, Water and/in religious relations, is available to download, and makes interesting reading.

On Sunday, 26th May, with ceremonialist and author Isla Macleod. We want to know – If our relationship with water is re-enchanted, with reverence and gratitude – if we see water as sacred – does this change how we use and care for water?

Let us find out.

Join ceremony designer Isla Macleod and Water Sensitive Cambridge for an event to honour water on Sunday 26th May. We look forward to seeing you there.

This post originally appeared as part of why honour water, and has been split

Photo copyright 2024 by Isla Macleod

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