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A sermon given by the Rev. John H. Nichols to the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, on June 1, 2008

Priming the Pump

Travelers across a long and seldom used trail in the Amargosa Desert would pass an old pump that offered the only hope of fresh drinking water along the journey. Those who found this pump would also find a tin can tied to it with a note inside. The note said:
Dear Stranger,

This pump is all right as of June 1932. I put a new sucker washer in it, and it ought to last five years. But the washer dries out, and the pump needs to be primed. Under the white rock, I buried a jar of water. It is out of the sun and corked. There's enough water in it to prime the pump, but not if you drink some first. Pour about of the water into the pump and let her soak for a minute to wet the leader washer. Then pour the rest medium fast and pump like crazy. You'll get water. Have faith. This well has never run dry.

"When you get watered up, fill the bottle and put it back as you found it for the next stranger who comes this way."

Desert Pete.
The story caught my eye, because I remembered a very similar pump from my own backpacking days. It was situated in what had been a small farm community. But the farmers and their fields are gone now. Forests have overgrown the entire area, and all that is left of the farming community is a clearing at the intersection of a dirt road and the Appalachian Trail. At the intersection is this old water pump.

I used to lead hikes through this area, and we were always tired and thirsty when we reached that pump. We'd start pumping the handle furiously, but, sometimes, nothing happened. No water poured out. We thought the well must be dry or the pump broken, and so we went away still thirsty, cursing our bad luck.

At other times, however, the pump worked just fine, and we assumed someone had fixed it. Being city folks, it never occurred to us that the glass jar at the base of the pump — the jar usually filled with water — meant that we were supposed to use that water to prime the pump and then, when we left, we were to leave the jar filled with water for the next person.

As the story explains there is a leather washer that is critical to making the pump work. If that sucker washer dries out and becomes cracked it won't do the job it needs to do. Therefore you have to have water to wet the washer — to prime it — and then the pump will draw as much water from the well as you could ever need. But, you must also leave some water for the next traveler, and the next traveler must be careful not to drink the water, that you left, before he has primed the pump. Then he must leave some for the next person.

Years ago, this story about the pump became a folk song sung by the Kingston Trio. These words formed the chorus. "You've got to prime the pump. You have to have faith and believe. You have to give of yourself before you're worthy to receive."

You will recognize that this idea has a broader significance. When you meet someone who you hope will be your friend you have to put something of yourself forward. Friendships do not just happen. In order to prime the pump, each person must be at least a little interested in having a friendship, and each person must have enough faith and interest in someone else to offer the commitment of time for listening and sharing. There can be no trust and there can be no friendship without some gesture of faith by two people that they will put time into the relationship.

We have, all, known people who come at friendship by talking endlessly about themselves almost as if they were on a promotional tour. If the element that was intended to prime that friendship were time, then some people grab the bottle of time and they drink it all.

Others come at friendship really hoping for a sympathetic ear but rarely lending one themselves. If the element that was intended to prime that friendship were sympathy, then some people grab the bottle of sympathy and they drink it all. In order to be a friend, you have to be prepared to give time and sympathy as well as ask for it.

I've come to believe that the analogy also applies to raising children; both to parents and to congregations who are raising children. As religious liberals we all affirm that our children must at some point decide for themselves what is most important for them. However, if they do not know what we, the adults in their lives, believe — if they do not have a sense that a faith in something is important to us — then one of two things is likely to happen when they become young adults. Either the pump that draws their religious inspiration from the well will be chosen and primed by people who know exactly what our children should believe, or the washer in their religious well will become parched and dry, because we never prime it, and so they may never have access to what that well could draw.

I also believe that this pump priming analogy applies to congregational life. In order to understand what religion is and does at its best, we have to show up. We have to be there. We have to prime the pump at least that much. We can't generalize about religion from our experience in the religion we left some time ago. We can't generalize about religion from the writings of whatever Existentialist philosopher we read in college. We have to prime the pump, at the very least, by giving our presence to others.

Religion is a way of connecting ideas but it is just as importantly a set of connected experiences. It is the chance to be in a physical space that has meaning to us. It is being in that space with people who have also shared something of their lives, their hopes, dreams and concerns with us. It is being with people we come to know and trust.

It is singing a hymn along with others in an atmosphere where no one cares how well or poorly you sing. It is the opportunity for shared silence. It is the chance to celebrate or mourn together the tender moments that grace everyone's life. It is not a performance, but the mutual engagements among people who recognize that they share the same commitment to each other.

The experience will not "take" for someone until that person is ready to give something to it. In fact, one of the things that I think makes it difficult for us to explain Unitarian Universalism is that it is much more than a set of ideas. It is at least as importantly a set of shared experiences.

It is not unusual for new comers to any church to come with the mindset of a visiting professor who says to himself, "I will go and I will observe the natives of this church at work and play. I will read their literature. I will witness their quaint rituals. I will listen to the pronouncements of their elders.

I may even read some of their sacred scripts. I may — if it isn't too embarrassing — even try out one tribal dance. Then I will go away and form my own conclusions and write my critique about what the whole thing means. Perhaps I will at least get a journal article out of it."

Someone visiting us with this orientation will come and go and leave not a ripple on the surface of a religious community no matter how many times he or she keeps coming back. Sooner or later, most people who first come to our congregations as observers must become participants in order to understand the soul of a living UU congregation.

From an empirical distance — from the properly objective perspective — almost any congregation is going to seem to be without life, without spirit, without direction and without soul. The observer keeps pushing on the pump handle, but because he/she has made no particular commitment to this community, the pump is not primed and nothing comes out. To discover a Unitarian Universalist community thoroughly we have to prime the pump with our own willingness to pitch in openly, honestly and hopefully and financially. This means staying together through classes that go well and those that don't, through committee meetings that sparkle and those that die, through disagreements that get resolved and those that don't get resolved while we agree to hang in there anyway. When we get this involved the strength of this community pours itself out for us.

When we discover that we share this religious journey with people who are quietly bearing burdens we could not imagine bearing the community has poured itself out for us; When we are forgiven by others and given a second chance though we haven't yet been able to forgive ourselves the community has poured itself out for us;

When we are warmly thanked and appreciated, but also when we learn that we really don't need to be thanked, because we have been given a chance to do what we really enjoy doing the community pours itself out for us;

When we find a friend at our side just when we couldn't even admit to ourselves we were hurting though it must have showed — in all these times and others the pump pours itself forth for us.

This is your religious community I am talking about, and the pump pours itself forth for you, because you have given of yourselves in faith and belief. Now don't hesitate to share this experience with others, but always let them know how to prime the pump here at First Unitarian, how to participate and be fully a part of things. You'll be giving them a great gift.