This morning, little Unitarian Universalists all across the USA listened to the story of The Water Bearer’s Garden. It’s a fable of a “water bearer”. The water bearer, we are told, lived in India, and had the task of bringing water up from a stream to a place vaguely referred to as “the master’s house”. To do this, the water bearer tied two pots to ends of a stick that he carried over his shoulders, back and forth from the master’s house to a stream.
The pot on the left end of the stick was in perfect condition and held a full load of water all the way up to the master’s house every time. The pot on the right end of the stick, however, had a crack in it, and leaked half of the water it held on each and every trip between the stream and the master’s house.
In this story, the pots are conscious objects, with human feelings. The perfect pot on the left was very proud of itself for its ability to perform its function without flaw. The cracked pot on the right, however, was depressed and ashamed of itself, and eventually spoke to the water bearer, saying something to the effect of, “Look, buddy. We both know this isn’t working out. I’m terribly sorry for having failed you by leaking so much water as you walk up the path. My flaws make your work all the more difficult. Why don’t you stop using me to carry water?”
The water bearer is then purported to have said, “Buck up, pot, and look along the sides of the path the next time I carry you up to the master’s house.” On the next trip, the cracked pot, which had apparently been casting its ceramic eyes skyward until then, noticed that, on its own side of the path, there were banks of flowering plants growing lushly, while on the side of the path underneath the perfect pot, there was nothing but bare, dry earth.
“So you see,” said the water bearer to the cracked pot, in so many words, “I always knew that you were a leaky pot, so I decided to put your flaws to constructive use. I scattered flower seeds on your side of the path, and you’ve been watering them all this time, so that they would grow big and strong. Not a drop of your water has been wasted. How about that?”
Then comes the moral to the story. The little Unitarian Universalists are told, through the voice of the water bearer, that, “In God’s great web of life, nothing goes to waste.”
Culturally aware readers will now be doing a little double take. Why would a water bearer in India be delivering lectures about “God’s great web of life”? “God” is a German word for the general category of divinity, a word that has been appropriated by Christians, and, to some extent, Jews. “God” is not a word that is used by water bearers in India – unless they’re living in Christian enclaves.
Besides that, what bearing does the water bearer’s story have to any divinity. Well, it turns out that the version of the story used in the Unitarian Universalist Tapestry of Faith curriculum is not the original version. It was adapted and retold by Betsy Hill Williams to suit the particular Unitarian Universalist creed that everyone everywhere, whatever they say, really worships the same divine being, named “God”. Under this Unitarian Unversalist teaching, Wiccans, shamans, Jains, Buddhists, Greek philosophers, Brazilian tribesmen and Australian aborigines truly are all pursuing the same religious goal: The search for “God”.
Actually, there are versions of the Cracked Pot story that don’t mention any divinity at all. There are also versions in which the divinity in the story is not God, but a character named Krishna, a divine Hindu prince who liked to have lots of sex with milk maids and encouraged warriors to keep fighting and killing each other. The moral, in these versions, is that “Blessed are our flaws, as long as we offer then to our beloved Lord Krishna.” In these versions, the master of the house is none other than Krishna himself, and the flowers that are picked are placed before an altar devoted to Krishna.
Why couldn’t the Unitarian Universalist curriculum simply tell this Hindu version of the tale? One explanation is that, in spite of all their talk about accepting many sources of religious wisdom, Unitarian Universalists really are only comfortable dealing with Christian religious language.
Another explanation is that the story of the Cracked Pot is not really an ancient folktale, but something more like an urban legend. I note that there are many versions of the story, including some told by Hindus, that say that the story comes from China, and that the water bearer was Chinese, not Indian. It seems that, just as urban legends always ascribe a story to an obscure but real relative, the versions of the Cracked Pot fable tend to look to a faraway land as the source of wisdom. It may be that the Cracked Pot story was simply made up by an American preacher in recent times, or by a self-help “guru”, who added on the notion of a foreign source in order to make the story seem more authentic.
Do the questions about the original source of the Cracked Pot tale change the validity of its message? It may be worth pointing out that few, if any, of the people who tell this story have ever had to carry pots of water on sticks laid over their backs day after day. Still, the underlying theme that perfection and imperfection are relative concepts, and not absolute qualities, is worth hearing, even if the execution is flawed.