Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (John 4:1-30) transports me to the sophomore year of college, where I was working on a concentration in Appalachian Studies to go along with Majors in Religion and Political Science. Before taking classes in this concentration, I knew virtually nothing of the history or the cultural heritage of the mountains that were my home. I had soaked in all the stereotypes of hillbillies, and was glad to have a group of professors who helped unpack all that and introduce me to who I was as a bona fide mountaineer. One of those professors, Don Anderson, taught a course on the Sociology of Appalachia, and in that course I learned to ask good questions, to peel away many layers of cultural assumptions and expectations that covered up the richness of my heritage. For my research project in that class, I did an oral history with my dad’s good friend and double first cousin, Alvin Wilson, mill worker and high tenor singer of the bluegrass group Alvin Wilson and the Happy Valley Boys. Alvin, a friend of Bill Monroe, had a treasure trove of stories about the history of music in the region. I accompanied the band on several treks into some deep hollers on their Grange Hall and volunteer fire department barbecue fundraiser circuit. The group had a one-armed bass player, who fretted with his foot and plucked with his one hand. Alvin was the star, though; he was one of the best tenor singers and yarn spinners I’ve ever heard, and I loved listening to him on those rides back home in the group’s van; his stories were accented by the group putting together tight harmonies on a capella songs. My favorite, which I always requested on those trips home from the boondocks, was Dig a Little Deeper in the Well. Alvin loved to key it up a notch or two to show off his tenor range, as the group harmonized, if you want a good cool drink o’ water boys, you gotta dig a little deeper in the well.
The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman showed the general tenor of Jesus’ ministry: helping people dig a little deeper so they could draw from the deep well of God’s love and grace. People in Jesus’ day, no different from any age, were swallowing the superficial swill of cultural expectations and understandings of faith. Whatever the subject – race, gender, religion, family, economics, health – they were skimming, while he was plunging deep. Here in this one encounter, we see the contrast in sharp relief. The woman knew all the reasons Jesus shouldn’t have approached her for a thirst-quenching drink of water. She was well-taught about what her place was, what society’s expectations were. She knew how to live on the surface. The idea of digging a little deeper was at first confusing; later it became exhilarating. She learned what it meant to draw deeply from God’s well of grace, and I’m sure that deep well helped her unpack many of the stereotypes of her own life, and helped her learn who she really was. The woman of ill repute became one of the New Testament’s first women in ministry, bringing her community to faith in Christ.
Alvin Wilson, a bona fide mountaineer if there ever was one, died just a few months ago; his funeral stirred up old memories and the old grief of losing another tried and true mountain man, my Dad, twelve years ago. During that time, a friend gave me a cassette of the poet David Whyte speaking about compassion. I found one of his poems, The Well of Grief, particularly meaningful, and I listened to it over and over. I can still hear David Whyte with his British accent reciting it, Those who will not slip beneath the still surface on the well of grief, turning downward through its black water to the place we cannot breathe, will never know the source from which we drink the secret water, cold and clear, nor find in the darkness glimmering the small round coins thrown by those who wished for something else. When I find myself in thirsty seasons of discontent, wishing for something else, or wishing to be someone else, I remember this poem, and remember where to find the source of the secret water of grace. I take a long draught and find that I’m ready to find my way back out to the Grange Halls and volunteer fire department barcebues and spread the good news that there’s Somebody out there who can show us who we really are and can quench our deepest thirst.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.