“Pumping the Wishing Well” – February 27, 2005
Mark W. Harris

Opening Words

– from Robert M. Doss

When giving thanks comes hard for you,
And things are grim,
And hope runs thin,
Despair’s a door to pass on through,
And not a home for living in.
When thanksgiving fills your cup,
And those you love are all about,
Look at your blessings, count them up,
And give back something to the world


Some years ago my colleague Gordon McKeeman provided a twist to Jesus’ most famous sermon, the sermon on the mount. Here Jesus enumerates nine categories of the blessed concluding with blessed are the peacemakers. McKeeman says rather than repeating the sermon on the mount, he is going to give the sermon on the amount., begging the question, what is the amount of your pledge going to be? I thought I might provide my own variation by picking our opening hymn today, which features the line, “don’t be afraid of some change.” This is not the challenge I might present to convince you to change your thinking or way of living, but rather the change in your pockets. And hopefully we are talking about larger amounts than the loose stuff. McKeeman also talks about how we have been blessed with a great faith tradition, a great building, great privileges, and now we are blessed with a time of great challenge and opportunity. Blessed by what we have been given, McKeeman wonders if we will be among the blessed who say , “Yes” to the invitation to give more generously. He says both the sermon on the mount, and the sermon on the amount contain the same theme: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

”Don’t be afraid of some change.” We often take our change lightly. We come home and throw it in a jar or other container dreading the time when it builds up so much, we either have to roll it, or bring it to one of those change machines. Loose change will buy us one small bottle of water. (Like the ones I have just given out) My parents would have found it amusing that we go out and pay for our water. To pay for something that should be free, and we seem to have in such abundance would have made no sense to them. Bottled water signifies the commodification of our society, while my parents would have thought it was something everybody has a right to have free of charge. But this essential life giving, life sustaining substance is not available to everyone. It is precious.

Water and loose change also come to mind in the context of wishing wells. In years gone by whenever we visited a place that had a pool that seemingly accepted loose coins, be it a mall fountain, a mini-golf course hazard, or holy shrine, my boys would call out to me to empty my pockets, so they could make a wish, and then watch the waters ripple. Like tossing a rock into a pond, they liked the splash, and the wish that would hopefully come true that very day, usually a toy or an ice cream cone would do. As simple as this act seemed, it signified a larger meaning. Giving the quarter opened up the possibility that something wonderful might happen to them. It was something that would give them a happy day or week, a few moments or longer of joy.

It was also something they could come back to. Of course you don’t literally pump a wishing well, you just throw, taking a leap of faith that something good will follow from your hope and trust and faith. And my boys operated on pretty good assurances. Today I want to suggest that we are a wishing well here at First Parish, and you will pump up all our hopes and dreams with your pledges. It is up to you to make all of our community spirit both within and without come alive. All of those good wishes, those dreams we have for a fulfilled community tomorrow in the form of our gifts of faith to ourselves, our children, and our community will take shape in the gifts you give.

Today we begin our wishing well voyage with a first sip from the bottle of water. We will take four stops on the journey around the wishing well, to correspond with the four directions. Let’s ask ourselves what kind of waters we drink at the First Parish well. Does this faith satisfy our thirst for meaning and longing for community? Are they living waters that we drink? Remember in the old westerns how if the well or spring was poisoned there would be a sign showing a skull and cross bones or the like? Many years ago when I first visited England I was introduced to the practice of well dressing. Everywhere around the villages of Derbyshire in the midlands of England you will see what once were town wide wells that provided the drinking water for the community. In the spring these wells are decorated with flowers. Usually the flowers are formed to recreate a Biblical story. These lovely displays not only decorate the public arena today, but they evoke an ancient practice that was begun to show thirsty passersby that this water was safe to drink. The Bible stories meant that this was indeed living water that would literally keep you alive rather than kill you.

We easily forget that in non-developed parts of the world procuring safe, clean water is problematic. In Medieval England disease was rampant, latrines flowed into wells, and the plague came north when merchants brought cloth made in London. Wells became poisoned, and people needed a way to know that here was living water for you to drink. Thus, the colorful displays on the wells. We also know of the devastation when wells are poisoned. The pollutant run-off from the tanning industry in Woburn poisoned that water leading to illness and death. Well dressings centuries ago produced trust that you could drink the waters freely. So, too the waters of our faith can be drunk with trust that your own approach to faith is acceptable. Here you are encouraged to express your doubts, and you are encouraged to ask questions. A few weeks ago I fulfilled a sabbatical leave obligation by preaching in Framingham. I gave a sermon I had delivered here in October on the future of reason. I said we UUs need to hold up our tradition of reason in response to the irrational absurdities that other faiths often proselytize, and not be so tolerant of them. After the service a young man, came up to me beaming saying, “Are you an atheist?” While I told him I preferred the term humanist, he clearly felt affirmed that he could say publicly to me that he was an atheist, and that he had found a faith that trusted and affirmed his doubts. For the first time in his life religion was not force fed or contrived. Drink of this tradition that trusts you, trusts your mind and your heart to know what God is or is not.

Long before medieval England, wells were a significant community gathering place for longing, thirsty souls. Wells were the major source of water in ancient Palestine. Digging a well in this dusty, desert like land was a cause of great celebration. Many of these wells were located just outside the city gates, and they became gathering places for people, especially the women who performed so many of the household tasks. Remembering these wells of gathering and fellowship, let’s take a second sip of water.

Perhaps the most famous story about a well occurs in Genesis 24. Abraham has sent his servant out of Canaan back home to find a spouse for Isaac. Will the woman who the servant hopes will be the perfect partner for Isaac appear? Before he can even finish uttering his wish that a woman who will offer him and his camels a drink will appear at the well, Rebecca shows up with a jar on her head. She proceeds to offer water to both the servant and the camels. After the servant meets the rest of the family, it all works out that she will go back with the servant to wed Isaac. The story of Rebecca at the well has some implications for us in religious community. There were significant reasons for not finding a Canaanite spouse for Isaac. We might suspect there was concern for the bloodline in a strange land, but the important line Abraham wanted to preserve was the religious line. He was worried about the corrupting influence of Canaanite religion, and wanted a partner for Isaac who would keep the faith.

The story of carrying on a tradition is important, but even more important is the method in which the match is made. When the servant meets up with Rebecca at the well, it is not her beauty or virginity that convinces the servant that this is the right choice, it is not all the wealth that Abraham has accumulated that convinces the servant that this is the right choice. It is her gracious hospitality. She immediately offers a drink even before he can get out the words. Let me take care of that thirst. You carry on a faith, you find new partners in faith by showing your loving concern for them, by being their friend, by opening up your hearts to one another. The mythic tale reminds us to offer a drink to the stranger. He/she is thirsty – alone and wandering with a longing for a spiritual home. Bring them to the well, and offer a drink, and they will never thirst again. Drink of this faith that wants you to feel compassion for one another.

As many of you know I grew up only a stone’s throw from what is today the Quabbin Reservoir, the river valley from long ago that became four drowned towns to satisfy Boston’s thirst. Despite being so close to this gigantic source of water as a boy, we could not use it for our own drinking water. In my rural hometown each family had its own well and septic system. Predating my family’s ownership of the property someone had dug a well just beyond the old barn, and when we first lived there it provided our water needs. Let’s drink our third sip of water to remind ourselves of those traditional sources of water. We work hard to preserve traditions, but sometimes we find the meaning of traditions become dried up, and we must let go and discover life giving waters anew. Last fall a member of FPW visited our place n Maine, where we also have our own well and septic. I use visit in a short term sense, because after she arrived she found there was no water coming out of the tap. No water, no visit. It turned out in this case that the pump was broken, and therefore even though the water was there, there was no power to put it in the pipes.

This reminded me of an event from my childhood when in the wake of a winter ice storm we lost power for days, and had no water. I recall going down to the edge of our property where a fresh water brook ran through. The land slopped down covered in snow. We could not exactly tell where the land ended and the frozen ice began underneath. Digging with our toes, my brother and I found the slippery surface beneath. Pushing the snow aside, we then had to reach the water below. We chopped and chopped with axes until water appeared, gushing from its frozen tomb. We had one of those large aluminum milk containers, which we then angled in to catch the chilled liquid life giver we needed so much. We filled all our containers, brought them to the wooden cart we parked by the road, and then slowly pulled and heaved it home. So we had smashed through the ice to quench our family thirst. Together we were able to assert our power, do what we had to do to get what we needed in our time of need. It was a portent of things to come.

Finding water where there is none, is not an easy task. I have tried dowsing a few times. This is taking a wooden stick that is trimmed clean of excess twigs and leaves, and is shaped something like a wish bone, with a pointing top, and two handles down. One balances it evenly walking through open fields, waiting for the pull of the water beneath the ground to angle the wishing point downward toward the flow. One year, it wasn’t frozen power lines, or frozen pipes, it was a supply all dried up that stopped the flow. The old well in New Salem dried up. What happens when you run out of water? Drink to remember that some have no supplies, no resources to draw upon, and we are called to remember those who have none. Remember the hard work of slicing through ice. Did the poet say the world might end in ice? Do we believe it in the midst of a New England winter? May our faith reminds of us those thirsty ones who are prisoners of want and disease.

So we have drunk three times, three times to keep the living waters flowing for free thought and affirmation, for human community, for justice for all. Now let’s drink a fourth time. The communities we create can dry up and die unless they have a deep, larger spiritual well of strength to draw upon – the oneness of humanity, the love of God, whatever you call it. When my family well dried up in New Salem, we drilled an artesian well. Sometimes we use the word artesian simply to signify a deeper well. What we had before, 150 feet or so deep, was not sufficient. One must go deeper to have a strong consistent flow of water. An artesian well is one where the water is under more pressure and flows to the surface naturally. We go deeper because we are challenged as a faith community to build a stronger institution – to care more about each other and our children, to have a greater presence in our community, to have a vision for a just world. How do we go deep like the artesian well?

Together we seek a trust of life’s goodness and beauty that can overcome our fear of its heartache and pain. There are many things that can make our living waters become stagnant. If we don’t challenge each other, and seek deeper truths, we end up undisciplined and lazy with our minds and thoughts. We need to take the effort and care to dress our wells with works of inspiration and imagination. If we don’t gather at the well of fellowship, then we end up not caring about each other; and there is no love in our hearts. We need to make the effort to be with each other offering up our love and our healing touch. If we don’t see the pain of the world around us, and act in ways that alleviates that suffering, we end up seeing justice and equality slip away. We need to have a vision for a world made whole, and take part in making that vision a reality. If we don’t go deep with one another to the living waters of the human search for personal truths, community building, and a just world then the deeper search for the underlying love that gives meaning to it all will surely dry up. We give to the church that the church might have life, that we might have life, so that those who carry on will also have life. May the living waters live in your hearts for all the days to come.

Closing Words

– from Mark DeWolfe

Know that the love which blooms inside you is stronger than fear, for people who love find strength they didn’t know they had. Know that the love inside you is stronger than illness, for people who love hang in when physical health is gone. And know that love is indeed stronger than death, for people who love are like stones tossed into a pool: the circles of love radiate out and echo back long after the stone has come to rest at the bottom. So remember your love as a source of strength; remember who you are: lovers tossed by these difficult times.