Chapter 7: By the Well

Thursday, April 17, 2008.  I am on a sabbatical pilgrimage to walk from Washington D.C.  to Pittsburgh while learning the gospel of John by heart.  Today I am walking from Edward’s Ferry to Dickerson. 


Today starts blue.  In between the barely leafed branches, I catch sight of a blue heron with shaggy feathers.  She is more gray than her name suggests.  She glides over the bluer highway of river to the right, the waves reflecting the sapphire sky and glinting with splashes of morning sun.  My own narrow highway, the dirt towpath, stretches ahead and is no less spectacular.  Huge sycamores rise and slice the sky into patches of deeply-hued rectangles and triangles, all framed and pieced together with the lines of gleaming white bark.  A small bluebird dips suddenly in front of me.  I breathe in color and feel excitement at my feet.  Overnight, it seems, crowds of Virginia bluebells have turned out to line this path, as if determined to cheer visiting dignitaries in a spring morning parade.  It’s too bad those visitors seem to be only Chester and myself.  I heard on the news that the Pope was greeted in a parade yesterday in D.C., now thirty miles behind me.  I think, if he had the opportunity, he would have enjoyed the one here this morning more.

In between all these blue distractions, I am learning John 4:

Jesus left Judea and started back to Galilee.  But he had to go through Samaria.  So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given his son Joseph.  Jacob’s well was there….

Jesus took a side trip to Samaria and, in so doing, walked back in history.  Jacob,  whose well Jesus stopped at, was given the name “Israel” by God.  Jacob was an impersonator, trickster, wrestler of a midnight stranger, husband of four wives, father of twelve sons and a daughter, expert herdsman and breeder of many flocks of sheep and goats…and builder of a well.  What stories Jesus and the disciples could have told as they walked past the historical landmarks in Samaria! 

My own path winds through history as well.  Each lock house along the C&O Canal was home to a family in charge of opening and closing the locks for the boats.  Some of the families are pictured in the historical park markers along the way.  In 1954,long after it fell into disuse, defeated by the railroad, Justice William O. Douglas organized an eight day walk down this very towpath, bringing with him a gathering of legislators and reporters.  The purpose was to convince them of the canal’s historical value and natural beauty.  The photograph in the book I’m reading shows them walking with overcoats and jackets on a cloudy March day.  Because of his efforts the canal was reclaimed from disrepair and made an historic national park instead of a highway.

And here I am walking west, the opposite direction of the Douglas party.  With the sun shining so brilliantly, it does not take long before the April day heats up.  This is turning out to be the warmest hiking day so far.  I have long since peeled off my fleece jacket and rolled up my shirt sleeves.  Chester and I stop several times for water.  Soon I realize that, unlike the previous days, the three bottles of water I have packed will not be nearly enough.  There seems to be some pivotal degree of temperature below which I do not need much water and above which my thirst automatically doubles.  Whereas yesterday I did not use two bottles, today after two hours, I am halfway through my third and last water bottle.  I am surprised and unprepared.

One of the advantages of walking along the towpath, especially in the eastern half, is that it is intersected fairly frequently by roads.  I know that I will be reaching White’s Ferry in a mile or so.  It is one of the last active ferry crossings on the Potomac.  I’ll have Rick bring me some water there.  I pull my cell phone out of my back pocket to call him.  After I tell him I am low on water, he informs me that he is miles away.  He has taken the opportunity of a fairly straight-forward walk on my part to drive back to D.C. and pick up some postcards I wanted.  No problem, I say.  From our vacation last summer when we were investigating parts of the trail, I remember that there is a little snack shop at the ferry crossing, a local hangout for folks waiting for the ferry or just coming to pass the time of day.  Surely there will be some water there, I tell him, and I check to see if I have some cash with me.  Before I flip the phone shut, I glance at the time.  It is almost noon. I continue walking and working on John 4:

Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well.  It was about noon.  A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”

In another mile we finally arrive at White’s Ferry.  I turn left onto the road and follow it the short distance to the river.  The ferry is just pulling out from the landing.  It is not much more than a small flat barge and can hold maybe seven cars at the most.  I tie Chester to a sign post and head for the small building housing the snack shop.  I try the door.  It’s locked.  In the window there is a sign: Closed for the season.  Apparently April is out of season for the ferry hangout.

A  car passes slowly, beginning a new line to wait for the ferry.  Apparently Chester and I will be waiting awhile for water.  According to the trail guide we have 4.5 miles left to go.  I walk back to Chester who is now panting in the hot sun.  At least there is a good chance I will find a creek for him to get a drink even if I have to go thirsty.  “Let’s go, buddy,” and we head back on the trail and west.

There is water all around us, which only makes me more aware of my thirst.  On the right is the stagnant water left from rain and flooding that has collected in the remains of the canal, now not much more than a ditch.  In places green algae of some sort is growing like a thick carpet, hiding the water underneath.  In other places swirls of whitish fluid streak the brown, organic liquid.  I remember my friend Hank’s warning (he knows a lot about animals) not to let Chester drink from standing water like this, but to wait until we come to a free flowing creek.  The canal in this place is also chock full of turtles, and for all I know, some of them might be snapping turtles.   Not a good place for a dog to stick his nose.

But there is the river on the other side of the trail, a much more promising possibility for a dog’s thirst.  So we head off down a fisherman’s path to discover that the bank is too steep and the foothold unsure.  The currents, I have been warned, are strong and deceptive from the spring rains.  Besides, a river smelling dog, if he gets dunked, is not too pleasant.  So here we are: thousands of gallons of water around us, and no safe place for even a dog to drink. Where will we get water?  The sun is beating, Chester is drooping, I’m sweating and these are the words I am working on:

The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?  (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)  Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”  The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep.  Where do you get that living water?”

How often do we walk through situations in our lives where the water that is available around us is  unhealthy or dangerous? I don’t mean literally, although it is certainly true that polluted water is a concern in our troubled environment.  But I am talking about how the society around us offers much to quench our thirst that only ends up being poisonous to our relationships and souls.  We eat too much, buy too much, spend too much, waste too much, are entertained too much– all for things and causes that will not ultimately quench our deepest thirst.  Most of the time we are not even aware how much we need God’s living water.

So, God, here I am, dying of thirst on a hot day while memorizing this conversation about water by the well.  Coincidence? Or did you arrange this?  Are you trying to get me to consider whether I am as thirsty for your living water as I am for some wet, clean drinking water at the moment?

In another mile or two I am surprised to find a primitive campsite along the trail, the first one I’ve noticed so far.  I find out later these campgrounds have been cleared for bikers and hikers to use–first come, first serve. There is one picnic table, a fire pit, a portable toilet and…can you believe it?  There is a well, the kind with a hand pump!  We rush over, and I slip out of my pack and fasten Chester’s leash to it so he won’t take off into the river or canal.  Then I take hold of the long handle and begin to work it up and down, up and down.  This goes on for a couple of minutes.  It squeals and clanks.  Chester must think that the metal handle is grabbing my hand and is forcing me to move so strenuously, because he barks frantically, telling it to let go of me.

Finally, just when I am about to give up, there is a gurgling sound from deep within somewhere, and soon glorious water starts pouring out of the faucet.  Chester tries licking the falling water and laps  more air than anything else.  I let go of the pump, pull his dish out of the pack and set it down to catch a thirst-quenching stream.  After he drinks his fill, tail wagging, I take a long drink myself and then refill the water bottles.  Clear, cold, clean, slightly metallic tasting water.  Absolutely delicious.  We are exuberantly sloppy with this gift. It has spilled over my shirt and his fur, my face and his paws. 

When we are saturated enough, I load the water bottles into the pack, pull it onto my shoulders and we head back onto the trail.  In twenty minutes I am thirsty again.  How could we have made it to the end today without finding the well, I wonder.  I reach for my water bottle once again and keep learning John 4:

Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks from this well will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them  will never be thirsty, for the water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.

As I continue walking, water sloshing in my pack and stomach, I consider how my thoughts today have been dominated by thirst.  Most of the time I don’t even notice my need for water.  On a normal day at home I don’t have to think twice about whether I am thirsty or what I will do to remedy it. I can quickly grab a drink out of the refrigerator, or I can fill a glass of water from the sink and instantly go on with whatever I am doing.  But before we came to the well today, there was hardly a minute that went by when I didn’t notice how thirsty I was and how much Chester was panting away.  There was nothing I could do about it either except to keep walking. The thirstier I got, the less I noticed the interesting sights around me, the harder it was to concentrate on memorizing, the more lethargic my walking became, the less I noticed the vibrant blueness around me.  We are so physically dependent on water.

Now I begin to have a sense of how dependent we are on Jesus Christ, our living water.  Living water so vital that we think about him often as we move through the day.  So refreshing that we long for those times when we can talk to him and listen to his words.  So essential that we walk away from the stagnant waters around us, eager for the better living water he gives.  So necessary that we wouldn’t think of doing anything or going anywhere without him.  So crucial that we know we have no meaningful life without his living presence.  So replenishing that we know our love would dry up without his love ever flowing through us. 

In my little book of songs I look up the words to this hymn:

Come to me all pilgrims thirsty, drink the water I will give.
If you knew what gift I offer, you would come to me and live.”
Jesus, ever-flowing fountain, give us water from your well.
In the gracious gift you offer there is joy no tongue can tell.
                     (Text: Delores Dufner; Evangelical Lutheran Worship #777)

To be continued…..