One summer in high school I painted barns with “Uncle Billy” Cook and his son, Raymond. We worked long days six days a week. My arm felt like it would fall off. As tired as I was, my dad gave me some good, concrete advice: “Drink a rest.” Take a long, slow walk to get a drink of water. Sip it slowly and make it last. Make it very slow so that you can get some rest.
I thought of this good advice concerning rest as I read the amazing account of slave society in the Old South by Clint Smith, How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America (2021). Among the matters Smith reports on is an old well on Pearl Street,
A block of bricks that jutted up from the sidewalk, with a golden ring encircling a well that was covered in grass. I looked over the rails and into this hole in the ground and saw deteriorating bricks covered in algae, small plants reaching from one side of the cistern to the other (218).
The well dated back to the eighteenth century and served the community in a special way:
The first and final thing an enslaved person did every day was get water from the well for their households, and it was here that they were able to spend time together. “You were allowed to look that person in the eyes,” Damaras said. “You were allowed to say ‘Good morning.’ The enslaved people who came to this well,” she continued, “were able to reclaim their humanity for just twenty minutes out of their day.”
They were human at the well, and they were human away from it.
Time at the well each day with their friends provided moments of wellbeing outside of and beyond the hard days of coerced labor. The enslaved did indeed “drink a rest” from their “normal” day’s work of unrelieved bondage. This moment of “humanity” must have kept alive social possibility and communal hope that their lives were not finally defined by or contained within the endless cruelty of enslavement.
It is amazing how a watering place or a village well can be a site for human communication, human community, human wellbeing and human restoration. That process of recovery and rehabilitation, regularly reiterated, lasted only “twenty minutes out of their day.” Those twenty minutes, however, was sufficient time to conjure an alternative life in an emancipated community.
With my dad’s advice about “drinking a rest” and Smith’s account of “twenty minutes out of their day,” I thought of “gatherings at the village well” in Scripture. The primary case in point I consider is from one of my favorite passages. In the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:1-31) Israel celebrates a mighty victory over its Canaanite adversaries. The conflict featured the poorly armed Israelite subsistence peasant farmers (see I Samuel 13:19-22) against the well-armed kings of Canaanite city-states. The conflict turned on the ruthless capacity of the city-kings to siphon off the surplus wealth of the peasant farmers for their own advantage and indulgence. (In this regard the socioeconomic situation of the peasant farmers was not unlike that of the much later slaves in the plantation South who had the produce of their labor siphoned off for white surplus and advantage. In cases, the productive class (peasant farmers, slaves) was helpless before the armed power of the “master class.”
Thus the assertion of power by Israelite peasant farmers was against very long odds. All the more reason to have the victory celebrated! The victory song gladly credits the triumph to the “new God” (YHWH), newly arrived from the Exodus and unknown to the Canaanites (v. 6). This is the creator God who could mobilize the stars and the flood waters on behalf of Israel:
The kings came, they fought;
then fought the kings of Canaan,
at Taanach, by the waters of Megiddo;
they got no spoils of silver.
The stars fought from heaven,
from their courses they fought against Sisera.
The torrent Kishon swept them away,
the onrushing torrent, the torrent Kishon.
March on, my soul, with might! (Judges 5:19-21)
At the same time the victory song is glad to credit the crucial contribution of the Israelite tribes to the victory, led by Deborah and Barak (vv. 12-15). The song celebrates the heroism of Jael, an Israelite woman who confounded (and murdered) the Canaanite general, Sisera (vv. 24-27). The song, syllable by syllable, lines out the dramas of Sisera’s last moments at the hand of the brave Israelite woman:
He sank, he fell,
he lay still at her feet;
at her feet he sank, he fell;
where he sank, there he fell dead (v. 27).
Perhaps the community would engage in a chanting recital of these cadences. So giddy is the joy of Israel that the poetry can even imagine the pathos of the mother of the Canaanite general as she figured out that her son—the general—is dead in battle and is not coming home (vv. 28-30).
What interests me just now is the remarkable interlude in the poem in Judges 5:10-11:
Tell of it, you who ride on white donkeys,
you who sit on rich carpets
and you who walk by the way.
To the sound of musicians at the watering places,
there they repeat the triumphs of the Lord,
the triumphs of his peasantry in Israel.
These verses readily recognize the most likely social venue where the victory of Israel will be endlessly recited. The first line of these verses begins with three participles concerning those who ride, those who sit, and those who walk, that is, everybody! Only at the end of the line do we get the verb, “tell”! Speak out loud. Break the silence with exuberance!
And then we get the venue for such “telling.” The watering places! Go to the village well; meet the other women. Linger, and then sing and dance, all to the beat of the musicians. We can imagine that the village well was indeed the most likely venue with the women, the children, and their dogs gathered for a few minutes of respite, singing and dancing, from the hard labor of subsistence farming. The poem of Deborah, moreover, gives the women at the well the ground for their singing and dancing. The song never grows old; it is an act of defiance against present economic reality. The two lines give us the topic in poetic parallelism. In the first line the theme is, “the triumphs of YHWH.” The song is about YHWH, the creator God, the new God from the exodus, achieving an unimaginable victory over well armed Canaanite forces. Sing that wondrous impossibility! The second line, in perfect poetic parallelism, credits the same “triumph” to the peasants of Israel. It was their bravery that won the day! Thus the victory is credited, in turn, to YHWH and to the peasants. But this is poetry. The singing women have no need to sort out the parallelism or to parse it with precision. It is a victory for both, for both YHWH and for the peasants, who colluded together to accomplish this mighty historical upset. There is no offer of explanation. There is only singing acknowledgement. The term rendered “”triumphs,” moreover, is sidqoth, a feminine plural noun from the root term sdq that we take as “righteousness.” Thus the victory is construed as an act of “making right” a socioeconomic circumstance that was most assuredly skewed and distorted. The predatory practice of the Canaanite city-kings toward the subsistence farmers was not “right.” The victory “corrects” an unbearable historical arrangement. The women dance and sing at the village well of the great inexplicable reversal in the circumstance of their life. The poetry does not explain; it lines out the memory that is endlessly treasured and reiterated.
We can imagine that this singing at the village well was an example of the “hidden transcript” of James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (1990). Scott recognizes that the historically lowly and economically vulnerable have a narrative of lived reality that they recite to each other only in private. It is a narrative to which the overlords can never gain access. And so the women come to the well to exult with each other in the recital of their hidden transcript that gives identity to their communal existence and that defies their status as subservient to the Canaanite city-kings.
So let us imagine that they could linger only briefly at the village well, say twenty minutes. It was, as Smith sees later on, twenty minutes in which the Israelite women could recover and reassert their Israelite identity as members of an emancipated covenant community. It was twenty minutes of laughing and telling and singing and dancing whereby they could recover their community identity and their humanity. And the children must have watched and must have inhaled the sweet smell of alternative reality. They learned the hidden transcript of emancipated slaves before they knew it, and they would, later on, tell their children. We can imagine that the women, as they were able, never missed a chance to go to the well. They would hobble, crippled, to get there. They would stop to go there when they were too old to go. Because this break at the village well was crucial to their existence and to their day-to-day coping with the demand of the Canaanite city-kings.
My reflection on this remarkable scene of reiteration and formation in ancient Israel caused me to think as well of the scene in John 4 where Jesus meets the Samaritan women “at the well.” We are told that Jesus went there because he was “tired” (John 4:6). It is not said that he was thirsty, though he likely was. He asked for a drink from the women (v. 7). We are not told why the woman was at the well; she no doubt needed water and was thirsty; but since the Fourth Gospel narrative is thick with freight beyond the obvious, we can take it that she came to the well for respite from her lived reality. After all, she was a Samaritan outsider and she had seven husbands. She must have been a social outcast. But then she belongs to a long company of social outcasts who come to the well for revitalization and recovery of identity.
Thus I want to consider the convergence of these moments at the village well where a counter-narrative can be reiterated that defies the dominant narrative:
- The Israelite women recited the story of YHWH and the peasants, defying the dominance of the Canaanite city-kings.
- The Samaritan woman at the village well received a new story of her life that was on offer nowhere else.
- The Black slaves, on Pearl Street, came to the well for twenty minutes of humanity that kept them emancipated all day long.
In all of these instances, the world out beyond the well is endlessly demanding, exploitative, and coercive. Thus by itself, the world beyond the well will enslave and dehumanize.
- So the Israelites faced the demanding, exploitative, coercive force of the Canaanite city-kings…and the well provided respite.
- So the Samaritan woman lived in a Jewish society that endlessly reprimanded her for her second-class identity and her failed marital life…and the well offered respite.
- So the plantation economy, with its endless cotton quotas, reduced the life of the slaves to labor without possible gain…and the well offered respite.
Now consider the insatiable demands of our economy of production and consumption. For those “below,” the story features low wages with never enough to maintain life beyond debt. For those “above,” there is the endless rat race to have more, to get ahead, to rise higher. The outcome is that those “below” and those “above” share a common pressure propelled by anxiety. Amid such widely shared anxiety with large doses of fear, the dominant society offers little respite, as it has rendered obsolete the sabbath as a possible pivot point of wellbeing. The result, not surprisingly, is a society that is deeply on edge, prone to violence, whether against neighbor or against self (suicide). The dominant narrative provides no escape from the demands for performance.
We may learn from these old examples of a pause at the village well—the peasant community of ancient Israel, the Samaritan women with Jesus, and the slaves of the plantation economy—that we must seek out and have available venues for respite that defy the dominant narrative and that invite to an alternative identity. I asked my favorite doctor, Christina McHugh Brueggemann, M.D., what we might learn from medical science about a “twenty minute” rehabilitation. Here is her most helpful response to me:
Many studies have been done over the years that show that at least 20 minutes of exercise daily can greatly reduce cardiovascular risk factors and improve your overall health. In older adults, it has also been shown to improve cognitive function as well as physical health. In a recent study, elder adults cycled on stationary bikes for 20 minutes, and their post exercise cognitive functioning showed marked improvement, especially in areas that involved executive functioning or organizational tasks.
Studies have also been done that show the same benefit from taking 20 minutes to do some rest or relaxation techniques such as meditation, or deep breathing. It has been found that people who incorporated daily “brain rest” into their routines had less anxiety, less stress, and even a lowering of their blood pressure. They experienced an improved emotional health and a more positive outlook on life.
Some forms of meditation can enhance your self-awareness and can teach you to recognize thoughts that can be harmful or self-defeating. It can also increase your attention span and decrease memory loss. For all these reasons, many physicians (including me!) recommend daily exercise or relaxation/meditation routines for people of all ages (private communication).
Neither the women clustered around Deborah at the village well in ancient Israel nor the slaves on Pearl Street at the well, nor my dad had any of this scientific data. But they all understood intuitively what Dr. Brueggemann is affirming here. It all comes down to the practice of “twenty minutes” to rehabilitate our humanness that has been abased.
Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place (1989), has delineated a requirement for such a “third place” that is beyond the spheres of family and of work for the work of rehabilitation. Such a “third place” invites “civic engagement” and regeneration of self. The possibility of a third place offers many candidates: the barber shop, the bar (Cheers!), the library. Of course the church has been, historically, exactly such a third place where an alternative narrative (hidden transcript) could be compellingly reperformed. The church has no monopoly on this indispensible generic social function. But it does provide a quite distinct hidden transcript that has no effective counterpoint in any other third place venue. The hidden transcript that powers and funds the church as a third place is put most succinctly in the congregational response in the Eucharist:
Christ has died;
Christ is risen;
Christ will come again.
This is a recital that has no credibility in the dominant world of production and consumption. It is, moreover, a narrative that is not obvious or easy in its claim. Thus many conservatives take the “come again” of the third line and imagine a dateline. Most progressive Christians, I conclude, mostly mumble over the transcript. If, however, we notice the claim about Lordship that is intrinsic to the recital, it has the effect of rendering penultimate all other claims. Thus the first Easter narrative was and is a defiance and dismantling of the ultimate power of Caesar and the empire of Rome. And now, in our Western economy, the claim has the force of rendering penultimate the claim of the market. We are observing, slowly and belatedly amid Covid, that the market cannot keep its promises, and cannot deliver what we most need and want for our lives. That is on offer only elsewhere!
So imagine a church meeting. It may last only twenty minutes, often more. In the long-running tradition of the Black Church, the meeting lasted a very long time, for who could want to rush back to the world of white domination? The meeting cannot be rushed. It is a meeting in which a dramatic counter-world is on offer, and is being reperformed. Because it a “world” and not an argument or a program or a demand, it cannot be parsed. It can only be performed, received, and entertained. Those who enter this alternative world (that is in performance) find that all the “givens” of the dominant world are simply constructions, and they turn out to be choices we have made that we may un-make and re-make.
By various routes we return from the meeting to our “ordinary” lives as producers and/or consumers. As we return, however, we have a new narrative identity that need not give in to the anxiety, fear, and dysfunction the dominant narrative. This counter-narrative, for Christians, is rooted in baptism, but we continue to reperform it at every meeting.
- The Canaanites discovered that they could not keep the Israelite women at the well from singing and dancing.
- The old plantation South discovered that it could not stop Black preachers and Black mothers from telling an alternative transcript that evoked singing and dancing, and that in turn evoked the force of dangerous hope.
Out of that singing and dancing came dignity, identity, self-respect, and emancipated resolve.
Such an outcome could and does still happen in church worship. The only requirement is that worship be formed and conducted so as not to be an echo or an endorsement of the dominant narrative, for then it is an act of domestication that serves the status quo and fails to offer emancipatory energy. Thus we may imagine people wearied from the world of production and consumption, pausing (for twenty minutes) to say out loud in each other’s presence:
Christ has died: granting Caesar a moment of seeming victory;
Christ is risen: Caesar’s death penalty had no staying power; God’s power for life prevailed;
Christ will come again:
The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah (Revelation 11:15).
My dad said, “Drink a rest.” That is all he said. In retrospect, I see that he meant that the work to be done is important; but it is not finally important; it is penultimate.
Imagine… “twenty minutes” and becoming more fully human:
A subversive story!
A narrative world that can be received but not parsed or explained!
Emancipated imagination that will not be administered!
Everything depends on those twenty minutes!
February 17, 2023