A clear and peaceful Sunday morning on the waterfront in Washington and the boats are quiet in their slips, their bows gently rising and falling with the slightest waves on the Pamlico River. The two-seater swings overlooking the docks are empty, too, swaying as if someone has just risen and walked away. Bill’s Hot Dogs on Gladden Street is closed on Sunday, but when you pass by on your way to service at First Presbyterian next door, you catch a whiff of onions, an aroma of that spicy chili hanging in the air, and right now, you can’t think of a better place to be.
First Presbyterian — built in 1823, rebuilt in 1867 after the Civil War — is one of a dozen churches in downtown Washington, each within walking distance of one another. This one has a full congregation today, all of us settling into our seats in the pews, turning to one another to talk, and someone named Barbara, retired here from Indiana, gives me — a visitor — the warmest smile.
“This is the day that the Lord has made,” starts the service, and then the children in the congregation, six of them, go forth and sit on the floor in a semicircle in front of the pulpit, their fidgety bodies so full of life, bobbing and swaying as Alida Sawyer kneels down with them to deliver the children’s message.
She holds up a sponge.
“Does everyone know what this is?” she asks, and the little heads bob up and down, and she passes the sponge around for the children to hold and touch, and she points out that the sponge is hard, rigid.
Then she takes the sponge and dips it into a bowl of water, holds it up and asks the children what just happened when she dipped that sponge into water. A sea of tiny voices rises up — the children are calm now — and they chime “It got softer,” and Alida nods and says, “Yes, that’s right. Water softens hard things.”
Alida’s voice is like water, so slow and soothing — she taught exceptional needs students in Beaufort County for 32 years — that everyone’s shoulders drop a few inches, as if we, too, have been softened, as if that water has washed right over us, here in this church in Washington, after all, and never have I been more sure of something: the truth that water, more than anything else, holds the power to ease.
Alida says that water is mentioned in the Bible 722 times, and I can think of all the places in North Carolina where I’ve noticed water, too, and have stood beside it and waded in it, and have swum in it and boated in it and scooped it into my hands and dipped my ankles in it, and have, every single time, come away feeling better than before I arrived at that water, every time uplifted.
How lucky we are to be reminded of what a small and connected part we all are in this cycle — now as it has been forever — of water that falls and then evaporates up into the sky, and we wait until it comes back to earth to cleanse us all over again, to lower our shoulders, to alleviate the hardness, to soften our hearts.