Skip to main content

Love is a sponge.  Bear with me here. 

If you’ve been around Hillside for a number of years, you’ve heard this story before. I stumbled across it on an episode of NPR’s RadioLab some time ago, and it’s stuck with me. I think about it on a regular basis, which is to say I believe it bears repeating.

This story involves the once-great mining town of Butte, Montana.  Back in its heyday, Butte made a full third of the copper used in the United States. 

But time wasn’t kind to the mine, even after the mining company blew the shaft open to make copper extraction more efficient. In the early 1980s, economic forces conspired against the firm and forced it into bankruptcy. 

And it wasn’t just the lights the company turned off.  On their way out of town, the firm shut off the pumps it used to keep water from collecting at the bottom of the pit. 

Slowly, over the course of years, the water level at the bottom of the pit began to rise. It started as a puddle. Then it got fuller and fuller, until at 40 billion gallons it became one of the largest lakes in the United States.

Now, one quirk of geology in this region of Montana is that the ground is full of pyrite. And it turns out that when air, water, and pyrite get together they produce… sulfuric acid. 

So this huge lake became a huge vat of sulfuric acid, which hastened the rate at which heavy metals in the remaining copper ore leached into the water. The lake became a toxic brew.

Then one night in the mid 1990s a great storm swept over Butte just as a flock of snow geese was passing overhead. Not knowing any better, the birds took refuge in the waters of this pit. 

When the residents of Butte woke up the next morning, they discovered the carcasses of approximately 350 geese floating on the lake’s surface.  

This was a pit of death, inhospitable to life.

One day several years later, someone walked into the biology department of the nearby University of Montana brandishing an algae-covered stick. 

When they learned it had been pulled from the lake, the researchers gasped. They had written off the lake for years. It wasn’t possible for anything to live in it, right?

But somehow life had found a way. 

The researchers got curious. They decided to see what else they might find in the lake. 

And after a year of looking, they discovered this black, blobby glob of a thing floating around in water. It turned out to be a kind of yeast. And it had the most remarkable property. 

It was absorbing the heavy metals from the water around it. It was acting like a sponge. 

For years, scientists and engineers have been using bacteria and other microorganisms to filter heavy metals out of contaminated water. Usually these bacteria remove about 10-15% of contaminants.

But this black blob was absorbing 85-95% of the heavy metals in the water around it. It was purifying the water in what was once a toxic brew. 

sign up for hillside’s latest news, messages, and music

Excited about their find, the researchers worked up a profile and ran it through their databases to see where else this yeast might exist in the natural world. Surely they weren’t the first people to find it. 

Their search came up with a single hit. This yeast occurs in only one place—in the digestive tracts of geese.

As I say, love is a sponge. Think about it for a moment.

If the love revealed in his dying
is able to, like yeast,
soak up the world’s violence, soak up the world’s sin,
its brokenness, its hatred, its division,
and purify it, transform it, and reorient it into new life.

Then let us never lose sight that at the heart of our faith is this conviction that the love of God can take what is the very worst in us and turn it into good.

May it be so!

Matthew 21:33-46 (New Living Translation)

“Now listen to another story. A certain landowner planted a vineyard, built a wall around it, dug a pit for pressing out the grape juice, and built a lookout tower. Then he leased the vineyard to tenant farmers and moved to another country. At the time of the grape harvest, he sent his servants to collect his share of the crop. But the farmers grabbed his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another. So the landowner sent a larger group of his servants to collect for him, but the results were the same.

“Finally, the owner sent his son, thinking, ‘Surely they will respect my son.’

“But when the tenant farmers saw his son coming, they said to one another, ‘Here comes the heir to this estate. Come on, let’s kill him and get the estate for ourselves!’ So they grabbed him, dragged him out of the vineyard, and murdered him.

“When the owner of the vineyard returns,” Jesus asked, “what do you think he will do to those farmers?”

The religious leaders replied, “He will put the wicked men to a horrible death and lease the vineyard to others who will give him his share of the crop after each harvest.”

Then Jesus asked them, “Didn’t you ever read this in the Scriptures?

‘The stone that the builders rejected
    has now become the cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing,
    and it is wonderful to see.’

I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation that will produce the proper fruit. Anyone who stumbles over that stone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone it falls on.”

When the leading priests and Pharisees heard this parable, they realized he was telling the story against them—they were the wicked farmers. They wanted to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowds, who considered Jesus to be a prophet.