Pouring Oil on the Water


I’m still at Liberty University, but in my free time I’m reading a biography of Franklin.  We all know that Benjamin Franklin was an extraordinary man—a printer, a writer, a philosopher, a diplomat, a statesman, a revolutionary.  But he was also a scientist, and his inventions and scientific discoveries changed the way we live.

In 1757, Franklin was sent to London by the Pennsylvania Assembly to represent them on various issues, and during the first part of the journey Franklin was on a ship that was sailing with a fleet of nearly 100 ships.  From the deck he could watch the other ships very closely.  He noticed one day that the wakes of most of the ships were rough and wavy, ruffled up by the wind and the churning of the vessel, but two of the ships had very calm wakes, as though they were just gliding through the waters.  He asked the captain about the phenomenon.  The ships were all about the same size with the same framework traveling at the same speed through the same waters.  The captain said, “Oh, everyone knows that.  The cooks on those two ships have just thrown their greasy water overboard.”

From that point, Franklin spent years thinking about this mystery.  In fact, he had a walking cane with a hollow center, which he kept filled with oil.  When he was at a lake or river with friends, he would amaze them with a little parlor trick.  No matter how rough or choppy the water, he’d pour the oil onto the surface and it would become calm.  The calmness would spread out and cover a wide area.

Franklin’s discovery became very famous and was the subject of many discussions and papers, and the object of much inquiry.  People wanted to know what it was about the thin layer of oil that created an area of calmness on choppy waters.

Of course, we know.  Ripples and waves are caused by the friction between air and water.  When a gust of wind blows over a body of water, the air grabs at the water and lifts it up.  When the surface of the water is coated with a thin layer of oil, the friction is reduced, and the wind cannot easily get hold of the water; it just blows right over it and slides off.

The lesson wasn’t lost on Franklin and it’s not lost on us.  There are actually to important applications: 

  1. Oil in the Bible represents the Holy Spirit.  When our personalities are covered with the Spirit and with the oil of joy, our minds are calm and our personalities are much harder to agitate.
  2. What oil is to water, grace is to our relationships.  We have choppy relationships and rough seas when we rub each other the wrong way, when the friction between our personalities creates ripples of disharmony.  But when we pour the oil of grace on these waters, it has a way of smoothing the waters and calming the seas  If we’re gracious to people and don’t let a root of bitterness spring up, we’ll have a much easier time in life.  Perhaps there’s someone right now toward whom you need to change your attitude.  Why not pour the oil of His grace on those waters and see if they don’t calm down?  It can make a difference this week.

PS – This except is adapted from my sermon on Romans 12.