The day jobs of deacons and ruling elders in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) range from CEO to waitress, doctors to clerical workers. But the profession of water dowsing — finding underground water with a forked branch — might be limited to one person.

Vernon Bandy is an 80-year-old deacon at First Presbyterian Church in Bozeman, Mont., and a life-long water dowser. 

Dowsing is an ancient practice. The dowser moves across the land lightly holding a divining rod that twists or jumps toward the desired object. In 16th-century Germany, Martin Luther proclaimed dowsing demonic — and dowsing has been viewed with suspicion by religious folks ever since.

The scientific world also has problems accepting dowsing as verifiable and repeatable knowledge, but Bandy’s large stack of testimonials, news stories, and drilling records witness to his finding water where no one else thought it existed

Certainly, Bandy’s character and faith are not questioned by those who know him.

“Vernon is one of our most dedicated deacons and church members,” said the Rev. Jody McDevitt, co-pastor at First Presbyterian Church. “His unique gift of being able to dowse is something he views as a gift from God, and I don’t question that.”

Dowsing runs in Bandy’s family. He learned the skill from his father and grandfather and his two brothers also dowsed for water. Bandy has a hard time describing why what he does works.

“When you’re a young kid, you knew it worked but you didn’t pay much attention to it. It just worked for you,” Bandy said. “To me, it’s a God-given capability, to help His people. You can go with all kinds of theories but that’s my personal theory. There’s no way that I, as an individual, can have that kind of knowledge.”

Bandy has found water all over the western United States and in Costa Rica. The job he’s most proud of is helping find fresh water for a local school that would have otherwise paid thousands to remove the arsenic taint in the existing well.

Bandy’s wife, Alice, who was originally fiercely skeptical of dowsing, now speaks eloquently of her husband’s life-long work.

“I’ve seen such beauty in Vernon’s work. I have seen when a man was ready to sell his ranch because he didn’t have enough water for his cattle, and his 10-year-old son was crying because they couldn’t live out on the ranch any longer. Vernon saved that man by finding him water.

“There have been times when people doubted that this was not something that was acceptable or biblical,” Alice said. “We have ourselves prayed together that, ‘Lord, if this isn’t your will, if this isn’t right, the do not let it be acceptable.’ And then it seemed like the work got better and better.”

Alice was once among Vernon’s doubters because she didn’t understand how dowsing worked.

“I wanted him to explain this, and you just can’t explain how it works. There’s a lot of things from our Lord that I can’t explain,” she said. “Well, if God didn’t see fit for me to know the details, I’m okay that. I don’t understand electricity either, but I’m not going to sit around in the dark till I do.”

As deacons, the Bandys organize food for the homeless family shelter that First Church hosts six to eight weeks a year.

“Vernon also participates as an usher, and they are both involved in the adult bible studies. He’s more a behind-the-scenes kind of guy, a helper,” McDevitts paused for a moment, searching for the right word: “a deacon.”

The Bandys have two daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Several of the grandsons and a nephew are taking up dowsing, with one seeking gold in Nevada.

Dowsers can find almost anything using a “witness,” a sample of what the dowser is seeking. Bandy once helped locate a previous pastor’s lost wallet in the wilderness using a credit card as the witness attached to the end of his rod.

“I’m not out trying to promote myself as much as I’m trying to help people,” Bandy said. “Because that makes the world different. There’s a lot of water out here, a lot of irrigation water that folks didn’t think existed back in the ’60s.” 

Perhaps Luther got it wrong, at least on the issue of dowsing. In Montana, there’s a Presbyterian deacon who has been finding a lot of water in ways not understood by the modern world.

Mystery still dances within the bounds of the PC(USA).

Anitra Kitts is a freelance writer in Santa Rosa, Calif., and a candidate for the ministry under the care of the Presbytery of the Redwoods.