It was one of those days when a full-fledged miracle would have been very helpful. Not so much the water-walking kind, but one of the feeding-5000-people-with-5-loaves-of-bread sort of miracles.
In February of 2007, I traveled with a few undergraduates and the dean of students from the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee to Quito, Ecuador. The primary purpose of our trip was to record the stories of the first ever gathering of leaders from around the globe making a difference in their communities and in the world.
Unlike most trips that launch out of Sewanee, this was not a mission to build a school, give free dental care, or help a specific group of people, but more so a chance to hear stories of what people were doing for their neighbors. We stayed at a fine hotel, where we dined in the top floor restaurant, and had access to workout rooms, and swimming pools.
One of my traveling companions was Will, a self-identified atheist with a deep passion for all people particularly the forgotten in the world. Will had spent a previous summer working in Quito, living and serving in one of the poorest communities of Carmen Bajo.
He was not content to sit in luxury at Hotel Quito, knowing that within miles was a community hungry for food, for work, for education, for someone to recognize them. So, one afternoon, we had some free time, and Will encouraged me to go with him, to visit his friends in Carmen Bajo to see how different life was a few miles away.
Since Will was the only one of the two of us that was fluent in Spanish, he arranged a cab, and we stopped in at a local bakery on our way to grab something for lunch. With the change from a $10 bill, we bought most of the loaves of bread the bakery had on hand, with plans to take them to the family of 10 we were going to visit.
On our ride over, the scenery changed quickly from the window of that cab. As we drove out of Quito proper, the buildings became smaller as more and more streets turned to dirt-covered roads. Row after row of homes began to emerge, with one stark similarity...each one was surrounded by a fence, 8 feet tall, embedded with jagged glass across the top, to deter anyone from trying to climb over them. It was evidence of the stories of their lives, the poverty in which they lived, the protection they had for the little bit they owned.
When the cab driver finally reached the edge of Carmen Bajo, the road ran out, so he let us off at the end of a dirt path, and we walked the rest of the way in. On our way, Will pointed out the homes just across a valley that had slipped off the mountainside, remnants of all the family possessions cascading down the hill side. Just as we crested the top of a mound of dirt, the slope on the other side came in to view. For as far as the eye could see, there was one cinder block dwelling after another, each with a person or two outside, looking around for something to do, somewhere to be. In Carmen Bajo, Will later told me, the unemployment rate is over 80%, mostly due to lack of education in the 500 or so families that live there.
That afternoon, like most, there were a number of people in the area, shuffling the dirt, watching the kids, shading themselves from the sun...and there we were among them. As we stood at the crest of that hill with our equivalent of 5 loaves of bread and two fish - looking at all those hungry faces, what we needed was a miracle of biblical proportions.
The writer of John's gospel tells us in his own words, more clearly than any other, exactly why he recorded the stories about Jesus. John writes that Jesus did many other things that are not recorded in his gospel, but he recorded some, and that:
"These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name." (John 20:31)
In today's reading, John has recorded two of Jesus' great miracles, back to back. We first hear of the story of a hillside full of people, who have come to Jesus on a hillside, hungry for many things. And Jesus, and his disciples, in good hospitality, first and foremost, try to formulate a plan on how to feed the masses. The disciples, particularly Philip, are clear there is absolutely, positively, no conceivable way that all those people will be fed.
You'd think that by this point in time, those poor apostles would have figured it out. Since when does Jesus do things in the way anyone expects? And here again is yet another example. With five loaves of bread and two fish, we are told that Jesus fed 5000 people that afternoon, with plenty left over.
Then, later that very same day, the grass still bent over from where all those people had been, the disciples are out in a boat, and Jesus shows up unexpectedly. John tells us they were three or four miles out, huddled together in the middle of a storm, the dead of night all around them, when Jesus appears walking on the water calming first the storm, then the disciples.
What links these two stories together is that Jesus does something totally unexpected, and it changes the lives of those around him forever. Philip, nor Andrew, nor the little boy, or anyone else standing there, ever dreamed what was going to happen when Jesus got a hold of that bread and those fish. Not one of the disciples expected Jesus to stroll up beside their boat, after they had rowed out some 4 miles, and greet them in the middle of a storm.
Jesus is constantly doing things that no one expects, but the result, time and again, are stories told about a Messiah who shows up in unexpected places, in unexpected ways, and we have story after story to tell about ways we witness him in the world.
That afternoon, outside of Quito, on that hill in Carmen Bajo, there was no miracle of biblical proportions. The same number of loaves we showed up with were all the loaves we had to share. Not everyone we saw that day was fed with bread, nor was there anything left over. But something very unexpected did happen. Maybe even a miracle.
Will and I visited with the family we came to see. We gave them the bread we had purchased, and they were grateful. I knew that, even if I didn't understand a word they were saying in their native Spanish. We sat with that family for an hour or more. I played with the kids and watched them color as they sat on their dirt floors, smiling with joy.
When Will would stop and translate something for me, the majority of the time, they were asking about him, and what he was doing. If the conversation wasn't about Will, it was about God, and how they knew that God loved them, and that God would provide...see? And they pointed to that day's food, the bread we had brought.
But it was right at the end, when we stood up to leave, that the unexpected occurred. The mom in the house asked Will to pray for them. And so there we were, circled together, two Caucasian Americans from a wealthy school, a family of uneducated Ecuadorians - three generations strong, with six squirming children, and the atheist in the middle, praying to God. And pray to God he did. I didn't understand the words he said, but I have never heard, or maybe felt, a more beautiful prayer in all my life.
When Will finished his prayer, every person in the family said the only three English words they might have known: God bless you. God bless you. God bless you. Over and over and over they said this to us.
The entire scene was totally unexpected. We had come to visit them, to let them know we cared, to bring them a little something to eat, to make sure they knew they had not been forgotten. And what we received was the presence of Christ in a circle of people unexpectedly gathered together that day.
Jesus keeps showing up in unexpected places, in unexpected ways. Why does it still surprise us?
This savior, born in a manger, son of a carpenter...
This man, born in the flesh, complete God in human form...
This king, nailed to a cross, and resurrected into life...
No one was expecting the Messiah as he came the first time. But what Jesus taught us as he walked this earth, was that he is with us, doing the unexpected, loving the unexpected, caring for the unexpected, all the time.
I thought we were going to visit a family to show them we cared about who they were, about what they were going through. I never expected what we received: Jesus in the flesh, a circle of his children, no matter age, race, or creed, but the Messiah in the midst of us. And still it happens all the time.
"These things, and many others are told so that we may come to know that Jesus is the Messiah, and that through him we may have life in his name." (Paraphrase of John 20:31)
Let us pray: Holy and gracious God, who continually blesses us with your presence; help us to be awake to your living Word among us always, renewing our faith in you, our calling to serving your people, and to see you when we least expect. In the name of Jesus Christ, our living Lord. Amen.