Last week, our family of four returned from a road trip vacation. We logged more than 3,000 miles in our little red Prius. We visited eleven states, plus Ontario and Quebec. We camped for nine nights, pleasantly lacking in mosquitos and mostly dry (only one real deluge). We laid eyes on all five Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. We swam in Lake Champlain and the pool at the KOA in Quebec City. (Don’t get me started on the madness of camping a hundred yards from a four-lane highway! We call it camping with a “k.”) For lunch-time picnics, we visited local city parks with playgrounds (and one lovely Maine graveyard). Best of all, we spent time with family and friends who are close to our hearts though they live far away.
The 6th chapter of John, which contains today’s text, is itself a kind of travelogue. It has the wandering quality of a good road trip. As the chapter opens, a large crowd follows Jesus. It gets to be evening and he recognizes their hunger. He feeds these thousands with one small boy’s lunch. Leftovers fill twelve baskets. Then he slips away into the mountain’s solitude because he sees that they are about to force him to be their king. Jesus is away long enough that the disciples give up waiting for him. They get into the boat and head home across the lake to Capernaum. In the dark they see him, walking on the surface of the lake toward them. He speaks to them: “It is I. Do not be afraid.”
But . . .
Just as they are about to haul him into the boat—capture him, contain him, demystify him—the boat suddenly lands on shore. And . . . imagine the puzzlement of the crowd that gathers the next day at the lake shore, again looking for Jesus. They saw the disciples leave in the boat and they knew Jesus wasn’t with them. Where did he go?
Today’s passage describes what happens when the crowd finally finds Jesus, which is more of the same. The exchange between Jesus and the crowd can hardly be called a “conversation.” It is more like an escalating series of misunderstandings. The crowd is looking for something, longing for something. But they, like us, are not really sure what it is. They know they are hungry, quite literally, in a food-insecure world—for bread to fill their stomachs and fuel their bodies. And they know that their hungers run deeper than that, too. Deeper than the next meal can satisfy. They are hungry for bread, and for more than bread.
Jesus says he is the bread of life. He is the manna God rains from heaven. He is God’s way of sustaining us. That wonderful, I guess. But how is it practical? What does this guy Jesus, from long ago, do to feed us here and now? With stresses of all kinds piling up in our work and family life, amid everyday sorrows and devastating losses . . . what does it mean to say that Jesus is our bread? As tyrants test to see how far outside the boundaries of humanity we’ll let our government go, as plainclothes ICE agents kidnap our undocumented neighbors, as fires rage fueled by climate change, how is Jesus our bread? How is Jesus our bread as both our political parties cope with this contentious election cycle by engaging in a politics of scapegoating, fear, apathy and cynicism?
These questions bring me back to our road trip (of course).
I’m bad at long distance relationships. I could stay in better touch with loved ones through social media and email, skype and phone calls, but these types of interactions just don’t do it for me.
There’s nothing like being face to face—camping in adjoining sites so the cousins can play in the hammock hanging in the trees between. There’s nothing like chopping veggies together for dinner. Milking the goats and playing in the hay bales. Looking one another in the eye as we share the stresses and strains our families are coping with. Setting out on a run, side by side, just like we used to, picking up the conversation right where we left off though it may have been years. Chuckling as the Elvis impersonator does karaoke at the neighborhood block party. Chatting into the night even though we’ll be tired in the morning. Stealing some more time for adult conversation as the kids crank out play sandwiches and milkshakes at the children’s museum.
If Jesus is our bread, perhaps that means Jesus embodies a way of being in relationship that is life-sustaining for us and our world community. \On a hillside with 5,000 hungry people, he shows us abundance in the homes of wealthy and poor alike— inclusion. Through parables, he shows us the beauty of forgiveness, the worthy cost of justice, the possibility of joyous reversals. In an upper room with his disciples, facing arrest and death, he shows us love instead of fear, community rather than divisiveness. Jesus blesses and breaks and shares, first bread, then himself: his time and energy, the healing power of his spirit, his own body. The meal Jesus invites us to, the table he sets for us, is a model for right relationship with God and humanity and creation. And he sustains us through this sacred web of relationship.
I’ve been home for less than a week and now it’s time to wander again. Tomorrow our group of thirteen will meet at the airport at 4 a.m. After two plane flights and one jarring van ride we’ll arrive at the San Lucas Mission in Guatemala in time for supper. We’ll be in the same time zone, and our cell phones will work just fine, but we’ll be worlds away in a village on the shores of Lake Atitlan. The air will smell of smoke and exhaust. It will be bright with color and pattern. In the mornings, we’ll hear roosters crowing and the grinding of corn meal and the musical greeting “Buena dia!” We’ll smile watching the children stream down the streets to school in their uniforms and the tuk-tuk drivers roar madly around the corners. We will play soccer and eat ice cream. I suspect that new games will be created, inside jokes will develop. I know we will linger over our coffee after meals long enough to get bored. Everything will slow down. We will wait. We will not be in charge. We will work and sweat, but I never feel particularly useful. I feel out of place. It always strikes me how our privileged assumptions make us inept in a place where infrastructure doesn’t exist. We will be students and pilgrims, practicing the art of listening—listening within and listening beyond, listening to the beauty and the pain and absurdity of unfairness that infects this global community to which we belong. We may find ourselves interrogating everything we think we know about ourselves, and our world.
The confusion and the wonder and the ache of these Guatemala trips reminds me of Jesus’ interaction with crowd. It wasn’t easy for them to connect and communicate, but their encounter was profound nonetheless. I actually kind of love the way this dialogue unfolds, how it wanders and winds its way toward a revealing conclusion. Here’s my version of what’s actually being said, minus John’s wordy prose:
CROWD TO JESUS: When did you come here?
JESUS: You’re looking for me because you want more bread. Work for the food that will truly sustain you. I will give it to you.
CROWD: What must we do to perform the work of God?
JESUS: The work of God is to believe in me.
Crowd: What will you do to prove it? Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, bread from heaven, you know.
JESUS: God is the one who gives bread from heaven.
CROWD: Yes, that’s what we want, bread from heaven!
JESUS: I am the bread of life.
Jesus and the crowd eventually find a common anchor: the story of manna in the wilderness, in which their ancestors learned that God can be trusted to sustain life in the most difficult of times and places. Perhaps their communication is frustrating and faltering because they are trying to use words to talk about something that can hardly be put into words: a memory carried deep within; the kind of memory that allows a person with dementia to recognize an old song, or join in reciting a childhood prayer. This memory is carried in the body, planted in the heart of hearts. It is communal wisdom, a cultural and spiritual inheritance passed along from ancestors. This memory is the hopeful sight of bubbling yeast. It is the smooth, stretchy touch of well-kneaded dough. It is the sound of palms flattening tortillas. It is the aroma of home and the taste of heaven.