I’ll never forget that day. We had got used to this strange life by then – the crowds, moving around from one place to the next, even the healings had become, dare I say it – normal.
We knew some of the favourite parables, but no one could tell them like He did, and every time we heard them, we heard them for the first time, only better. No one could tell a story like He did. Like bringing wisdom out of the deep well of time and serving it, like cold water in ordinary clay cups, to ordinary people, fishermen, farmers, fathers, and, as you can see, women, like me.
Yes, we had got used to it. Always something new, of course. New villages, new heart-breaking stories, new smiles of hope and health when once again, something was put right that had been out of joint for a long time.
It was a rhythm we had become used to in all its puzzling glory.
Oh, I’m Hannah, by the way! Trust me to forget my manners… I get excited sometimes… But, yes, I’m Hannah. My father was the synagogue leader in the little village, just down the road from here. Was, because sadly, he went to rest with his fathers when I was 12. But by that time, I had learned to read. My memory is good too, and father always said that if I had been a boy… He was proud of me though. He said so himself.
Anyway, this day – the crowds were coming towards us, and Jesus turned to Philip and asked him: How are we going to feed these people?
I didn’t know the answer, and Philip didn’t either, but we both knew that there wouldn’t be enough bread in 4 villages to feed them all, and not enough money in the money bag even if we spent it all, and Philip said as much.
Jesus nodded and looked pensive. I wonder if He was just pretending to think, or He actually did think as hard as it seemed. Knowing what I know now, I’m sure He knew all along what He was going to do.
For once it wasn’t Peter who had the bright idea but his brother Andrew.
Those of us who know our way around a kitchen had to hide our smiles behind our shawls when Andrew dragged this little boy into the group and explained that alright, it wasn’t much, but here was a boy with a packed lunch – 5 small barley bread cakes and a couple of dried, salted fish. Not much, but the best he could find.
Not exactly a banquet. Poor children’s food. We all knew that much, having most of us been brought up on similar fare.
But Jesus didn’t miss a beat. Indeed, He looked like this was exactly what He had expected, and that now the moment was here – a moment that He had anticipated which we could just as easily have missed. He always seemed to know something we did not know, see something we could not see.
Before we knew it, Peter and Andrew and John and James and the lot of them were busy getting people seated in smaller groups. Then Jesus said the prayer of thanks and…
I have no idea, no idea at all how it happened, but as the bread was handed out, it was like there was a new piece already in the hand of the giver before the first one had left. I saw it myself and yet, I cannot explain it! And the fish too… Broken into just a few bites, these small fish, there kept being enough to keep giving it out.
It was like manna from heaven. Barley bread manna.
That’s what they said afterwards. That it was like manna. That He was like Moses feeding everyone in this nowhere place, this everywhere place, this ordinary everyday place that could have been anywhere but was right here where we were, that it was like Moses in the desert, just like him… Just like him who had been promised. Him who would be like Moses.
They all seemed to erupt at the same time. Not all of them of course but several groups began muttering and then talked loudly among themselves, excited, agitated, angry, elated – as these things go, before long it was a sea of shouting, as most people got up and left as the first few stars came out.
We were all gathering up the pieces into baskets (would you believe it) and when they heard the commotion among the people and made some sort of sense of the conversation, some of our group went to Jesus, agreeing with the others, saying that He should take it – the crown that is. That the crowd was ready to support Him. That we could make a plan. That it could work. That sort of stuff.
They were like synagogue school children, plotting mischief after a long day of too much discipline and sitting still – rowdy and over-confident, they wanted to fill the rabbi’s shoes with pebbles. Only these fishermen wanted to oust the occupation. Take on the Roman empire. Surely, that would land them up crucified, not liberated.
Jesus, surrounded by the tense bodies and voices of several of them, removed Peter’s hand from His shoulder, pushed through the crowd and yelled back over His shoulder to them: I am going to go up on THAT mountain to pray, and I do not require any company!
We’d almost finished packing up by then. The baskets were all in the boat, but we couldn’t agree whether to get in or whether to wait for Him to return from the mountain. We knew He would find His way to Capernaum sooner or later, but it felt like such an abrupt ending that we felt frozen, unable to make a decision.
It was already late, and there really was no sign of Him coming back any time soon. We waited. The sons of thunder argued for a bit, then their argument died down. They hung their heads, even in the middle of the big baskets of crumbs. It was as if these baskets of left-over manna had already gone stale, yet there was something glorious too about this poor boy’s breakfast, ordinary, tangible, turned into a miracle by His hands, the real human hands that always seemed to weave heaven and earth into such a close-knit union that none of us knew what to say sometimes.
For a split second, I felt like I could hear God’s very own heartbeat, His breath in the waves on the shore… Then as soon as I perceived it, it was gone again.
Eventually, they decided that we should get into the boat and go to the other side. We made progress for the first while, but then the wind picked up. I had to tie my shawl tighter around me. At first, they simply rowed with greater force, but as the hours wore on, and the waves were whipped into foam, we all grew silent – the silence of straining and stubborn perseverance, the silence of getting the job done and of not getting in the way of weary fishermen. The silence that sounds like the frustrated hiss of steam escaping through gritted teeth.
It was as if the water just would not allow any progress, as if… As if we were trying to cross the Red Sea and found that there was no way forward – and no option to retreat. The baskets were still in the bottom of the boat, just about lifted out of the water that was collecting, balancing on the nets… The waves did not look friendly.
Their arms were pure muscle but even fishermen get tired. It had been hours, and they were up against it. The wind howled relentless and there seemed to be nothing sudden about this wind, at least it wasn’t sudden when it came to dying down again. It just went on and on, like a wall of wind, and the boat made no progress.
Myself and the Mary’s were praying. Fragments of psalms about ships and storms and the voice of the Lord hushing everything, like that other time when Jesus had spoken when they woke Him up on His cushion. I wasn’t there that time but perhaps if we hadn’t been so quick to leave without Him, He could have done something like that again…
We felt sorry for the men who were tired and frustrated… But one thing I don’t recall is being afraid. Tired yes. And impatient. But not afraid.
It was Philip who noticed first, and then Andrew. And then Peter, because the two of them just simply stopped rowing altogether and he was about to tell them off, until he, too, noticed.
They just stared, awestruck, baffled, speechless. There, on the water, was the Teacher, walking towards the boat, catching up with us one pace at a time. He walked on the water as if it were the paved street of Jerusalem, as if the water didn’t know it was water and His feet didn’t know they should sink. As if – as if He was God Himself, treading on the waters and leaving no footprint, paving a way through the mighty waters… He walked as if it was the most natural thing to do, on the choppy waves of the Sea of Tiberius. I’ll never forget it.
There were no words to say, no questions to ask, nothing that it would make sense to say, and so we all just sat there, in utter silence, staring at Him in baffled awe. Staring at Him as if God Himself had just descended from heaven, as if the Maker of heaven and earth had somehow taken on human form… and we stared speechless as He spoke, in what seemed to be a whisper as deep as the very firmament:
I AM I. It is me. I am, I AM, fear not.
Those words echoed like nothing I had ever heard before, like the entire foundation of everything I had ever seen or heard, thought or felt, done or imagined – like a rock solid reality that simply WAS and by its being, sustained all things.
We had left Him behind, and I never found out whether He wanted us to go or stay, but I know that we had set out in the boat in the dark, as Jesus had not returned, and had proceeded without Him, but that somehow, He had been here all along.
Now, He looked around, at all of us – those who had been angry that He did not want to go along with their coronation stories and those of us who had stayed out of it – and I cannot describe what happened in me as He looked into my eyes but I knew I had to be where He was. I knew I was known and that I wanted to go everywhere with Him, yet I also knew that He was much, much more than I had thought. That He was someone so holy I had no words in my brain, not enough room in my heart to offer, that the greatness and wonder of Him would blow the lid of every box I had ever stored away in my inmost being – and then some.
And then He asked. Casually, with a smile: Got any more room in that boat?
The truth is we didn’t. The boat was full of baskets full of barley breadcrumbs, morsels, half loaves… So we tipped them all in the water, bar one, and stacked all the baskets to make room for Him instead of the bread.
He climbed into the boat, just like that, and we arrived, having travelled the last two miles in the blink of an eye as if the entire boat had been lifted to shore, – as if the very hand of God has picked us up and put us down at our destination, – as if we had been led through the sea, the foaming waves, the dead-end sea… and had crossed over another boundary too into somewhere that was the same, yet different. Something very much like the Kingdom of God.
I will never forget that day.
I will never forget it.