From Luke’s Gospel:
Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover meal for us that we may eat it.” They asked him, “Where do you want us to make preparations for it?” “Listen,” he said to them, “when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters and say to the owner of the house, ‘The teacher asks you, “Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”‘ He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished. Make preparations for us there.” So they went and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Luke 22:7-13 (NRSV) – December 13, 2012.)
This, of course, is the familiar story of the preparation for the Last Supper, the supper in the Upper Room where so much of the story of Jesus’ last days and of the church’s first days takes place. Reading it again today I have noticed the little remarked “man carrying a jar of water.” From time to time in Holy Scripture we meet these people, sometimes named (especially in Paul’s letters), sometimes anonymous, about whom we are told very little, but who play important roles. This water bearer is a pivotal character in this story; without him Peter and John would be unable to find the place which would become so important in the Christian story, the scene of the first eucharist, the place where the Resurrected Lord would appear to his friends, the location of the Pentecost event. And yet, we know nothing about him.
Whenever I read or hear a passage of Scripture about a water carrier, a water jar, or a clay pot, I cannot help but remember a folk tale from India, a story I’ve used as a sermon illustration on several occasions:
A water bearer had two large pots, each hung on each end of a pole which he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master’s house, the cracked pot arrived only half full. For a full two years this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots full of water to his master’s house. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, perfect to the end for which it was made. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do.
After two years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, it spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream. “I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you.”
“Why?” asked the bearer. “What are you ashamed of?”
“I have been able, for these past two years, to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master’s house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all of this work, and you don’t get full value from your efforts,” the pot said.
The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and in his compassion he said, “As we return to the master’s house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.”
Indeed, as they went up the hill, the old cracked pot took notice of the sun warming the beautiful wild flowers on the side of the path, and this cheered it some. But at the end of the trail, it still felt bad because it had leaked out half its load, and so again it apologized to the bearer for its failure.
The bearer said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of your path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you’ve watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house.”
The cracked and leaking pot was unaware of its importance in the life of the water bearer. I wonder if the “man carrying a jar of water” in the story of the Last Supper was aware of his importance; did he even know the disciples were following him? Would he later say, “I took them to my master’s home where Jesus ate his last meal”? We can’t know since Luke tells us no more, but we can take an Advent lesson from his inclusion in this story.
The message of Advent, spoken by Jesus in the gospel lesson for its first Sunday, is “Be alert!” (Luke 21:36) Slow down and pay attention. Be aware of those around you, the unknown carriers of water jars, and more especially those for whom you may be the water bearer . . . or the water jar.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.