byFaith | 12.10.14
By Alan Dowd

Imagine arriving at your family’s Thanksgiving feast—with the dining-room table piled high with turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce and green beans, buttered rolls and creamy pumpkin pie—but only nibbling on an appetizer plate of carrots and crackers. It sounds silly, but that’s what many of Jesus’ followers did after the Miracle of the Fishes and Loaves, and it’s not unlike what we sometimes do when we overlook the message behind the miracles Christ performed with food and drink.

Bread of Life
Here’s the scene: After teaching and healing for several days, Jesus’ usual following of a few dozen has swelled into the thousands. The crowd is tired and hungry. Matthew’s account tells us the throng includes the crippled and lame, the deaf and mute, the blind and broken. John tells us they had followed Jesus “because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed.” But Jesus was not finished performing miracles.

“I have compassion for these people,” Jesus sighs. “They have been with me three days and have nothing to eat.” Sending them away without nourishment would leave them empty.

Testing His disciples, Jesus wonders aloud, “Where can we buy enough bread to feed all these people?” In Matthew, Jesus is even more direct, telling the disciples, “You give them something to eat.”

Trying to solve the dilemma on their own, the disciples are stymied. Pointing to a young man’s meal pouch of five loaves and two fish, Andrew asks, “How far will they go among so many?” Philip tries to calculate how much it will cost to feed the throng, concluding that not even eight months’ wages would be enough. Some of the apostles urge Jesus to send the crowd home.

Of course, in focusing on what they did not have, the disciples overlooked what they did have: a few pieces of bread, a couple of fish and, most important of all, the Great Banquet’s executive chef. What they saw as a limitation, Jesus saw as an opportunity. When that young man stepped out from the crowd and offered what he had, Jesus worked a miracle and fed a mountain full of people. And that was just the appetizer; the main course was still to come.

After the miracle, Jesus crosses the Sea of Galilee, and the people follow. Invoking the story of Moses, they brazenly order Jesus to serve up more miracle feasts so that they may believe in Him, demanding, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you?”

He admonishes them for not recognizing their spiritual emptiness, for their ingratitude, for their sense of entitlement, for their shallowness. “It is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

Their response is stunning: “From now on, give us this bread!”

Exasperated, Jesus explains, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry…The one who feeds on me will live because of me.”

He almost begs the crowd to join the feast—the real feast—but they reject His offer as they meander into the night. Some argue about the meaning of His words. Some grumble and question his background. Some reject His “hard teaching,” concluding, “Who can accept it?” According to John, “Many of His disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”

Jesus was revealing to the crowd—and to us—not just what we need to survive, but what we need to live. To be truly alive, to experience the abundant life he desires to share with us, we need more than the blessings He gives. We need Him.

For those with ears to hear, there’s nothing really new in what Christ said. In fact, this idea that God is the bread of life is the same message shared inIsaiah: “Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,and you will delight in the richest of fare.Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live.”

Only God can fill an empty heart. And only a willing spirit can partake of the meal He has prepared.

Living Water
Jesus used the macro-miracle of feeding thousands to drive home the point that He can feed and sustain all of us. But He used a micro-miracle to show how He can refresh and renew eachof us.

Here’s the scene: After a day-long journey, Jesus and the Twelve stop outside the town of Sychar to get supplies. The apostles proceed into town while Jesus, “tired as he was from the journey,” gets some rest near an old well.

Driven to the well by physical thirst, a Samaritan woman lowers her jar into the water. Jesus startles her by asking for a drink. But the woman balks at His request because of cultural traditions. John reminds us that “Jews do not associate with Samaritans.” 

Of course, cultural differences are only the beginning of the differences between Jesus and the nameless woman. Not only does she worship in a different way than Jesus and His followers, she is living with a man who isn’t her husband. She’s been divorced five times. And when she talks to Jesus—not unlike the crowd that demanded more miracle feasts— she is so spiritually dense that she can’t quite figure out who He is or what He is saying.

So Jesus helps her. He talks about living water, which flows from within and quenches all thirst. Offering her a glimpse into His father’s heart, He explains that God seeks people who worship in spirit and truth. But above all, Jesus listens to her. Jesus values her enough to talk with her—not at her. After being either used or ignored by every man in her life, it is God Himself who finds the time to hear her out and value her as a person rather than an object. And because Jesus listens, she discovers the need behind her need. As they share, she drinks in His words, and they revive her.

It wasn’t her body that thirsted for water, but her soul. After a lifetime of broken promises, her soul had grown as dry as dust. She needed hope and love. And Jesus gave her plenty of both. He even offered her seconds—a flowing stream of truth and joy to share with the rest of Sychar. In the last glimpse John provides us of the once-thirsty woman, we learn that “many Samaritans believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony.”

Interestingly, John reports that the woman left behind her water jug, yet her thirst was quenched—by the Living Water.

But perhaps the most remarkable part of this encounter is how it impacts Jesus. John tells us that Jesus also is transformed by the encounter at Jacob’s well. He’s no longer tired or hungry. While the apostles were gathering food for the body, the Father had provided Him food for the soul. “I have food to eat that you know nothing about,” Jesus explains to His dumbfounded disciples. “My food,” he reveals, “is to do the will of Him who sent me and to finish His work.”

That’s exactly what He did at the well, and it refreshed Him.

The wonderful thing about helping others is that it not only blesses the receiver of the action—it also blesses the giver. Again, there’s nothing new here. The Book of Proverbs makes the very same point: “He who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.”

Soul Food
So what is the Father’s will for us? We can learn a lot from the context of these stories. The Miracle of the Fishes and Loaves reminds us that God wants to meet the world’s physical needs, and He still enlists His followers—us—to help.

We can answer like Philip, focusing on what can’t be done and explaining to an omnipotent God that the situation is hopeless. We can react like Andrew, wanting to believe that Jesus can work with what we have but fearing even He has limits. We can respond like the crowd and turn to Jesus only when we have some earthly, short-term need to fill. Or we can answer like that boy who stepped out in faith, gave what he had and watched the Creator create.

But even when we get to that point, Jesus asks more of us. There are spiritual needs to be filled as well, and they are just as important as empty stomachs. The encounter at the well reminds us that doing God’s will requires more than tithing or ladling out food. To do His will, we must love the spiritually thirsty and hungry. That means looking them in the eye, getting past the differences that separate us and listening.

In a sense, if we walk away from His table after simply getting our blessing—getting our fill—and yet expect to know Him and be called His followers, we’re no different than the crowd. Put another way, God doesn’t want us to nibble on the appetizer while a banquet awaits us. He urges us to do His will by sharing what we have been given. And what we have been given is the stuff of life—food for the soul and springs of living water.

Dowd writes a monthly column exploring the crossroads of faith and public policy for byFaith.