So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him…”
– Mark 14:13
I arrived for my bible study group at the Shoreline Cafe in Branford Thursday night just after 7.30, with a table-full of wonderful people to greet me. I was exhausted, but finally recovering from several weeks of hustle and bustle. One of our members wanted to put aside our planned study and to talk about the Last Supper in honor of our upcoming Holy Week. After a warm prayer holding hands, We chose the scenes from Mark 14 as our source text for the evening’s discussion.
A few of our group members were intrigued by the scene in which Jesus tells two of his disciples to go ahead of them into Jerusalem from its outlying towns and to look for a man carrying a jar, who would lead them to an upper room where the disciples could prepare the symbolic meal for the Jewish Passover celebration. Jesus and the apostles would then join them there later. Why this strange activity? As is often the case with Mark’s gospel, this is an upside-down expectation that shows us how early Christians gave private meaning to public events.
A man carrying a jar of water in the streets of Jerusalem would have been an oddity – this was considered women’s work in Jesus’ time (oof! heavy jars at that), and it is today still considered women’s and children’s work in many remote parts of the world. People seeing him no doubt would have wondered why this was happening, but would never have guessed what it meant – it was a private sign in a public place – a necessary trick to avoid the Roman and Jewish authorities getting wind of Jesus and his disciples coming to Jerusalem for Passover.
In Mark’s time, this would have been well understood – early Christians would have to use similar signals to let their fellow believers know where they were to celebrate their new faith in a private place. Often, they used a simple scrawl of a stick in the dirt near a house to outline the shape of a fish – which, in Greek, spelled out an acronym for Jesus’ identify as Son of God and Saviour of the world. Including this important scene in the telling of the gospel story was perhaps very effective in Mark’s time as an invitation to people hearing the story for the first time to understand that Jesus had given them this important tradition of providing public signs that others could not understand easily. The listener was “in on the story,” an outsider becoming an insider.
Many things that Jesus did and said were done in plain sight, and yet seemingly invisible to unbelieving eyes. His parables were simple, harmless stories, and yet in them was the fuel that fired a radically different and challenging way of looking at life and the world through a new lens of faith. So, too, with this story of a man with a jar. Here was a believer in this new way, a man who no doubt wanted liberation from the Romans as much as he wanted liberation from sin and death, and yet he was willing to become a public sign of his private faith in a way that was as passive and subservient as his culture would allow in that space. The power to overthrow evil was forged by Christ in simple deeds of most humble service in public spaces.
Yet once the disciples and the apostles gathered with Jesus in that upper room in Jerusalem, Jesus turned their expectations upside down again. In this private space, he declared that the symbols of the Passover meal, which celebrated Israel’s redemption from slavery through God’s miracles and God’s laws given to Moses, had new public meaning of permanent redemption and liberation. Jesus declared that liberation was given through the transformation of the Passover bread into his body, its wine into his blood. Notably, Jesus gives the bread to the disciples, saying “Take, this is my body.” Jesus gives them the strength of God in the flesh as a free gift of grace. However, the “deal is sealed” after the disciples have drunk the Passover wine. It is only then that Jesus says, ““This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” (Mark 14:23)
Would people have drunk from a cup or bowl that Jesus had told them was his blood? I don’t think so! As the wine bubbled down into their guts, Jesus tells them what is happening to them in covenant living with God through faith in Jesus Christ. They had a private gift of grace inside them, which Jesus invites them to accept publicly as a new truth, living in them through God’s willingness to die for our sake, and giving us the Spirit-giving strength to live in covenant with God as if God was already in us. As with Mark’s invitation to the feast through the man with the jar, he invites his readers through Jesus’ celebration of what became known as The Last Supper to have victory over death that would fuel their public witness – many of them, in Mark’s time, even unto painful deaths at the hands of the authorities.
As we prepare for our last week of the Lenten journey towards Easter, this upside-down story from Mark reminds me that I have to be alert for public signs of God’s private presence, and to be that presence wherever God calls me to lift high the cross of faith. I will stumble and fall in this often enough, but Jesus has invited me and everyone to a private banquet, in which the everyday stuff of life can be transformed by God into new strength and peace to fuel my public witness to Christ. We need not be afraid to be Christians, no matter where we are. We may pay a worldly price for this declaration at times, and we need do it in ways that invite the whole world to Christ’s compassionate living, no matter what their faith or traditions, but in a world filled with pain, brokenness and destruction, we are called to declare our eternal wholeness in God publicly. Do it in deeds, do it in words, do it in signs, do it in prayers – but do it in the streets, for we always will have an upper room waiting for us to comfort us in Christ.