“What is that?” I wanted to blurt out when the server placed a bowl in front of me. I was famished. I had just walked the first leg of the Camino del Norte in the scorching heat under the Spanish sun.
It was almost 25 kilometres on foot. Not that far on paper, you might think. But in order to complete this first day of my pilgrimage, I had to scramble up a six hundred metre elevation to gain the top of the ridge overlooking the Bay of Biscay on the north coast of the Basque land. And I had to descend those hills on knees that were starting to buckle under the weight of my pack. It was a brutally challenging start to the journey. And I was tired, thirsty and hungry.
I didn’t want to complain. Out loud, anyway. “What is this?” I slurped the salty broth soup with chunks of cod floating irreverently in the stew-like dish. The food didn’t look appealing, at least from a North American culinary perspective. But I downed it like it was nectar from heaven. The cod fish soup hit the spot and gave me the energy I needed to half-crawl to my bunk for the night.
The third mountain in Matthew’s Gospel is the Mountain of the Feeding—where on a side of a hill on the shores of Lake Galilee Jesus provided food for a multitude who had come to listen to Jesus’ teaching. Jesus fed them with the simple gifts of bread and fish. Everyone ate their fill. A basic need was filled. There were even baskets left over. An abundance of simple things, for everyone.
In our world, it goes without saying that we have an abundance of food for ourselves. We complain about food prices going through the roof. And yet, I wonder if any of us have eaten less and lost weight, in response. Most of us could do well to lose some pounds. Maybe some of you have. I suspect most of us, however, still consume the same amount of food. And not of simple, basic things. We confuse needs with wants.
Between 1984 and 1991, in three covert military operations—called Moses, Joshua, and Solomon—over twenty thousand Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel to escape famine and civil war. In an Israeli-made movie based on the first, Operation Moses, the story is told of a Christian child who is helped by the Ethiopian Jewish community to adapt to living in Israel as a Jew.
The first thing that happens after the plane from Africa lands in Israel is that the whole planeload of people is sent to the showers. When copious amounts of water are used to scrub them clean, the boy has a panic attack, crying: “they will punish me, they will punish me. I am wasting so much water.” Talk about basic needs.
Even though the person who told me about this movie saw it many, many years ago, that scene stays with her to this day. It leaves an impression because many of us take water for granted. Especially in Canada, where fresh water is naturally in abundance. Safe, clean drinking water is fundamental to human life. It is a basic need, even more so than fish and bread.
Yet, one main theme in this film, suitably titled “Live and Become”, is people from different faiths helping each other. Recognizing the need to find a new home in a faraway land, Ethiopian Jews helped a young Christian boy whose mother was left behind.
When basic needs are shared—like having access to fresh drinking water and safe homes—some of the religious and social divisions that normally separate and often cause conflict among us, evaporate in expressions of love.
When Jesus pays attention to the woman at the well in today’s Gospel reading by attending to her need, Jesus crosses social and religious fault lines. In Jesus’ day, Jewish people did not mingle with Samaritans—outsiders, foreigners. Neither did male, Jewish leaders speak with women.
And yet Jesus, moved in ways of love for all God’s creatures, reached out and touched her heart. First, he acknowledged our human tendency to feed ourselves with things that will only keep us wanting more; eating this food will never fully satisfy us. The gifts of God’s grace, Spirit and love, however, satisfy us forever. Then, Jesus showed her mercy and offered her eternal love. Jesus addressed a basic need, not a want.
On the woman’s part, she receives the love Jesus offers. She is moved that Jesus knew everything about her and still loved her. Responding to this love doesn’t necessarily make things easier for her. That’s why the love God has for us is about meeting a need not a want.
Sometimes what we need, in love, is to be challenged to confront our fear. The woman had every right to be afraid. She could have kept quiet given her troubled, personal history. She could have kept God’s love for herself.
But she opens her heart to Jesus and responds by sharing her experience of being loved with others. The evidence of this is her courage to then go to the city and tell everyone of her encounter with Jesus. She leaves her water jar behind—a symbolic gesture—and goes into the city to start her new life.
She overcomes her fear and becomes an effective evangelist for Jesus. Her life bears witness, through the ages, to the power of God’s love overcoming all sorts of social and religious divisions.
I still remember the sight of that large bowl of the fish soup. The chunks of the cod floating in the watery stew of vegetables. I was thirsty and I was hungry. And I was grateful for the sustenance that simple meal had given to me.
I recall our son’s good advice for trying something new to eat, something you’d not normally ‘go to’. He said, “Someone, somewhere in the world today considers this food a gourmet, a delicacy.” When we open our hearts in love for others and for the whole world, we recognize our shared, common needs, our shared, common humanity. Practising love for another will help us overcome our fears and inhibitions.
There is a food that I love eating at home here in Canada that tasted even better in Spain: the fruit. I have never eaten more delicious oranges and peaches as I did when walking the Camino. I remember almost drinking the sweet juices of a peach I savoured during a rest break on the trail in the Basque hills. I remember how good that one peach tasted.
I wonder about what a difference it makes when we become aware of what we choose to focus on. On this third leg of our Lenten journey, we are called to feed the need (not the want); eat something good. When relating to people from other cultures and other parts of the world, we can choose to focus on the good or the bad.
There is always a bad apple in the basket. But so is there in our basket, so to speak. We can choose to fixate on that bad apple, or two, or three. But there is a whole bushel-full of apples that are pretty good. Maybe not perfect, but certainly not bad.
As we make our way down the mountain of the feeding, Jesus leads the way, breaking boundaries that divide us, and challenging our fears so that we can perceive reality in a new way. And, Jesus provides for us through the grace and mercy and love of others sharing what they have with us. Our needs are being met. Before we even lift a finger to eat. Can we do likewise, for another?
 Matthew 14:13-21
 John 4:5-42