What was it all about? The incident is open to various interpretations. If we saw it on TV, we'd have some idea from the context whether it was supposed to be amusing, chilling, romantic, surreal, or just an everyday down-to-earth part of life in a particular place. It's the lack of detail, context and meaning which makes the encounter somewhat intriguing and raises our curiosity as to what it was about. Who were the people? Why did they stop? What was the meaning of the half-biscuit? Why was the phone number given? The questions mount up in our minds.
The Gospels are full of intriguing incidents too. Our distance from them in terms of time and culture means we don't always appreciate the questions they raise, but those questions are certainly there. Let's take this familiar passage from St Mark's Gospel as an example:
On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to Jesus, ‘Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?’ 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, and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, “The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.’ So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal. (14.12-16)
Who was the man? Why was he carrying water, which was the work of women? Had Jesus already made arrangements for this man to meet his disciples, and for the owner of the house to provide and prepare the room for the feast? Had the owner invited Jesus? If not, was it all the work of faith, with the disciples sent to enter someone's house without any prior arrangement having been made? Or was there some other explanation altogether?
We don't know the answers to these questions. We do know that Jesus was familiar with Jerusalem. There's the account of him visiting with his parents when he was twelve years old, and accidentally getting left behind when they returned - spending the time debating with the Temple staff. Tradition suggests that his grandparents, Mary's parents, lived in the city. There are hints in the Gospels that his normal practice was to celebrate certain feasts there. And certainly Jesus had a confidence teaching in and around the Temple which may not have been acquired easily by someone who did not already feel at home there.
There's more, too. Why were the religious authorities from Jerusalem so concerned to travel out to the countryside, listen to his teaching, debate with him, and try to trap him? Was it because Jesus was a protege of the Temple, well-known and respected there, a rising young star - only to be taken in another and less conventional direction by the teaching of John the Baptist and the time spent in the wilderness crystallising his vocation?
If all that is true - and of course it's speculation - then the chances are that Jesus had already arranged the use of the room for the Passover. Even so, we don't know why a man was carrying water - and more importantly, whether the disciples did as Jesus asked entirely out of faith, or whether they knew they were expected.
When we read the Bible, we shouldn't just let it wash over us. We need to learn to raise the questions, to be intrigued by the unusual details, to read with our imagination freed to wonder and explore at a deeper level. Of course we'll jump to the wrong conclusions at times - but this will be outweighed by the enrichment and insight we'll gain.
And that incident this morning? I'm sure you'll have worked it out. It was to ask me to look out for a lost dog. The half-biscuit was a dog biscuit, and the phone number was to report any sighting - which sadly never came.