A Pot, Some Water, and a Small Round Stone

Sermon Preached on July 23, 2006
at Church of the Transfiguration
Palos Park, Illinois
Proper 11B

An old folktale tells of a man who has been traveling through the forest for a week without any food to eat. He is tired and hungry and all but ready to give up hope when he sees a dim light off in the distance. As he approaches the light, it grows brighter and brighter and soon he can make out the small cottage from which it is shining.

The man knocks on the door and says to the woman that answers, “I have been traveling alone in the woods for many days without any food to eat and I am wondering if you might have a little something for me.”

The woman tries to close the door in the man’s face, saying, “I have nothing here.”

But the man is persistent and he tries again and says, “Do not be so hardhearted, for we are both human begins, and should help one another.”

The woman replies, “I have no food in the house! Now, go somewhere else.”

But the traveler, it turns out, is as clever as he is hungry, and so he says, “Poor woman, you must be starving. Let me make some soup for you to eat.”

The woman’s curiosity is raised and so she opens the door a bit and says, “You will make soup for me? What kind of soup will you make . . . you have been traveling a week in the woods with nothing to eat for yourself?”

Rather cryptically, the man replies, “If you’ll just lend me a pot, I will show you.”The woman opens the door the rest of the way, the man walks in and begins to prepare his soup. He filled the pot with water and put it on the stove. Then he took a small round stone from his pocket, turned it three times in his hand and put it into the pot.

“What’s this going to be?” asks the woman.

The man replies “Stone Soup.”

As he stirs the pot of Stone Soup, the man comments, “this generally makes good broth, but this time it will very likely be rather thin, for I have been making broth the whole week with the same stone. If I only had a handful of flour to put in, that would make it all right. But there’s no use thinking about that” and he continued stirring the pot.

“Well, I think I have a scrap of flour somewhere,” says the woman, and she went to the cupboard to get it. The man began putting the flour into the broth, and went on stirring, while the woman sat staring at him and then at the pot until her eyes nearly burst their sockets!

“This broth would be good enough for company,” says the man, “if only I had a bit of salted beef and a few potatoes to put in. But there’s no use thinking about that” and he continued stirring the pot.

When the woman really began to think it over, she thought she had some potatoes, and perhaps a bit of beef as well, and she gave these to the man, who went on stirring, while she sat and stared as hard as ever.

“This will be grand enough for the best in the land,” he said.

Well, the story continues in this manner for some time and soon the woman finds a little barley and some milk for a very fine soup; and even remembers she has bread, cheese, and smoked veal for sandwiches. The two sit down to a grand feast and the woman is delighted that such a wonderful meal can be prepared with only a pot, some water, and a small round stone.[i]

I like to solve problems. A number of you probably enjoy solving crossword puzzles or, the newest craze, Sudoku. I have to confess that my discovery of websudoku.com was nearly my undoing during my last quarter in seminary. That sense of satisfaction when the last number drops neatly into the grid or the final word fits into the crossword – what else is like it!? Problem solved, no lingering worries. I am guessing that my enjoyment of problem-solving is universal. Most of us like problems – especially ones that that have easy solutions – and most of us have come to believe that our world is made up of a series of problems of varying degrees of difficulty that can be solved.

So, we go to the doctor with a list of symptoms and we expect the doctor to say, “Your problem is that you have Disease X” and “the solution is to take Drug Y.” Then, we imagine we’ll go home, take Drug Y and Disease X will be gone with no lingering worries. But, instead we discover upon taking Drug Y, that it makes our stomach upset, or it causes nausea or a rash. Or, we can take Drug Y for our headache, but it might cause an ulcer. And this is a day of ‘good news’ medically speaking. Because the other news that we all know of is the doctor who says, “you have Disease X and there is no cure” or “you have a group of symptoms, but I cannot identify the cause.”

We like problems that have solutions and we’ve come to expect that the world is made up of problems that can be solved. So we ask questions like, “how do we solve the crisis in the Middle East?” “How do we solve the problem of unemployment?” “How do we solve the problem of hunger and extreme poverty in the world?” But here’s the catch: life does not come in a problem-solution format. It is not a crossword puzzle to be solved. There is no one answer that will allow us to set the problem down and say, “There, that takes care of that.” Many of us are tempted to stay the course – we won’t give up because we know that a solution is out there – we just haven’t found it yet. But, if we keep trying, the answer will come to us and ultimately we will be able to go to bed without worrying about the hungry people, the unemployed people, the sick people, the tired people, and ourselves.

That this problem-solution dyad is firmly ensconced in our collective worldview became apparent this week as I searched online newspaper headlines for information about the conflict in the Middle East: The L.A. Times, “Israelis See No Quick Solution to Crisis in Lebanon”[ii] suggests that they do, however, envision a solution exists somewhere. The headline in the Hindustan Times reads, “UNSC wants sustainable solution, not quickfix for Mideast.”[iii] Likewise, the Toronto Star, “’More Permanent’ Solution Sought;”[iv] and CNN International, “Arabs Look to U.S. for Diplomatic Solution.”[v] This is a small sampling from the dozens and dozens of headlines reporting on proposed solutions or hoped for solutions to the problem in the Middle East.

But, my friends, here is where it all begins to break down for me because I have to ask myself, “What precisely is the problem for which a solution is being sought?” To be sure, the most recent “problem” is that Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers ending six years of tenuous peace between Lebanon and Israel. But, I doubt that many of us believe that this is the problem we are ultimately hoping to solve here. Perhaps the problem was the election of Ismail Haniya in the Palestinian General election last January. Or maybe the problem is Israel’s refusal to withdraw to its 1967 borders. Or perhaps the problem is actually Syria or Iran, two countries who some suggest are behind the Hezbollah attacks on Israel. Maybe the problem goes back to the Biblical question of which people are, in fact, part of “the covenants of promise.” I am no expert on Middle East politics (in fact, I am barely a novice).[vi] But here is what I see. We are so wound up in a worldview that insists on finding solutions that when we are presented with a situation for which no single clear-cut problem can be identified, we still look for or at least hope for the one solution that will magically solve the crisis.

According to L. P. Jacks, a British Unitarian minister and prolific writer of the first half of the 20th century, the Bible contains neither the word “problem” nor the word “solution” suggesting that maybe there is another way to view world events.[vii] This small bit of Biblical trivia appears in Dorothy Sayers' 1941 classic, The Mind of the Maker in which she builds on the notion that humans are created in the image of a creating God proposing that it is the very act of creating which is most God-like in our being.

According to Sayers, “the creator does not set out from a set of data, and proceed, like a crossword solver, . . . to deduce from them a result which shall be final, predictable, complete and the only one possible.”[viii] Now if the creator doesn’t work in this manner and if we are, by our very nature, created in the image of this creator, then why is it we insist on treating the world as if it were made up of a series of problems to be solved, one by one, once and for all.

In the beginning, God looked out upon the void and darkness which covered the face of the deep and saw in it “a medium for creation.”[ix] And, as we look out at our world and all of its messiness – as we look at the Middle East, or at hunger and extreme poverty, or any other of the so-called ‘problems’ in our world – as we cry out, as Sayers does, “‘Here is a mess, a crying evil, a need! What can you do about it?’ We are asked not to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ or ‘I will’ or ‘I will not,’ but to be inventive, to create, to discover something new.”[x] The answer to most of the ‘problems’ of our world will not come in the form of a simple solution; in fact, many of the ‘problems’ may turn out to be unsolvable. But we are to meet this, not with despair and frustration, but with creativity. To do otherwise, according to Sayers is to do “violence to the very structure of our being.”[xi]

In today’s gospel, the apostles presented Jesus with a problem, “there are too many people and they are hungry.” This is a problem our world continues to recognize and struggle with. But Jesus, rather than providing a solution, simply says, “feed them.” The apostles, like most of us, assume there is only one solution – or, in this case, no solution because the cost is more than they can afford: “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” In today’s terms, they might have said, “Jesus, what are you thinking!? It would cost a billion dollars to feed all these people.” But Jesus, thank God, is a very patient man and Jesus’ actions point the apostles in a new direction. His actions say, “Create” don’t “solve” for life is much more complicated than a crossword puzzle. Jesus points out that among them they have five loaves of bread and two fish. And out of this material stuff – this medium for creation - he tells the apostles to feed the people. And what are we told? Not only did all five thousand people eat, but twelve baskets full of broken pieces and fish were left over after all had been fed.

Just imagine, all that with only a pot, some water, and a small round stone.

[i] There are a number of variations on this simple story. Several are available at “Stone Soup: Folktales of Aarne-Thompson type 1548,” translated and/or edited by D. L. Ashliman, 1998-2004, accessed online. A children’s story by Marcia Blake, Stone Soup, written in 1947 is still published by Atheneum. My own version is a combination of Ashliman’s “The Old Woman and the Tramp” and my recollection of a childhood album in which Danny Kaye narrated the story of “Stone Soup.”
[ii] Laura King and Megan K. Stack, “Israelis See No Quick Solution to Crisis in Lebanon,” Los Angeles Times, July 18, 2006, online edition accessed on July 18, 2006.
[iii] “UNSC wants sustainable solution, not quickfix for Mideast,” Hindustan Times, July 18, 2006 accessed online on July 18, 2006.
[iv] Olivia Ward, “’More Permanent Solution’ Sought,” The Toronto Star, July 17, 2006 accessed online on July 18, 2006.
[v] Elise Labbott, “Arabs Look to U.S. for Diplomatic Solution,” CNN International, July 18, 2006 accessed online on July 18, 2006.
[vi] I am such a novice in this arena that even my list of potential problems come from this week’s Time: Lisa Meyer, “Hate Thy Neighbor: Understanding the New and Lethal Logic of Violence in the Middle East – and What the World Can Do to Find Peace,” Time From the Magazine, July 16, 2006 accessed online on July 17, 2006.
[vii] L. P. Jacks, Stevenson Lectures, 1926-7 quoted in Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, New York: Harper, 1941, p. 179.
[viii] Sayers, p. 186.
[ix] Genesis 1.1; Sayers, p. 188.
[x] Sayers, p. 192.
[xi] Sayers, p. 185.