I think of him every Holy Week. The guy they follow. Jesus and his apostles are heading into Jerusalem to share in their Maundy Thursday meal, and Jesus gives them directions: “Follow the man carrying water.” For years, I read this as a mundane act of prophecy or as a folkloric twist in the tale. Perhaps Jesus could’ve just as easily said “follow the man in the red hat,” or “follow the woman carrying grapes.” But then I learned that for a man to carry water, in the culture of Jesus’ first apostles, was a radically gender-transgressive act: men simply did not carry water. It was women’s work, and rigidly assigned to women in that culture. For Jesus to say “follow the man carrying water” in those days would be like Jesus saying, “follow the man in the dress” in my context.
So, what do we make of this? For one, I think it’s a reminder that then as now, people on the edges tend to look out for one another. Look at Jesus band of outcasts, rebels, and weirdos- where could they be safe to eat together, to share wine together, to tell stories and hear loving words and wash feet? Where could they be safe enough to do all of this given that the powers of the Roman Empire were even then gathering to arrest and execute Jesus? Well, maybe they could be safe wherever the man carrying water could be safe. Then as now, people who are outcast for sexuality or gender identity are at least more likely to shelter, to spend time with, to be welcoming towards those who are outcast for other reasons, political radicals not the least among them. The Stonewall Riots, which many point to as the beginning of the contemporary LGBTQ rights movement were started not by affluent white gay men, but by homeless youth, by drag queens of color, and by other contemporary mirrors of the man carrying water. Jesus sends his friends looking for the man carrying water, because wherever he goes, even they will be safe; wherever he goes, even they will be welcome.
So, this is a nice little textual moment, but what does it mean for us? As the current board chair for the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, I’m tempted to read this as just another scriptural reminder of God’s call to a variety of sexual orientations and gender identities, another place where God’s word bears room and honor for those who would find new ways to be gendered in the world. But I think it’s more than that, and I think it hits closer to home than that.
In Jesus command to his first followers is (as usual) an invitation for us. “Follow the man carrying water.” What does it mean to follow the man carrying water in our towns and churches? Perhaps it means looking for whoever is left out, whoever is living on the margins of the community, whoever is not quite fitting in, whoever is outside the bounds of “normal folks”- and going to them. Wherever they go, the church should show up. Wherever they wander, we are called to come alongside them, to learn from them, to see what maybe only they can thus far see.
But (again as usual) the call is not only to social commitments in our churches and communities. I think the invitation is also to our hearts. Because the man carrying water is not just outside of me, is not just the stranger at my gate. Somewhere in my heart, there is a part of me that is weird. There’s a part of me that’s “outside the bounds”, there’s a part of me that I don’t want to acknowledge, or even look at, let alone listen to. I don’t know about you, but I reckon you maybe have that part of your heart to, especially if you sit for a moment or three and listen for it.
“Follow the man carrying water,” Jesus tells his friends. “Learn from whoever is strangest among you,” Jesus tells my community. “Listen to the part of yourself that you are so desperately trying to ignore,” Jesus tells my heart.
And in the mist of it, wherever we follow that man carrying water- the Risen Lord has already walked ahead of us. He is waiting to meet us there, at the welcome table.
Rev. David Weasley is an American Baptist pastor. He currently serves an ELCA congregation in Tinley Park as their Director of Youth and Outreach. He also serves on the Board of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (www.awab.org.) He lives with his partner Rachael and a dozen other housemates in a co-op in Hyde Park.