“Jesus still keeps his promise—‘if you just ask, I will give’— and he straightens her and us out later. It isn’t when our faith is large and imposing like a great mountain or like a beautiful jewel that we get the Lord’s wonderful gifts. Indeed, the grace of the gospel is that when our faith is even the size and shape of a puny mustard seed (as this woman’s faith is right now), the Lord moves even the greatest mountains and gives even his most precious jewels . . . Jesus didn’t ask her for great faith; he asked her simply to ask him. She asks now, very imperfectly. He now goes to work, perfectly. The yield of the entire encounter will be an almost entire village’s conversion.”
-Dale Bruner on the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman
(from The Gospel of John, A Commentary)
I teach the third graders the way I’ve been learning to teach.
“There was once a man who did such wonderful things and said such amazing things, that people just had to follow him,” I say. I sit on my knees and lean over a golden cardboard box. We’ve been talking about the parable inside.
“He spoke to the people about a kingdom. But it was not like any kingdom they’d ever lived in. It wasn’t like any kingdom they’d ever even heard of.
“One time he said to them, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a person…'” I take a little wooden man and place it at the bottom of the piece of cloth in front of me. “…who took the tiniest of seeds, a seed so small you can barely see it.” I reach into the box and press my pointer finger to the mustard seed and lean over toward the kids, letting them stare at the tiny golden dot.
“And he planted it in the ground.”
I set the seed on the cloth beside the little wooden man.
Once, in middle school, I bought a cheap golden locket from one of those accessory stores at the mall. I brought it home, unsure of what to put inside it. I had no boyfriend and I was thirteen so the idea of sticking a family photo into it was ridiculous. Then, I decided, I’d find a mustard seed in the pantry! I’d make it a faith necklace!
Of course, those mustard seeds were small. So I needed at least six to make it worth it. But this is not a story about six mustard seeds, is it?
I gather the green felt in my hands, balling it up into my fist and lean toward the children.
“The seed grew.” I place the tip of the green felt down above the man and seed and begin to unroll it. “It grew,” I say, unrolling it more to reveal the beginnings of a tree. “And grew.” I unroll and unroll, unfolding the branches of the tree with care, until the entire felt tree has made its way all the way up the span of the cloth.
I never really understood why Jesus would use a mustard seed to talk about faith. Didn’t he want us to have “deep” faith? Weren’t we supposed to “fully” believe? I wore those six mustard seeds around my neck, convinced there was something more to the mustard seed parables than I thought. I’d never seen anyone move a mountain by faith, so did any of us really have it? Maybe it’s a trick. Maybe it’s supposed to sound small but it actually means something more demanding. Something like Glory. Or Holiness. Or Power.
“Parables are like this box,” I say to the children. “Sometimes they have a lid. Sometimes you can be ready but you come to the parable and the lid is still closed. If that happens, you can always come back again later. Maybe it will open for you another time.”
The kids pass the golden treasure box full of birds and nests. They all take turns placing tiny birds on green felt branches.
*My words in quotes are from the curriculum (with room for error because they came from my memory).
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