“Men? What men? I haven’t heard of any men coming in this morning,” Omri caught himself chatting in a staccato that suddenly made him feel foolish.
The village of Bashan was nearly a half-day’s walk from the main road, so visitors passed through infrequently. When two strangers arrived down the dusty wagon path it was village news, and news traveled fast among the Bashans, all of whom were related, likely, in some way. All of the Bashans, for the large part, had grown up together and felt more kindred that warranted.
Omri, for instance, got his bread from Jehu, who was related on Omri’s mother’s side somehow. Omri never got the details from his late mother, and Jehu was similarly uninformed.
Jehu’s wife could bake bread at her parents’ place, where the brick oven had been in the family for generations. So Omri depended on Jehu for bread after Omri’s young wife died suddenly a couple of years before. Nobody could, or would, tell him why she passed.
All that the women of the village could tell him was that the young woman weakened to the point where she just closed her eyes and quit breathing. They had no children in the three short years they had been married.
So Omri saw Jehu almost every other day to buy extra bread that Jehu’s wife would bake. Omri counted Jehu as one of his closest buddies now even though Jehu’s four children kept him preoccupied and their friendship at arm’s distance.
“The men said the teacher is coming,” Jehu said breathlessly.
“What teacher?” Omri asked with disinterest.
“The Nazarene teacher.”
Omri froze. He’d heard of the Nazarene, even here in faraway Samaria.
The stories started a couple of years ago from one of the villages up north toward the Galilee boarder. A Jewish rabbi began to be spoken of as if he were royalty.
Quickly came grand stories out of Galilee about the rabbi who had become some kind of miracle worker, healing people instantly.
“Coming here?” Omri asked. No, Jehu said the Nazarene’s men said the rabbi would pass by on the main road. The two invited anyone in Bashan to come out and join the rabbi on his journey to Jerusalem.
Well, that’s rich, Omri thought to himself. So the Jewish rabbi wants Samaritans to escort him to their temple. The Nazarene was known for traveling through Samaria, which was big of him. Most Jews skirted around Samaria by way of the Jordan River to the east. Old wars and old animosities kept the two peoples at a distance.
But on the walk back to his shed with his bread under his arm Omri reviewed again all the details that he had heard coming out of Galilee and what additional details he could glean from Jehu. Rabbi. Teacher. Miracle worker. Healer.
Then there was that part about Messiah. A king who would bring the kingdom of God to this forsaken, Roman-contaminated land.
That’s the part that intrigued Omri.
During the first day on the road Omri stayed back in the crowd with the two others who had also joined from Bashan. On the second day during a lunch break Omri worked up the courage to slip quietly in back of a group that sat encircling and listening to the rabbi.
Omri could tell these were Galileans who had crowded around the teacher, and Omri wished against hope that they would ignore an outsider.
He managed to find a spot in back just within listening distance and with just enough space to slip in and sit down. The rabbi was in the middle of a story.
Suddenly Jesus paused in the middle of his narrative, and Omri’s face flushed as he felt the rabbi turn and fix his eyes on him for a moment. Omri braced for a rebuke and feared the rabbi would send him away. But Jesus just turned back around and resumed his sermon.
“But a Samaritan, as he traveled,” Jesus said as he picked up the story. Omri’s heart stopped. Could Jesus know, could he somehow have seen Omri sneak in?
“… came where the man was; and when he saw him he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him.”
Jesus continued his story but Omri kept the word reverberating in his mind: “Samaritan. Samaritan.” He’s talking to me, to my people, Omri thought.
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Jesus asked as Omri came to his senses.
“The one who had mercy on him,” replied a well-dressed man sitting near the front whom Omri had not seen before.
“Go and do likewise,” Jesus said.
Omri sat stunned yet deliriously happy until they broke from the lunch break. Omri lost his self-consciousness.
The approaching dawn did not awaken him, as the parade and all the other excitement of the week had sent Omri into a sound sleep.
Instead, a stirring in the small camp of Samaritans, who had set up in an olive grove to the north of the main road on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, had pulled Omri out of his slumber.
He heard voices, and then the word trial. But it was the word “Jesus” that finally forced Omri awake.
The muscles in the small of his back cried out with a shot of pain as he struggled to pull himself up from the cold ground. Omri found himself drawn to a man’s voice rapidly describing something he must have seen or heard that morning.
“Omri, you’re back!” Jehu wanted as much to see his customer as see his friend. “How was your trip?”
“Strange. Very strange.” It wasn’t that Omri didn’t want to talk about the tragedy that had occurred days before, but rather he did not know how to explain it. It was like a strange dream you can’t describe to someone else.
“I couldn’t get close to him most of the time,” Omri started with eyes downcast as he walked up to Jehu at the shelves. “But when I did manage to get close, a couple of times, you could almost see the fire in the rabbi’s eyes as he spoke.”
Omri then lifted his eyes to explain further to Jehu.
“Like he really could do what they said he could do,” Omri continued. “That he really was from heaven.
“But when we got to Jerusalem they grabbed him in the night, the Judean temple authorities did, and by the time those of us in the camp had heard about it they were already crucifying him.
“He almost had me believing they couldn’t touch him.” Omri sighed. “I guess it was all another false alarm”
“Well, I’m glad you’re back,” said Jehu, breaking the tension. “I had Miriam to make a loaf for you yesterday after I heard you had come in.”
After Jehu handed over a loaf and Omri paid, Omri turned with his bread. Only then did he notice a stranger wearing a hood, sitting on a bench near the door and eating a piece of bread pulled from his own loaf. Omri stopped.
“It wasn’t a false alarm,” the stranger spoke up, joining the conversation with an odd familiarity. The stranger then looked up. The Samaritan’s eyes flew wide open. His breath stopped. Omri dropped his bread.
It was the rabbi from Nazareth.
Jesus broke into a grin, not in an I-told-you-so manner but rather as if Omri were a buddy he had not seen in a while.
“Greetings, Omri. Again,” Jesus said as he stood up and approached. Omri had never worked up the nerve to actually go up to the rabbi while he was on the road.
“Remember when we broke camp that time we were still across the Jordan River?” Jesus said as he placed his hands on Omri’s shoulders, the first time they had touched. “You had gotten quite close that morning, and remember when I said that the Son of Man must go to Jerusalem and suffer and die? But on the third day he would arise?”
Omri couldn’t say a word. As Jesus had reached to place his hands on Omri’s shoulders the Samaritan’s eyes fixed on the hand wound.
“Follow me, Omri,” said Jesus, his eyes fixed on Omri’s. Omri turned from the hand to reconnect with the gaze. “Believe me. And follow me.”
Omri looked back at Jehu, met his eyes, then they both looked to the stranger but the man had vanished. They did not see how. Jehu dropped his water gourd on the dirt floor.
Both men stood speechless for the longest time. Omri spoke first.
“Was … was it a ghost?” Omri whispered as he continued to stare ahead at the empty space in front of him.
“Can a ghost eat?” said Jehu in the same hushed tone. “He was sitting there eating his bread. Look at the loaf; it’s still there.”
And on the bench sat the bread with a slice torn out.
From that point on Omri no longer referred to Jesus as rabbi. Omri called him Lord.
Stephen Harris sends this gift of a fictional short story to you and yours for Eastertime from State Road.