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Stone Soup

Date: June 2, 2020/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey

1 Corinthians 12:1-13

Dguendel / CC BY https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0

(“Stone Soup” is a European folktale of unknown origin. It was first published in French in 1720 and English in 1806. www.stonesoup.com has a complete account of the tale’s development and publication over time, as well as derivations known in popular culture today. This retelling is entirely mine, based on my remembrance of hearing the story read by my third-grade teacher.)

Once upon a time, a tinker came to a certain village, his wagon loaded with his tools and an assortment of pots and pans to sell or trade. As he set up a little table and stool in the village square, his unfamiliar presence in the village attracted quite a bit of curiosity. People came out of their houses to see the stranger in town.

Now tinkers in that area were known to be skilled with repair of the old pots and pans everyone used to cook over open fireplaces in those days. So many villagers brought their cauldrons, spiders, skillets, and other such implements to the tinker over the course of the day.

As he worked he spun a tale, and he attracted many children, who are always eager to hear a story. The story he told was of a magical stone he carried in his pocket, which he could use to make soup.

The children wanted to see him do it, and after making a show of refusing, saying they had food aplenty at home to eat, he agreed. He produced the stone, an ordinary grey river rock, and put it in one of the pots he carried with him.

“Would one of you children be kind enough to bring a bit of fire and some wood?” he asked. A little boy ran home and came back with the requested items.

“And can a little girl draw a little water from a well and bring it, too?” This, too, appeared, along with the girl’s mother, curious but suspicious of the child’s insistence that the tinker was going to make soup with a magical rock he had taken from his pocket.

In a moment the tinker had a fire going, and he set the pot over the fire with the water and stone inside. When it was boiling, he made a show of tasting it, then said, “It’s getting there, but perhaps it could use a bit of onion?” And a little boy ran home to ask his mother for some onions to put in the stone soup that was being made in the village square. He returned with the onions, his mother and the neighbor trailing along behind.

The onion went into the pot, and again tasting, the tinker said, “Delicious…but it could be even better with a few carrots.” And immediately someone produced a bunch of carrots freshly pulled from their garden.

This went on over and over, the tinker tasting the soup and suggesting it could be improved by the addition of some herbs, cabbage, a bit of meat. People began to bring whatever they had on hand to throw into the pot. A poor widow, who had nothing at all to eat in her home, did have some salt, so she brought that.

As the men of the village began to return home from shops and fields, they wondered where their women and children were at almost the same moment as they smelled the enticing aroma coming from the square. They went to investigate, and found their wives and little ones gathered around the fire the tinker had built, talking and laughing as the tinker spun his tale about how he had learned to make stone soup from a poor man named Bernard who had shared the recipe and given him the magic stone.

(Stonesoup.com says the tale was at one point associated with St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the founder of the Cistercian monastic order, whose reforms in the 1100s brought monks back to the lives of community and poverty St. Benedict had intended when he wrote his Rule that is followed by men and women religious to this day.)

“This recipe never fails,” Bernard had told him, “if you make it in a village that has a spirit of generosity.”

Seeing what was happening, the men of the village began hauling out sawhorses and planks to create tables and benches. Women ran back to their houses to fetch bowls and spoons. The baker opened his shop and brought all the bread he had not sold through the day. Someone even brought oats for the tinker’s pony.

As the sun drew closer to the horizon, the tinker tasted the soup again and suggested some finishing touches, which immediately appeared. Finally he pronounced it done, and all the villagers crowded around to have their bowls filled. They sat at the tables to eat, passing bread and bits of cheese and radishes and whatever else people had brought from their homes. The poor widow who had had nothing to offer but a handful of salt ate and was satisfied, instead of going to bed hungry as she had expected to do.

After supper, some folks washed up the bowls and spoons, while others brought out musical instruments. The whole village gathered around the tinker’s fire, and when the party finally broke up well after midnight and people carried their sleeping children home, everyone agreed that it had been the best meal and the best night any of them could remember for a long time.

Now you may think retelling an old folk tale is a lazy way of getting a sermon done, and you could be right.

But indulge me for just a moment: Imagine, if you will, that the village is the church, the tinker is Christ, and the stone soup feast is what happens when the Holy Spirit inhabits a congregation, giving everyone gifts to share for the good of the whole community.