Last Wednesday evening I told a story in vespers that I would like to share again. Its title is “Old Joe and the Carpenter” and I first read it in Doorways to the Soul: 52 Wisdom Tales From Around the World by Elisa Davy Pearman. It is a traditional American tale and inspired by Ms. Pearman’s written version I tell it to you in my own words.
Old Joe had lived on his farm all his life. And his father before him and his father before him. And the father before had staked the claim for the land as pioneer back in early days. It was a beautiful piece of land in rolling hills with good pastureland and plenty of room for crops. Joe had married the love of his life and raised his children on the farm. Now his wife was passed on and the children moved to the city. His neighbor across the way who had always been his best friend was his closest companion now. And his wife had also passed and his children gone. They kept each other company, sharing a meal now and then, smoking a pipe, telling stories.
But one fateful day, they fell out! It seems a calf was found on the neighbor’s land away from a herd and its mom. The neighbor claimed it was his. Joe was fit to be tied! “Don’t you see that the calf has all the markings of my best milk cow! It’s mine!” The fought and argued till neither had much breath left and then to avoid hitting one another, they stomped off! Each to his own house, resolving never to speak to the other again!
About two weeks later, one a Saturday morning, Joe had a knock at his door. Early in the morning. Muttering to himself, he went to answer it. “Maybe that old coot has come to his senses and is bringing my calf back!” But when he opened the door there stood a young man with a toolbox at his feet and a knapsack over his shoulder. He had curly hair, a fresh, open face and bright, keen and kindly eyes. He introduced himself as a traveling carpenter and asked Old Joe if he had any work that he might do for him. Joe said, “I certainly do! Follow me!” And he led the young carpenter across the farmyard and into the first pasture and pointed down the hill.
“Do you see that creek there?” The young man nodded yes. “Well, it weren’t there a week ago! My gol-darned neighbor dug a trench from the pond up there in the hill over-looking both of our farms. Out there all day with his tractor and then he flooded it. The creek runs right along our property line. We used to go back and forth all the time but then he decided that a stray calf he found that was obviously mine – same markings as my best milk cow – belonged to him. And we had words and I never want to speak to that lying son of a gun again! He dug the creek bed to separate our land….now I want you to build me a fence all along the creek so that I don’t have to see it or his land or him ever again. There is lumber and posts and nails, all you might need, in the barn. Can you do it?”
The young carpenter agreed and set to work carrying all the supplies he would need from the barn down to Joe’s side of the creek bed. Joe thanked him and then hitched his team to his wagon and went into town for supplies, just as he did every Saturday. The carpenter worked all day, not even stopping for lunch, measuring and sawing and hammering. As the sun began to set, he finished up and began to clean up and gather his tools, put away the lumber scraps in the barn. And Joe returned from town. He drove into the farmyard with his wagon full of supplies. As he jumped down to unhitch the horses, he looked for the young carpenter to see how he had progressed with the fence.
What did he see? Instead of a fence there was a beautiful little footbridge going across the creek. And coming across the bridge was his neighbor. Joe hurried down to meet him. The neighbor said, “Joe, I’m bringing your calf home. I’m so sorry! Your friendship is more important that any calf…in fact, it’s the most important thing to me! Thank you for building this bridge.” Joe said, ”Aww…keep that calf! I don’t need it. Your friendship is the most important thing in the world to me! And as for the bridge…well, it was this young fella’s idea.” Joe kind of hung his head and said,” I told him build a fence.” His mouth crooked up at the corner in a grin and he began to laugh! And so did his neighbor. They laughed till tears were funning down their faces and they were holding their sides.
The young carpenter laughed with them as he shouldered his knapsack and picked up his toolbox. Old Joe pulled the man’s pay out of his pocket and handed it to him. Then said, “Look here, young man, you do great work! Why don’t you stay around these parts? I’m sure we could help you get all the work you need?” The carpenter said, “Well, I thank you kindly. But I have to be on my way. I have other bridges to build.” And with that he shook the hands of Old Joe and his neighbor and headed toward the road whistling a joyful tune.
And that’s the story of Old Joe and the Carpenter.
Now I invite you to prayerfully consider these questions:
Blessings on the bridge building journey,
P.S. For those of you who resonated with my sermon from Old Town, “First or Last?” check out Brene Brown’s “Unlocking Us” podcast interview with Sonya Renee Taylor, “My Body is Not an Apology.” Great food for thought and action in light of our work as laborers in God’s circular realm of justice and love. No firsts or lasts, just all beloveds!
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Read more