In the Gospel of John, miracles are not just miracles, they are signs. In John’s theological mind, Jesus never does a miracle for the ooh’s and awes. He never performs a show-stopper merely for effect so that we are left breathlessly panty, “Wow, that was impressive.” No, for John, what some call ‘miracles’ he calls ‘signs’: an act or an event that points to a deeper meaning; something that manifests a veiled spiritual truth. So, for example, when Jesus restores the sight of a blind man, He does so not to show off His power, but to reveal that He is the Light of the World who dispels all manner of darkness. And when Jesus feeds the 5,000 with just a few fish and loaves of bread, He does so not amaze, but as a sign that He is the Bread of Heaven who is food for the soul’s deep hunger.
And in today’s reading from John’s gospel, we see one of the most potent and promising signs of the kingdom. In life, there are always times when the wine runs out and the party is over. So it was literally at a wedding in Cana. Jesus, His disciples, and even His mother, are guests at a party. In ancient Palestine, a wedding was a community event that went on for days. Was this celebration coming to a close prematurely, or was it just time for everyone one to go home? We don’t really know. Either way, the party was over even though many of the quests were not ready for it to end. But that happens in life, doesn’t it. The wine of life runs out and we are left… where, with what? Searching. Grasping. Lifeless.
One thing I have never really understood about this story is the rather odd and confusing dialogue between Jesus and His mother. I suppose there is a good explanation for what goes on between the two, I have just never heard it… and I have read dozens of different commentaries on the passage. My take on it is this: there is always confusion, awkwardness, and disagreement when the wine runs out and the party is over. There is always a period of trying to figure out what happened, why it happened, and what to do next. But after the confusion, someday, somehow, someway, through the grace of God, new wine comes and the party goes on… even better than before. This is the sign of the miracle of Cana.
Like many of you, I have spent this week being more prayerful than usual, and by prayerful I mean having a heightened awareness that while my life has unfolded pretty much the way it always does – in relative comfort and ease – millions of people in Haiti are enduring the most unimaginable suffering and hardship, and millions more around the world sit in anxious wait hoping for word from a loved one. Clearly disasters, be they natural or wrought by humans, are times when the wine runs out and the party is over. They are times when life is stripped to its barest form.
In the sign at the wedding, as is often the case with the other signs, Jesus takes something that is common and makes it holy. At the wedding, it is the water. Ordinary water becomes the means for new wine to flow. We know from Katrina and the tsunami and from other disasters that the period which follows them is rather like the odd dialogue between Jesus and His mother. There is no instantaneous way to make new wine flow. Confusion, uncertainty, hardship, and struggle abound. There is little we can do to make that go away quickly. All we can do is offer something common and trust that in the hands of Jesus it will become holy.
In these situations, our denomination is blessed to have the Episcopal Relief and Development Fund (ER-D), the agency that provided St. Paul’s with $25,000 after the tornado hit our city. Every dollar given to ER-D goes to the effected area. Haiti, which is the largest diocese in Episcopal Church, will prove to be a real challenge. Under normal conditions, ER-D works through the local bishop and parishes; providing them with funds in the belief that those on the ground are best positioned to apply it effectively. Haiti’s Episcopal Bishop, Jean Zache Duracin, and his family are alive, but the diocesan offices, cathedral, and many churches and Episcopal schools are in ruins. As you aware, right now getting aid into the country is extremely difficult. ER-D already is working through the Diocese of the Dominican Republic to find ways to help the people of Haiti. That aid will become even more direct as it is possible to do so.
St. Paul’s is poised to respond. We will send $500 from our Outreach Fund to ER-D immediately. Every parishioner who wishes to add to this can do so by writing a check to St. Paul’s with a memo to ER-D or Haiti Fund. Dollar for dollar, I believe ER-D is the most effective way we can respond.
On a more personal level, I know from my own life and from listening to many of you talk about your lives, there are times when the wine runs out and the party is over for us as individuals. Sometimes it happens when you enter the doldrums; when life just sort of fizzles out and you don’t sense any real meaning or significant purpose to what you are all about. Other times, the wine runs out in dramatic and devastating fashion; through cruel abuse, violence, shattering abandonment, betrayal, or loss.
In both cases, but especially in the second, our own personal experience of the Jesus/Mary discussion can be long and debilitating. My own testimony is that it is not something you can get through on your own. You need a loved one or a friend or a priest or a counselor or all of them to offer what they might think of as being common – their love, their care, their support, their encouragement, their insight, their strength, maybe just a casserole – yet in the hands of Jesus these things becomes holy. They becomes the means by which new wine begins to flow in your life.
This period of awkwardness is not a time of inactivity and helplessness. In the Gospel it was a dynamic time marked by people coming together to identify challenges. It was marked by listening to Jesus for guidance and direction. And it was marked by moving forward as seen in the filling of the water jars. All of these things paved the way for new and even better wine to flow.
I have always loved but never preached on an image we heard read last week from Isaiah 42:3:
A bruised reed God will not break,
and a dimly burning wick God will not quench.
Maybe your life is like a wick that is barely burning. Maybe you are running on empty. Or perhaps you are a bruised reed; battered and beaten and nearly broken. Or maybe you know and love and pray for someone who is like that. If so, hold tight to the hope that we heard read from Isaiah this morning, words spoken to a people on whom the wine of life had run out:
You shall be a crown of beauty
in the hand of the LORD,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
You shall no more be termed ‘Forsaken’,
and your land shall no more be termed ‘Desolate’;
but you shall be called ‘My Delight Is in Her’,
and your land ‘Married’;
for the LORD delights in you,
and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.
It is a hard truth, but a truth none-the-less. In life there are times when the wine runs out and the party is over. But during this Epiphany season, this season of signs, even emptiness and brokenness participate in the larger truth that God takes what is common in our lives and makes it holy so that new, better, incredible wine can flow. No one at the wedding party understood this, not even Jesus’ mother. The sign did not happen because they believed or because they had faith. It happened because they stayed open and were willing to taste common water touched by Jesus. And that is how new wine works. We always experience the signs of the kingdom as we live by faith, not before we have faith.