Sunday, January 17, 2016

Fetching Water When the Wine has Run Out

The wine had given out and the party was about to come to a premature end. 

In our day and time, weddings typically take place on Saturday afternoon followed by a reception with dinner, drinks, and dancing.  Everything wraps up around 11:00 PM.  The wedding Jesus attended was very different.  The celebration was a community event including more than family and friends extending over several days.  Jesus and his disciples arrive three days after the festivities kick off.  Running out of wine was a huge social faux pas bringing shame to the bridal couple and their families.  And if Jesus is the one who brings life to the world, when he arrives the party is supposed to take off, not fizzle out.

Jesus’ mother, appearing for the first time in John’s gospel, is deeply concerned, but we are not told why.  Is she a relative or merely sensitive to the needs of others?  Whatever her motivation, she approaches her son and makes him aware of the situation.  Jesus, for his part, is confused.  Literally translated, his response in the Greek text says “What to me and you?”  “Why is this our concern?”  His mother then addresses the servants.  A literal translation of the text says something like, “Do whatever he might tell you.”  She has no idea if Jesus will do anything at all and if he chooses to act, she has no clue what his plan might be.

There are six empty containers right there.  They are used to hold water for ritual cleansing.  Every person attending the wedding had drawn water from them and gone through a ceremonial process of washing away sins and impurities.  No one was allowed to be a part of the celebration who did not go through the cleansing.  Jesus gives two instructions.  First, fill up the jars with water.  This is no small task.  Each jar holds enough water to fill up half of a bathtub.  Assuming it had to be drawn by bucket from a well, this process took some time and effort; time that could be better spent addressing the crisis of the wine shortage.

Once the jars are full, Jesus gives his second instruction: “Draw out some water and give it to the master of ceremonies.”  After tasting it, all this person knows is more wine has been found and his only amazement is it is much better than what they were drinking before.  The servants know what happened, and so too do Jesus’ disciples.  John calls it a “sign”, not a “miracle”.  It reveals who Jesus is and his disciples believe because of it. 

Have you ever felt like the wine was running out of your life?  I don’t mean actual wine from a bottle, but that thing which gives you life and joy and purpose and hope?  Have you ever felt like the wine was running out?  Each of us has been there, and most of us more than once.  Some of us are there right now.  Most likely you will be there again somewhere down the road.  Maybe you are bored.  Perhaps life has gotten stale.  You have no energy or enthusiasm to give to the same old same old.  Or maybe the wine has run out because life has bruised you, battered you, and broken you to the core.  You are hurting to the very depths of your being and don’t know where to turn. 

What do you do when the wine runs out?  

If we were Roman Catholics, we might turn to Mary the mother of Jesus and ask her to intercede on our behalf: “Please let you Son know I need some help.”  Mary has never featured prominently in my spirituality though.  Still, in my experience, tending to my spiritual disciplines is absolutely essential when the wine has run out.  Weekly worship and receiving the Eucharist is life-sustaining.  The words of the hymns, the message of hope in the scripture, the insight of a sermon, praying for myself and for others, confession, taking Bread and Wine, giving thanks, interacting with others: it may not be the new wine, but it will see you through until a new wine arrives in your life.

When I am out of wine I nurture other spiritual disciplines in addition to Sunday worship.  I like to use some form of Evening Prayer in my home.  Its prayers for light in the darkness are especially helpful.  The simple act of lighting a candle reminds me of the presence of light in my life.  It proclaims the darkness has not overcome me.  I turn to reading: scripture, classics from our Christian tradition, and poetry have a way of bringing light into my life.  And I welcome opportunities to be with family and friends who bring healing and happiness.

What else can you do when the wine runs out? 

There is a little detail in today’s reading I never noticed before.  The water jars are empty.  For some reason I had always thought there was water already in them and Jesus turned it into wine.  I always thought he took something already there and transformed it.  It would be the equivalent of sitting back when the wine has run out and waiting passively for something to happen to make everything better.  Before the wine could flow at the wedding in Cana the servants had to do something.  They had to fill up the jars with water.  There could be no new wine without it.

The meaning is straight-forward: when the wine runs out of your life, you have to fetch some water.  The challenge is figuring out what the water is.  I remember being in a dark place after my marriage ended in 2002.  I would sit at the dinner table by myself for two or three hours and never move.  After the traumatic death of my daughter’s third hamster in just six months, I realized we needed a more durable pet.  Enter Dipstick, a Jack Russell Terrier puppy who was loving, energetic, and yes, resilient.  Dipstick did a lot of good things for my daughters and me.  My days of sitting at the table in stillness and grief came to a swift end.  Dipstick was all about go! go! go! now! now! now!  Getting a dog was not the only water I fetched, but it was an important way God brought new wine into my life.

I love to share a story Frank Gray, former assisting bishop in the Diocese of Virginia, tells about a church in Indiana he served as rector.  The wine had run out of that lifeless congregation by the time he arrived.  Everything about its worship was deadly dull.  It had no life, no energy, no spirit.  Over time, in Gray’s mind, the single thing that came to embody the miserable state of the congregation was the drab altar flower arrangement put out each week.  It was consistently lack-luster and unimaginative.  Then one day a family brought a child to be baptized.  The grandmother asked if it was possible for her to make a floral arrangement for the altar for the service.  Gray said yes and what she created was spectacular.  The next thing he knew, a group of parishioners wanted to form a floral guild to make arrangements on a weekly basis.  Over time, this one change brought the entire parish to life.  Who would have thought Sunday’s floral arrangements could be the water that would be turned into wine?

Three years ago, when preaching on this text, I introduced you to Richard Wilbur’s poem The Wedding at Cana.  He is a celebrated poet and an Episcopalian.  The poem is a toast for a family wedding:

St. John tells how, at Cana’s wedding feast,
The water-pots poured wine in such amount
That by his sober count
There were a hundred gallons at the least.

It made no earthly sense, unless to show
How whatsoever love elects to bless
Brims to a sweet excess
That can without depletion overflow.

Which is to say that what love sees is true;
That this world’s fullness is not made but found.
Life hungers to abound
And pour its plenty out for such as you.

Now, if your loves will lend an ear to mine,
I toast you both, good son and dear new daughter.
May you not lack for water,
And may that water smack of Cana’s wine.

“What love sees is true; that this world’s fullness is not made but found.  Life hungers to abound and pour its plenty out for such as you.”  Peter James Lee, retired bishop of the Diocese of Virginia once described the season of Epiphany as being a season of ‘signs.’  He said that we see the signs of the kingdom as we live by faith, not before we have faith.  I think Wilbur captures the essence of a faith that allows us to see the signs: believing God has filled this world with abundant goodness, believing grace abounds, believing mercy is real, believing in blessing.  When you have faith in these things you will see signs of them all around you.  Yes, there will be times when the wine runs out of your life, but in those moments you will be open to the possibility of new and better wine entering in. 

Whatsoever love elects to bless
Brims to a sweet excess
That can without depletion overflow.