Sermon January 22 ~ The Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11) Rev. Betsy Hogan
Do you think miracles really happen? Even just having heard of Jesus turning water into wine, this very first miracle in the gospel of John, often when we answer that question it actually has everything to do with what a “miracle” is assumed to be.
So it can absolutely feel as though miracles can happen, are real, should be believed in, for example, if something one has hoped and hoped for – sometimes it seems, against all odds – actually comes to pass. It feels like a miracle. And that’s what we call it.
So, finally getting sober can feel like a miracle. Every day staying sober can feel like a miracle. A baby after years of waiting can feel like a miracle, and so can a high school diploma or finally having a chance at happiness or security or fulfillment or restored health – any of these we might call a miracle and they feel like miracles and so we believe in miracles.
But strictly speaking, at least in theory, if we’re being fussy about definitions, a miracle is meant to be something that couldn’t happen, but it did.
That couldn’t happen, in the purely scientific laws-of-nature sense, but it did.
And it seems to be virtually impossible to account for it according to all the assumptions we have about how things operate, but there it is. A true miracle, by strict definition at least.
And that kind of miracle, it seems, is far more difficult for most of us to believe in.
If we look at the miracles in the stories of Jesus, for example, there have been volumes and volumes written in an effort to make them ‘make sense’. The feeding of the five thousand with five loaves and two fish is reconstructed as an inspirational story in which when that little bit of food began to be shared, everyone was moved to open his or her backpack and pull out that granola bar or that apple that was tucked away for an emergency. And share also. And that’s how everyone was fed.
And Jesus walking on the water is interpreted as having something to do with the high salt content of the Sea of Galilee – it’s very floaty, and I guess he has good balance.
The healing miracles get assumed to be primarily about spiritual healing, in which a person who THINKS he’s ill, but is really just suffering from low self esteem, is blessed by Jesus, recognizes his own worth as a child of God, and the perception of blindness or lameness or leprosy disappear –
Lazarus wasn’t really dead, he was just sleeping – and it’s not a miracle that Jesus knew Zacchaeus’ name, Jesus is just really good with names. All these explanations, seeking to ‘make sense’ of these miracles.
And I can understand why – miracles by definition are inexplicable. They make no sense according to the laws of nature and our understanding of how things work. And it’s pretty hard for our heads to get past that. So that even if we were to pray and pray that a cancer were simply to disappear – if it DID disappear, most of us would probably have a really hard time calling it a miracle, in the strict sense.
We’d be more likely to call it a miracle simply in the sense of something wonderful, desperately hoped for, that against all odds had come to pass – but probably ultimately in reality having something to do with actually a misdiagnosis at the beginning. A weird blur on the original scan, or something. We always look for some rational explanation. Something that makes sense.
For me, I don’t have any personal experience of a real “supernatural” miracle. Unless… we count a woman in my first congregation who had a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, and then when treatments were set to begin, she suddenly didn’t have it anymore.
A misdiagnosis? We all assumed it had been. Maybe it just feels a little scary, the notion that there might have been some kind of supernatural element to it. Maybe it also irritates our sense of control or justice to allow for such things, when all of us have known someone, I’m sure, for whom we would really have liked to see their diagnosis disappear. So it’s a lot less infuriating to feel convinced such things can’t simply happen.
Whatever the reason, miracles are difficult. They’re disconcerting and frankly they’re weird.
And in the passage from early in the gospel of John that Terry read for us just now, we have another story about another miracle of Jesus, and it’s one of the weirdest of them all.
Mostly because it doesn’t really seem “important” enough. This is the first miracle of Jesus that John records in his gospel, and it really is kind of low-ball effort. No one’s life is transformed, no disastrous illness or infirmity is cured, nobody seems to learn any crucial lesson from the whole thing – in fact, with the exception of the servants, it appears, no one even realizes it’s happened.
Jesus and his mum and his friends and family, they’re all at a big wedding and the wine runs out. A social disaster. And in a bit of maternal inspiration that I must say I’ve always quite enjoyed, possibly too much if you ask my children, Jesus’ mum, wanting to help out, does that by volunteering her son to ACTUALLY help out. I am extremely good at this.
However, at the Wedding at Cana, I could only have volunteered my sons to go out to the storeroom and find more wine and carry it all in.
Mary, on the other hand, can volunteer her son Jesus to actually produce more wine. So she does. And if this annoys Jesus initially, and it does, in the end he gives in. The scriptures don’t tell us exactly why he gives in, but I think it’s likely we can all imagine the kind of look Mary had on her face.
So Jesus did what he was told. There were, standing to one side of the room, six large jars filled with water for purification – and Jesus turned that water into wine. The wine steward gave it a taste and it wasn’t just wine, it was good wine. Social disaster averted, and the wedding continued.
A big, cool, really weird miracle. It only turns up in the gospel of John – and John is the gospel writer who loves to emphasize all the ways in which Jesus supercedes and leaves in his wake all other revelations and manifestations of the divine that have gone before – and so usually the water into wine miracle and its place in the gospel of John are assumed to be meant to reveal to John’s readers, to us, a kind of first hint of the wine of communion.
The waters for purification of the past are transformed into the purifying wine of the new covenant promise to God’s people that Jesus shares in the Last Supper. For John, God has saved the best wine for last.
It’s all quite symbolic. But as to whether this miracle really happened, or whether John made it up out of whole symbolic cloth in an effort to proclaim Jesus as clearly superceding all that had gone before?
My attitude toward the scriptures really is that we’re presented with this narrative which isn’t history, which is proclamation, which we can read informed by what we know of its context and what we know of the traditions of story-telling – but ultimately, we’re presented with this narrative. This story that’s meant to reveal something to us about what God’s like. Ultimately, the way it’s written.
And the way it’s written is that Jesus turned water into wine. Like that! And apparently, only because it was a nice thing to do. For a couple whose wedding would otherwise have always been remembered as “that wedding where the wine ran out”.
And I have to say, the notion that that might be the only reason he did it? Because it was a nice thing to do? I kind of like that notion. I kind of like the idea that Jesus wouldn’t only do a miracle because it was going to blow people’s minds or change people’s lives – that when he had the chance to do one only because it was kind, he did it.
Of course, his mother did have to encourage him… Not to belabour a point, you understand, just pointing it out… But he did it. Just because he could, and it was a nice thing to do. So why not do it? I quite like the notion that Jesus was like that. That God is like that.
Saint Augustine famously wrote of this miracle of water into wine at the Wedding At Cana that in fact it’s actually a miracle that happens all the time. The rain water falls, it’s drunk up by the vine, which produces the grapes, which are turned into wine. It’s a miracle that happens all the time. Every day, simply in the creative cycle of life that God created.
CS Lewis also found himself entranced by this miracle, and by St. Augustine’s reflections on it. Water into wine – to recognize it as a miracle at the Wedding At Cana forces us also to stand back for a minute from what we consider to be “normal” and “scientifically explainable”, the simple process of rain into growth into harvest, and see something miraculous there too.
If Jesus made it happen superquick, if we can celebrate in this story the impulse he has to simply do something nice for someone because he can -- God makes it happen all the time. And the fact that we’ve managed, after how many centuries of observation and research, to figure out HOW it happens all the time, does that make it any less miraculous?
I don’t know that it does. Even the most scientific inquiry, the most rational assessment of the laws of nature and how the elements interact, there’s always a point at which what we’re left with is simply “well, because that’s the way it happens”. There’s a point past which is that essentially unknown how.
It may not be the kind of cool awe-inspiring miracles that Jesus did, and it may not even be the kind of miracles that are the things we hope for against all odds and sometimes they really do happen and it feels miraculous.
But the water into wine – it might be a wonderful miracle because it shows us a side of Jesus we don’t often get to see, in which he just does something nice because he can, or it might be a wonderful miracle because it IS pretty impressive, in terms of its instantness.
But maybe it’s also a wonderful miracle just because it reminds us that in essence what it is, is something that happens all the time. More slowly, it’s true, but still. Maybe we’d find it easier to believe in miracles if we were noticing just how often they actually do happen.
Thanks be to God. Amen.