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January 16, 2022
We have now moved out of a season of festivals and into the season called Epiphany. The lectionary calls this “Ordinary time,” marked by the use of green paraments – but there is nothing ordinary about a time of epiphany! In these weeks between Jesus’ birth, his manifestation to the magi, and his baptism… and the beginning of Lent… we will hear lots of stories about how God has been revealed and made manifest to people of faith throughout time, and reflect upon how God is manifest and revealed to us still today.
And we’ll kick all that off with the story of Jesus turning water to wine. It is one of his most well-known miracles (or signs, as John calls them), known even to people who have never stepped foot in a church. But there is much more to know about it than the impressive outcome. For example, it happened at a wedding, at a most ordinary, human gathering. Also, this is Jesus’ first sign, his entry onto the scene of public ministry – in other words, keeping the party going when the host ran out of wine is what Jesus chose to be his first impression! Also, notice that Jesus wasn’t quite ready at first to make his identity known, but his mom urges him, as moms sometimes do, and invites the people there to trust him. Pretty cool!
In Isaiah we’ll see echoes of the wedding theme from the Gospel. And in Corinthians, we will hear about what gifts emerge when God’s Spirit is manifest in us. God’s power is all around us! So as you listen, watch for it – watch how God is manifest in each of these readings, and in your life. Let’s listen.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.
Well, my 6-year-old daughter has had to start hauling her school-issued laptop to and from school every day, in case schools suddenly have to go remote again due to Omicron. Several of my colleagues have opted to hold services online-only for the next few weeks. Someone said at council this week, “Drive carefully, because there aren’t enough doctors and nurses at the hospital to take care of you.” Omicron has shot those case numbers and hospitalizations right back up higher than ever before. I know that I, and I guess probably you, had already reached a little deeper into my energy store to get through the past two years, and as I prepared myself for getting through this wave of the pandemic, I reached in and found… nothing left.
Just like those six 30-gallon stone jars: I feel empty.
I’m not sure that was the part St. John had in mind for us to focus on when we read this well-loved story about Jesus turning water to wine, and yet, that’s where my attention rested: on the empty stone jars. That’s where I found myself in this story.
Well maybe John didn’t intend for me to focus on that, but I also believe that where our heart is drawn in a scripture passage is exactly where it needs to go. So, if I’m feeling like an empty stone jug… how, in this Epiphany season, is God being made manifest to that place? How is God being made manifest to a world that is also feeling the emptiness of so much loss and weariness? A world where, as Mary points out, “They have no more wine” – a world where the joy and celebration has run dry?
Well of course our temptation is to jump to the exciting end of the story: the jugs don’t stay empty. At Mary’s urging, Jesus has the stewards fill up six stone jars with water – totaling some 150 gallons – and the water quietly and miraculously turns to wine. That is a LOT of wine, about 1000 bottles: far more than would be needed at this point in the wedding, already three days into the party! Just when everyone was worried about lack and not-enough, Jesus came through with more grace, more blessing and more abundance than they knew what to do with! It’s a great ending!
But I admit that in my own feelings of emptiness, weariness, dryness… I need more than that happy ending. I’m not quite ready to receive that much blessing right off the bat. It’s gonna take a minute for me to get there. So, let’s slow it down a little, and look at some of the details along the way.
First, I think this story says that it is okay to name that emptiness. Mary does, and her acknowledging that fact is a gift to us. In the first century, running out of wine at a wedding would be worse than a party faux pax; it would be a disgrace, truly mortifying for the host. But Mary names aloud that reality, names it to the one person she knows can address it. I think we spend a lot of energy not naming things that cause us shame – and I include admitting fatigue on that list. We prefer just to power through, showing everyone our strength and competence. We think if we keep our weakness and shame hidden, then others will continue to believe we are as strong as we wish we were. But it isn’t true, and it doesn’t help. As shame researcher Brene Brown observes, “Shame thrives in secrecy and silence.”
People are going crazy for the new Disney movie, Encanto, and with good reason. It is beautiful in so many ways. One of the catchiest songs is sung by Luisa, the sister of protagonist, Mirabel. Luisa has the gift of super strength. Like, rerouting rivers and moving churches strength. She takes on more and more pressure to take care of everyone and everything, and seems to do it willingly… yet in the song she reveals her fear that she can’t handle the pressure. In a gorgeous bridge, she also names an alternative: “But wait…” she sings, “If I could shake the crushing weight of expectations, would that free some room up for joy? Or relaxation? Or simple pleasure? Instead, we measure this growing pressure.” After she names this aloud to Mirabel, we see her begin to heal and grow, to be more authentic, and move toward the joy and life she craves. She is unburdened by the expectations her family has put on her, and eventually can move toward life. That is the power of naming our pain and weariness!
Where else does God show up in this story of the empty stone jugs? The next thing Mary says is to the servants: “Do whatever [Jesus] tells you.” Here, she moves from stating the lack, to inviting trust in the One whom she knows can do something about it. Oh, that trust can be so hard! God doesn’t always act as quickly as we’d like, nor in the way we had imagined. Sometimes God even calls us into something difficult – and you can be sure filling six 30-gallon stone jars was no easy task! Remember, there was no running water there, no hose they could grab, and a single gallon of water weighs about 10 pounds – multiply by 150! But still, they trust, as Mary urged them to.
And the result is indeed impressive. Finally, we get to the part where the emptiness, dryness, weariness… is filled. God doesn’t leave the jugs empty. They are filled, not just a little bit, but way over the top, and with the best wine. The beverage is not the point, of course – Jesus was not trying to intoxicate the guests – the point is that here the wine is a sign of God’s blessing, grace and abundance. Just prior to this story, John has described what Jesus’ coming into the world means for us. “From his fullness,” John says, “we have received grace upon grace.” And here, in this story of water turned to wine, we see what that fullness, that grace upon grace looks, tastes, and smells like: it is like the best wine, offered in absolute abundance, way over the top. It is like a party and celebration that need not stop. It is like God recognizing our lack, our dryness, and saying, “I won’t leave you like that. Here, take some of my fullness. Here is grace upon grace, blessing upon blessing, love upon love.”
You see, this isn’t really a story about turning water into wine. Sure that’s miraculous and all, but to me, that isn’t the good news here. The best news is that God turns out emptiness and weariness into blessing and grace, our struggles into insights, our lack into abundance. We all share the weariness of the pandemic, and I’m sure we all carry our own weariness as well. You know what weighs on you most. And so does God. And God does not intend to leave you in your emptiness, your brokenness, your lack, your endings, or deaths. God turns all those things into fullness, wholeness, blessing, beginnings, and life. Sometimes we don’t see that come to its full fruition in just a quick moment like it did in our reading, or even in a few days. Sometimes it might even take a few years or maybe that fullness isn’t apparent to us until we are at the gates of heaven. But eventually it does happen, because that is the business of God: to fill up the emptiness with love, grace and blessing.
Let us pray… God of abundance, we are tired. We’re totally over this pandemic, and finding our store of patience and energy has run dry. Be with us in our feelings of emptiness, be manifest to us there, and then help us to trust you, as you turn our empty stone jars into places ready to receive from you grace upon grace. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.