I grew up in Southern California, where it almost never snows and where all the stores have always been open on Sundays. When I moved to Boston to go to seminary I had to learn how to deal with two unfamiliar realities. The snow seemed at first like an astonishingly beautiful gift, though after a time its novelty did wear off. The closed supermarkets and liquor stores took some more getting used to. The Sunday closures required a level of planning that had never been asked of me before. In L.A. if it’s Sunday and you’re having people over--even if it’s a Sunday in February--you just run over to Von’s or Ralph’s and buy some groceries and a bottle of wine. In 1970’s Massachusetts it was more complicated.
One Sunday night in winter in my first year in seminary I invited a group of people to my apartment for dinner on a Sunday night. I had gone to the market the day before and bought the food and a very fine wine specially chosen for the occasion—those of you old enough to remember those days will recall the ubiquitous half-gallon jug of Gallo Hearty Burgundy. Because I was lazy or forgetful, I left the two bottles of Gallo Hearty Burgundy-worth a combined total of about four dollars--in the car on Saturday, figuring that I would bring them up on Sunday. It snowed on Saturday night. Sunday afternoon I went to the car, grabbed both bottles of wine, and headed toward the dormitory. I slipped on the ice, dropped and broke both bottles of wine, and watched helplessly as the snow turned deep hearty shade of red.
That this was a tragic social disaster only dawned on me as I began to realize that I could not run out to the liquor store to buy two more bottles of wine. A seminary dinner party without wine—even rotgut—was unimaginable in those days. I was terrified that I would be seen as a cheap and inhospitable host. But the story has a happy, if not particularly dramatic ending. I swallowed my pride, called up my guests, and explained the situation. To my relief and surprise, they understood perfectly, and each person brought enough wine to the party so that the social embarrassment I feared--of hosting a wineless dinner party--never became a reality.
Something like what I experienced—deliverance from humiliation—is at work in today’s familiar Gospel account of Jesus’s turning water into wine. Today is the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, and as this season progresses we watch God’s glory spread out from Bethlehem to Judea to the world much as that Hearty Burgundy spread out in the Massachusetts snow. And whatever else we say about Jesus’s miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, the first thing we need to see is that the impetus for this miracle is Jesus’s and more importantly his mother’s sense of compassion. In ancient Near Eastern culture, where hospitality was a central value, to run out of wine at a marriage feast would be a devastating social humiliation. Jesus cares about people in every aspect of their being, especially their dignity. God cares enough about each one of us to preserve and protect our proper sense of our own worth.
In one way or another, all our readings today are about transformation. Israel is transformed from a forsaken people to a beloved one. The church in Corinth begins to see that everyone in the community—not only its leaders--has purpose and value. In Cana of Galilee, water is changed into wine. Something ordinary is transformed into something extraordinary. In the presence of Jesus, his companions see everyday realities imbued with a new and heightened significance. It’s not only that the hosts are saved from humiliation. It’s also that a new, deeper dimension of life suddenly opens up before everyone around Jesus. This is what John’s Gospel means when it calls this event a “sign”. Water changed into wine has given us a glimpse into the nature of things and into the nature of the One who is at work behind and in and through them.
One of the things God wants us to get in this season which celebrates the spreading of Jesus’s glory is that you and I are constantly surrounded by wonder and beauty, but something keeps us from seeing them. We are distracted—by the chaos of our own inner life, by the tumult of outer events. We are, as individuals and as a culture, afflicted with attention deficit disorder. We do not know what is really going on within us. We have our attention focused on things that are trivial. Something about the presence of Jesus calms the people around him down and reveals to them the glory of the world in which they live and move and have their being. It’s not so much that the world has changed. It’s truer to say that their attitude toward it has. They take it in and see it, if only briefly, for what it is.
After a lecture, the great Zen master D. T. Suzuki was once asked about the experience of enlightenment. How is life different after enlightenment from what it was before? He thought a while and then answered, “Life after enlightenment is much like life before enlightenment--only after enlightenment one is walking two inches off the ground.” The world is the same, but you see it in a new way. If we were constantly aware of how beautiful and precious life and the world are, we probably would not be able to get anything done. So we’ve developed ways of shutting off, filtering out the luminous quality of the everyday. Those ways are helpful in the short run but they do us spiritual damage in the long run. We don’t value things in themselves. We don’t value people in themselves. We experience life as fragmentary, alienated, without purpose.
Part of the reason Jesus deals with ordinary things in his teaching—lamps, mustard seeds, fig trees, sparrows—is that he wants to show us that God is not someplace else. God is present and at work in and around you now. Jesus’s teaching, in John Updike’s words, gives “the mundane its beautiful due.” The way toward living a wholesome, holy, peaceful Christian life is less complicated than we make it. The task is not to go try to find it someplace else. The task is to see the glory present in the here and now. Jesus had this gift: unlike the rest of us, he was totally present to every person and thing in his experience.
This week we have all watched in increasing sadness and horror as the extent of the Haitian earthquake disaster has made its way into our minds and hearts. And one of the stirring things about this week has been watching the way so many people in the United States and around the world have responded to the deep human need as seen in the faces of those displaced and wounded and bereaved by this terrible event. There are times when people can seem so self-interested and heartless that you begin to wonder if they have any fellow feeling at all. And then there are times like this, when we see so many people acting out of their highest values and their most compassionate impulses.
When Jesus changed water into wine he acted generously to prevent a disaster from happening. In performing that transformation, Jesus also revealed the beauty inherent in the stuff of the world. He gave the mundane its beautiful due. One of the things we learn as we live with and listen to Jesus is the depth of his understanding of the fragility and beauty not only of things but of people. Jesus revealed the wine-like quality in water. He did that because he treasured the divine essence of the people he had come to serve.
Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In the last sermon he preached, at Washington Cathedral, Dr. King said this:
We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. . . . This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.
Something like what Dr. King was getting at is going on in our church’s and our nation’s response to the people of Haiti today. “We are tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” What can we do but reach out, as Jesus did, to respond to suffering at once so profound and so close?
We go through life shielding ourselves from the beauty of the world as expressed in people, nature, things. We shield ourselves from its pain and tragedy, too. Sometimes occasions are so dramatic that they claim our attention, open us up to that beauty and that tragedy, and demand that we respond. These occasions have a ministry to us: they break us open both to feel the pain and celebrate the joy of what it means to be alive in this beautiful but broken world. The earthquake in Haiti is an occasion like that. Through this terrible event we have been given what Frederick Buechner calls a “fierce blessing”: the opportunity to respond with hope, compassion, and love. That opportunity is God’s gift to us in this hard yet gracious moment. We can together and separately support the many relief efforts now underway in Haiti. In this event God reaches out to us asking only that we take hold of moment and respond in generous love and compassion. A blessing is within our reach. Let us not drop it and watch it bleed slowly out in the snow. Amen.