Rev. Teri Peterson
In the Doing
12 January 2014, NL4-19
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
This is my kind of miracle! Not only is water turned into the best wine ever, but it all happens so quickly and easily—one minute, everything’s a disaster, the next minute, everything’s not just fine, but amazing. From panic to party just like that (finger snap).
I suspect many of us long for a miracle. And while perhaps we usually confine ourselves to verbalizing our wish for healing miracles, the reality is that we want this kind of miracle too—the one where the deficit becomes an amazing surplus. Where is Jesus when we have a need, when we’re in crisis, when we don’t know what to do next? It seems like so many of us are running out of wine. Churches close because they don’t have enough people or money to keep doing ministry. Children go hungry in the richest country in the world. People are dying in the streets of our cities. The social safety net has holes bigger than whole families. Parents are selling their children into slavery to feed the rest of the family. Does Jesus not care about this? Does the lack we are experiencing not matter? It’s not as if no one has taken the role of Jesus’ mother, letting him know about the problem. Millions of people have prayed for help, and still people don’t have access to clean water, still the pledges don’t cover the salaries, still the shelter is overflowing on Wednesday night. I think it’s safe to say God knows. And I just cannot believe that God’s response has been “yeah…maybe later.”
We need a miracle.
So the part of me that’s looking for answers goes back to this story of water turning into wine, looking for just what happened. And it almost seems that nothing happened…or at least, it’s not clear what happened when.
There’s no big ta-da moment, no fireworks, no blind person jumping up and down “I can see!” In fact, no one except the servant who carries the “water that had become wine” to the chief steward knows what has happened. It was all behind the scenes.
Of course, when we look behind the scenes in any situation, we often find that’s where the real magic happens. Behind the scenes there is scurrying and working, there’s blood, sweat, and tears. This story is no exception—behind the scenes we find servants of a panicked family running back and forth between the well and the outskirts of the party, carrying bucket after bucket of water, for no apparent reason. All the servants know is that the family is about to endure unthinkably humiliation for being unprepared for the wedding, and that some guy told them to fill up the purification jars.
Jars that, between them, hold somewhere around 150 gallons of water.
So back and forth they go, filling buckets, emptying them, filling buckets, emptying them. Trying not to spill in their haste, because every spill means another trip to the well, another precious minute lost in the race to keep people from noticing the wine has run out. They fill the jars up to the brim, still with no idea why or how this will help the situation—simply trusting Jesus and his mother, they obey the request even though the outcome is unknown.
That, right there, sounds like the real miracle: they obey the request even though the outcome is unknown, and even though it’s a whole bunch of really boring work with no recognition or reward.
I wonder if that’s where we might find our miracle too. Not in waiting for God to do something about all our problems, but in obeying God’s call even when we don’t know what to expect, and even when it’s not very glamorous.
In other words, the miracle happens in the doing.
In this case, it was an easy yet boring request: fill these jars with 150 gallons of water. It was labor intensive work, but not fun. And they did it, and somewhere along the way, it wasn’t just water anymore.
How often might our calling be, essentially, to carry water? Back and forth, over and over. Eugene Peterson called it “a long obedience in the same direction.”
Obedience is a hard word. We don’t like to use it much, because it implies a hierarchy that most of us don’t want any part of. This is the land of opportunity, not the land of obedience, after all. Or it feels like something we train our pets to do, not something expected of us. Something in us rebels at the idea of submitting to another authority and obeying what we are told. And yet that’s exactly what God asks—that we obey, that we follow. And the calling is simultaneously simple and impossible: love God, love your neighbor, love your enemy. Not in feeling, but in action. Carry the water. Or, as Jesus’ mother says: do whatever he tells you.
Imagine if the servants had first said “why do we need to fill all of them? what’s the point of dealing with water? maybe there’s a way we can do this without all having to walk back and forth. how is this going to help the situation? why are you preparing for a ritual that’s already been completed? do you know how far it is to the well? did you see how he spilled the water? why can’t she just do it the way I do, it’s more efficient.”
But none of that seems to have happened. Jesus said “fill these jars.” The servants filled them to the brim. All that hard work, glossed over. No one likes their work to go unrecognized, which makes it even harder for us to obey. We want to be part of something amazing, and we forget that sometimes the ordinary miracle is just as awe-inspiring as the flashy show. I wonder if there would have been any miracle at all, if not for their obedience? The miracle will be in the doing.
On the individual level, this is easy to conceptualize even if it’s hard to do. We might obey by literally carrying water by shoveling the walkways and stairs before PADS opens Wednesday night, as Bill and Dave did on New Year’s Day. Or maybe it’s metaphorical water, making the same phone call to the same legislator to ask for the same compassion for those in need. Our water carrying could be simply showing up, week after week, extending a hand to welcome people to this space. It could be writing notes to those who visit every week, as Bev does. It could be offering a listening ear to a coworker or a friend, even one who talks too much. Our obedience moment may be difficult—like to stop someone from gossiping, however fun it might be for us, and whatever the social cost. We may be called, like French protestants in the mountains during World War II, to risk our own lives to shelter another. We may be called to forgive someone who has deeply wounded us. We may be called to stand up and speak for those whose voices are silenced. Or it may be easier—to offer a helping hand in cleaning up after coffee hour, or to join Pam in going to Deerfield bakery every Thursday afternoon. We may be called to be the ordinary heroes who live as Christ-followers in a world that prefers darkness.
It’s dangerous to use the word hero—it lets us off the hook, because surely we’re not heroes. They do something extraordinary, something we could never do. We’re just everyday people going about everyday lives…and there, in the ordinary things of everyday life, with the servants who are the heroes of this story, is exactly where Jesus’ first miracle happened.
And that miracle wasn’t just saving a party, though that is an important aspect of the story. After all, God desires that we live with joy. Part of what happened here is that Jesus brought the fun and merriment back. But the bigger part of this miracle is that the jars for the purification rituals, the huge and visible symbols that shaped the way people understood their relationship with God, symbols of the way things had always been, even though it didn’t lead to the transformation God desires—these symbols were dry…and then they were overflowing with the best God has to offer, they were turned into a new thing that made their old use impossible, and that grace brought joy and wonder beyond imagining.
In between the dry and the overflowing was obedience, and it was in the doing that the miracle happened.
That’s the kind of miracle we’d all love to see. Which means that’s the kind of obedience we need. Not just on an individual level, but as a whole church. The good news is that we don’t have to be flashy, and we don't have to wait—we just have to obey. So what is PCOP’s water to carry? What direction should our obedience take?
I don’t have the answer to that—I have lots of ideas, and I’m sure you do too. Our first task is to discern—to listen for God’s call amidst the clamor of our own voices and wants and fears. It’s not a glamorous task, but it is important. Perhaps looking through the lens of our eye-words will help. Praying for the church, talking to one another about what we see and hear, and living our faith as individuals will all help too, as we seek God’s will for this community. Who knows, we may even find a miracle along the way.
May it be so.