Standing by Stone Jars

No story from the New Testament seems as ready-made for a laugh as the story of Jesus at the wedding of Cana.  The best of these laughs, I can tell you, normally come at the expense of the clergy.  A collar on your neck is a passport to a lifetime of being challenged to turn water into wine.  Behind the joke, I suspect, lurks the conviction of absurdity – the absurdity that Jesus ever actually turned six great stone jugs of water into wine, and the absurdity of ministry in his name, with the attendant absurdity that such ministry could change the world, let alone so much as a thimbleful of water into wine.

There is almost always something absurd in the suggestion that we can do anything that Jesus did.  That’s why the next best joke in the book is walking on water.  Most clergy are not so sure they want to walk on water, but would actually like to be able to turn water into wine, so there’s the rub.  So far, however, it is a trick that has eluded me – which comes as a disappointment, I am sure, not only to all of you but to many of my friends who do not go to church. 

Saint John tells us that Jesus performed this miracle as the first of a series of signs that began to reveal his identity, his glory, to those around him in Galilee.  Very well, there is no doubt that this episode is all about Jesus.  But the person who interests me in the story is actually his mother, Mary.  She is older now than the young girl who gave birth to that special baby.  She is middle-aged, I guess.  She has seen a thing or two.  Saint John leaves open for us the possibility that Mary and Jesus came to the wedding at Cana separately – Jesus was with his disciples, perhaps Mary was there with Joseph.  I’d like to think she and Joseph danced together.

It may be that when Mary comes up to Jesus, this is the first time they have spoken that day, maybe the first time in a while.  We normally take it for granted that Mary goes up to Jesus with intent, asking him to do something about the lack of wine.  But maybe it is more of a snarky comment, a sotto voce criticism of the bridal party or their parents, “Can you believe it, they have no wine!”

Whatever the case, Jesus does not take it well.  Had he and his mother been fighting recently?  Had she been pressuring him to spend more time at home?  Maybe pressuring him to find a bride of his own?  (There’s no time like a wedding to meet someone!)  Perhaps there is a backstory that explains his impatience with his mother, we don’t know.  But whatever her purpose was in first going over to her son, Mary now sees something, she sees it before Jesus does.  She sees that there is something for him to do, a miracle to be wrought, a sign to be shown. 

Left to his own devices, Jesus seems inclined to hang out with his disciples at the bachelors’ table and talk theology.  But Mary knows that there is more to be done.  It is Mary who orchestrates this miracle.  It is she who provokes Jesus about the wine in the first place, whatever her intent; it is she who puts up with his terse response.  And it is she who tells the servants to do whatever he tells them. 

Up until now, it did not appear that Jesus was going to tell them to do anything.  But Mary has opened the door, so to speak, and she does so, having picked her spot, right beside six large stone jars that are standing nearby.  No, Mary does no get the water or work the miracle of changing it into wine.  But if not for her, Jesus might not have done it either.

It is precisely because Jesus did not teach any of his disciples how to do the trick, and precisely because they do not teach you how to do it in seminary, that it makes sense for us to notice Mary in this well-known story.  Because if there is to be anything like a re-enactment this miracle in the world today, neither you nor I will ever get to be Jesus, and turn water into wine.  But we can be like Mary.  We need no special circumstances, not even a wedding reception, to orchestrate the context for Jesus’ miracles in the world today.

Every day of our lives brings an opportunity to provoke Jesus with our prayers – whether we have spoken with him recently or not, even if we’ve been angry with him.

Every day brings opportunities to see ways to show signs of Jesus’ glory – even ways that he might not have been looking for himself.

Every day brings opportunities to encourage others to do as Jesus instructs, and see, just see, if things don’t change.

Recently, the Fox News anchor, Brit Hume did just this, by opining about repentance and forgiveness in Jesus’ name on the air.  At the time, I was quite taken aback, mostly because I naturally recoil at the idea of anything meaningful, or sacred being discussed on Fox News, and because I find TV news in general an unlikely and inappropriate place for a journalist to express such views.

But the fact of the matter is that Christian faith does have a lot to say about the need for repentance and forgiveness, about transformation.   Whether or not Brit Hume chose the right time and place to say it, he was right that our faith makes claims about these things that other faiths do not. His mistake was to say the right thing at the wrong time and in the wrong place.

But you and I are not bound by the same restrictions that Brit Hume is, or ought to be bound by.  Yet we are so often as tongue-tied about our faith as we are confounded by the trick of turning water into wine.  We can have none of the confidence of Mary, if we lack even the conviction of Brit Hume.  And we live in a society that would prefer to make jokes about turning water into wine than to take seriously any suggestions about repentance and forgiveness, about the real possibility of transformation.

But at a wedding in Cana, Mary shows us that she not only made room for Jesus in her own life by saying yes to the angel Gabriel all those years ago, but that she helped others make room for him in their lives, by seeing that there is something for him to do, by provoking him in the way that only a mother can, and by positioning herself conveniently beside six stone jars.  This is a model for ministry that anyone can follow; we don’t need to be TV news anchors, in fact it’s better that we are not.

A few days ago I learned that a young man I know happened to be in Haiti on a missionary trip with his church when the devastating earthquake hit the island.  I’d had no idea the young man, who is a National Guardsman in the First City Troop that I serve as a chaplain, was in any way inclined to make such a journey to do missionary work, and I was impressed to discover this, even as I worried for his safety.

Missionary work – going out to care for the poor and those in need – is almost always an occasion to follow Mary’s model, almost always a way of standing by six stone jars, knowing that if you can get them filled, Jesus will do something wonderful with them.  Think of this parish’s mission trips to Mississippi after Katrina, to Honduras to run a medical clinic, and to our mission parish of Saint James the Less in North Philadelphia to run City Camp, and, we pray, to open a school there.

Mercifully, it did not take too long for word to reach his family and others that my young friend and his group were OK.  But of course the mere thought of Haiti at this time, five days after the quake, is a reminder of the need for a real miracle of transformation.  We are already seeing what a gift any amount of water could be in the context of such suffering; how six stone jars full could become so much more than they appear to be.

And since you and I cannot go there and fill jars of water ourselves, we can at least help to pay for it.  We can let our contributions to a special collection we will take up this week and next serve as our conviction that Jesus, using the hearts and hands and contributions of thousands of people can and will work miracles in that poverty-ridden country; that hope is not gone.

Let us use our prayers to provoke Jesus, as if he needs it.  Forget the wine, they have no water!  Let us find ways to encourage and support those in positions to help to do all they can.  And let us find the stone jars that need to be filled.  In this case it would appear that our own collection plates will do nicely.

We live in a world that remains desperately in need of the transforming miracles of Jesus.  Haiti is simply the most obvious example of that need at the moment.  But it may help us to see why we cannot take Jesus’ power for granted; why it is no joke that Jesus can change things: water into wine, despair into hope; suffering into survival; and an island of death, we pray, into a place of new life.

And you and I and every Christian person has a ministry, modeled by Mary, to be a part of this transformation.  We have always to bring our prayers to Jesus.  We have always to pave the way for him, to share with others the great joy to be had in doing as he instructs us.  And we have always to find the stone jars that can be filled with water and turned into wine.  Sometimes it will be enough for us to locate the jars.  Sometimes we will have to fill them ourselves.  But always, always, the miracle is wrought by Jesus.

Can we believe that this is no joke?  Can we have confidence that Jesus will work wonders in our lives and in the world?  Or does it seem absurd to us, as it does to so much of the world?

The world I see – from the destruction in Haiti to the landscape of my own life – is a world that depends on the merciful power of a loving God to change things from the way they are to the way they can be.

We cannot possibly find the stone jars fast enough, we cannot possibly fill them with too much water, and we cannot possibly hope for something better than that Jesus will take the stone jars we manage to have filled, and change our water into wine, our despair into hope, change the way things are into the way things can be, change our death into life.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
17 January 2010
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on January 26, 2010 .