Grapes and Grace
Wedding at Cana
I read a book by pastor and author Nadia Boltz-Weber, and in one of her chapters Nadia talked about how she was on vacation when she heard about an earthquake in Haiti. Tens of thousands of people were killed, hundreds of thousands were left without shelter, food, or family. On top of that there was no running water.
Nadia started reading furiously about the earthquake, seeing how other pastors and bloggers were responding to the tragedy. One pastor responded by saying that Haiti had made a pact with the devil, so they had brought this tragedy upon themselves.
Another blogger, an atheist this time, said that this earthquake was a great example of why no one should believe in God. Who could believe in a God that would inflict such suffering?
Discouraged and disturbed by these responses to a heartbreaking situation, Nadia knew she would have to find her own way to address this tragedy in church on Sunday. So she turned to the lectionary to see what the text was for that week, hoping that it would maybe be able to shed some light on this horrible event.
The text was Jesus’ first miracle, the Wedding at Cana. Nadia was disheartened to say the least. She said, “Nobody wants to hear of an abundance of wine when people on the streets of Haiti are thirsty.”
Typically people interpret the wedding at Cana story as evidence of God’s abundant love and provision. God will provide what we need. Jesus was in-tune with this God of abundance and ready to follow this path of divine provision.
How do we reconcile this God of overflowing wine when tragedy hits? When it seems as if—not only is there not enough, but we are forced to ask the question, “Where is God amidst suffering?”
What was God’s role in that earthquake? Where was Jesus when people were thirsty? Where is God when they are grieving their lost loved ones?
Both the pastor who blamed the Haitians for bringing this earthquake on themselves and the atheist who says that this hurricane is reason not to believe in God---seem to be of the opinion that God was the source of the hurricane.
Like Nadia says, according to the pastor and the atheist, “God is like a maladjusted kid burning us like ants with a divine magnifying glass.”
When tragedy hits, as Christians we are forced to ask ourselves, “Do we believe in a God who causes famine, earthquakes, disease?”
“Is God punishing us for something? Our sins?”
“Is God trying to teach us a lesson?”
“What possible reason is there that justifies God acting through devastating calamity?”
Needless to say, with all of these questions rolling around in Nadia’s head, she desperately turned back to the Wedding at Cana text.
In this story Jesus makes an appearance at a wedding of a couple his mother is clearly acquainted with. Weddings in this day were, not unlike a lot of weddings today, drinking parties. However unlike today (unfortunately?), these parties could last a week. The hosts would start with serving the good wine, while people were fully sober. As the week and party went on, then they would bring out the not-as-good wine, assuming that people wouldn’t mind the change in quality in their altered, inebriated states.
But at this wedding, the couple had run out of wine before the party was over. This would have created shame and embarrassment for the couple. Their marriage would have started off on a humiliating note.
I know that when Nick and I got married, I was insistent that no matter what we would have enough food for everyone to have their fill. Thankfully my mother is gifted at making sure there is always more than enough to eat and drink. For example, she sent friends and family home with containers of leftovers. My photographer actually left with an entire homemade pie.
Upon learning of the wine shortage, Mary came to Jesus with urgency, expecting him to be able to do something. This makes me wonder what behaviors Jesus had exhibited so far that led her to believe that he could make something out of nothing. How did she know Jesus could help the situation?
And even more curious was Jesus’ response to his mother. He basically said, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? Not now mom.” There are so many cringe-y things about this. I wish one of the new disciples would have elbowed Jesus and said, “Hey Jesus, don’t speak to your mom like that…she is only trying to help.”
Jesus was probably around 30 at this point, but he sounds like an angst-y teenager. Like, “Mom—stop your embarrassing me. I have more important things to do than help with some silly wine.”
Commentators have tried to explain away this confusing behavior. But at the end of the day, sassy Jesus is sassy.
BUT when we let go of Jesus’ sassiness, an incredible thing happens. I don’t know what happened in the silence, but after Jesus seemingly shrugged off his mom, she turns to the servants and tells them to listen to whatever Jesus says to do.
So, even after being rebuffed, Mary still assumes that Jesus will do something. I like to think Mary fixed Jesus with one of those looks, you know the “Mom look” that says, “You will do what I have asked, I am your mother. I birthed you in a barn, while running from the government. Now make some dang wine.”
You know, that look.
I can’t help but wonder if Mary’s bold insistence was actually the push that Jesus needed to begin his ministry. Maybe Mary saw in Jesus what he hadn’t fully realized yet. Maybe Mary gave Jesus the mom, “You can do it, I believe in you” look. Maybe Jesus just needed a little vote of confidence from his mom.
I wonder if later on, when Jesus was in hot water with the Jewish and Roman authorities, if Mary thought back to this moment, wishing that she hadn’t pushed Jesus, wishing that he could have been a normal boy---not a radical leader whose beliefs and miracles would lead him to a gruesome, violent, and premature death. Maybe if he hadn’t have tinkered with the wine, then maybe he would still be alive.
But he did. He told the servants to go to the six stone jars—six, the “incomplete” number. Jars that held water for the Jewish purification rites. Using these six jars, he made wine. A lot of wine. About 150 gallons of wine. Picture 150 milk jugs of wine. And not just any old wine. But GOOD wine. The best saved for last. The old made new.
Jesus turned water into wine and all was well.
When Nadia came back to this story, pouring over it, trying to find a way that this story could speak into suffering, pulling her hair out in frustration, what do you think she found? Who or what stands out? Who speaks out when others are silent in the face of a problem?
When Nadia re-read this story she discovered Mary.
Mary, a woman who would not keep silent.
A woman who noticed that people were thirsty and something must be done.
A woman bold enough to stand up to her sassy, savior son.
A woman strong enough to speak for the silent.
Now I am aware that being out of wine, and the devastation of an earthquake, are not quite comparable. One results in humiliation, yes, but at the end of the day you are still alive in your humiliation.
However, as Nadia points out, Mary is mentioned one other time in John’s gospel. Both times her son calls her woman.
One time at the wedding and the other is when Mary stands at the foot of the cross.
One at the beginning of Jesus’ Earthly ministry and one at the end.
And this time the stakes are must higher. Like during an earthquake, at a crucifixion death is in the air. You can taste it.
And like the people of Haiti, Jesus is thirsty.
Mary didn’t need to point out the suffering to Jesus any more, for now Jesus knew it intimately. He knew it every time he struggled to breathe. He knew it as deeply as he felt his dry tongue. As sharply as he felt thirst. Jesus is thirsty. Jesus, in the hour of his death, is in need of wine.
But Jesus was not given fine wine, he was given wine vinegar.
Jesus started his Earthly ministry of miracles by giving others fine wine, and his Earthly ministry ended after drinking bitter wine. It all came full circle. After he drank, he said “It is finished.” And died. Mary watching all the while.
As Nina says, “(Mary) watches her son and her Lord hang innocent from a cross with the weight of the world’s suffering tearing at his very flesh.”
Mary didn’t need to tell Jesus about the thirsty of the world, for Jesus had become one of the thirsty. Jesus took on the suffering. Jesus took on tragedy. At the cross, Jesus knew the Haitian victims and the survivors of the earthquake. “At the cross, God enters into our human tragedy.”
Nina looked for Jesus in the midst of incredible suffering and she found him on the cross. She found him in death and resurrection. She found him in a God who weeps. A God who suffers, not only for us, but with us. God was not looking down on that cross as an observer of Jesus. God was hanging from that cross.
In the book Night, a first-person perspective on the horrors of the Holocaust. Elie Wiesel recalls the harrowing image of witnessing a child, hung on the gallows by Nazi soldiers, linger between life and death for a half an hour. Another man behind Elie also witnessing this child’s struggle says, “Where is God now.” And Elie heard a voice inside of him answer, “Where is He? Here He is. He is hanging here on this gallows.”
To Elie this was proof that God was dead. What just God would allow this to happen, or worse, cause this to happen? What if Elie was right in a different way? Maybe instead of God as the one who condemned the boy, maybe God was also on the gallows, suffering right along with that boy. Suffering as Jesus suffered hanging on his own gallows. Maybe as God’s children, our suffering causes God to suffer along with us.
Jesus, as God incarnate, surely demonstrated this. When Jesus wept for Lazarus, God wept. Even though Jesus, God in flesh, could raise Lazarus from the dead—would raise Lazarus from the dead, yet he still wept. He was grieved deeply, in his gut. And he wept.
Maybe this God in flesh Jesus, is not a God of punishment. Not a God that reigns justice with earthquakes and genocide. Maybe God is one who cares when we run out of wine.
Maybe, through Jesus, God is thirsty too.
We see this God-in-Jesus, the God of the Bible, over and over create anew where there was death. Take suffering and transform it into something new.
So where was God when Jesus was hanging from the cross?
Perhaps God was right there, hanging, dying.
So where was God when the little boy was hanging from the gallows?
Perhaps God was right there, hanging, dying.
This God does not cause suffering, this God does not test us with hardships. This God is with us though hardships—turning water into wine. Turning death into life. God helps us grow and become born anew when we face hardships.
God gives us freedom to make choices. Therefore we have free will. We can choose God. We can choose Good. We can choose Evil. We can choose light, we can choose darkness. We can choose life. We can choose death. We can choose kindness and compassion. We can choose to make others suffer. Our choices have consequences. We must live with those consequences.
But I know, to the core of my being, that no matter what choice we will make, God will be right there with us. Finding the light in the darkness. Mending what has been broken. Teaching. Consoling. Crying. Supporting. Transforming.
The light will shine in the darkness and the darkness shall not, will not, cannot overcome it.
As Nadia says, “…Every time I go looking for God amidst sorrow, I always find Jesus at the cross. In death and resurrection. This is our God. Not a distant judge or a sadist, but a God who weeps. A God who suffers, not only for us, but with us. Nowhere is the presence of God more salient than on the cross. Therefore what can I do but confess that this is not a God who causes suffering. This is a God who bears suffering. I need to believe that God does not initiate suffering; God transforms it.” (129)
Nadia has a definition of grace that I have not heard of before. She says that God’s grace is not defined as God being forgiving to us even though we sin. Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for (our) failings. These failings hurt (ourselves), others, and the planet. But God’s grace says that our brokenness (our failings, our choices) are not the final word. It is as if God says, “I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.”
Nadia says that she has experienced moments of grace in her life as moments where it seems that God taps her on the shoulder and says, “Hey, pay attention, this is for you.”
This is God’s grace, moments of interruption, moments where God says that our sin, that the suffering in the world, will not have the last word.
But we have to pay attention. We have to be listening, ready to hear-to feel these Divine taps on our shoulder. Sometimes we will recognize them in ourselves, or maybe we will see them in the face of others. People like Mary who fervently, boldly see and point out when people are thirsty.
I reference Nadia and her book so much in this sermon because I read it over my break when I was in Colorado with my family. I took it home because I had started it two years ago-when I had first taken Nick to Colorado with me. I figured that this was a good time to break it out again and finish it.
So I sat down on our comfy chocolate-brown couch, turned on my favorite lamp and got lost again in the wild world of Nadia Bolz-Weber. The chapter I read struck me. I was only a page in and I was crying. Which, admittedly is not unusual. But I needed to share what I was reading. So I tearfully choked out Nadia’s experience of trying to find a proper sermon response to the Haitian earthquake in the unusual story of Jesus and Mary and the Wedding at Cana. I could hardly read through my tears when I realized how Jesus’ life came full circle. First it took Mary to point out where people were thirsty, then at the end of Jesus’ life, he was the one who was thirsty. Water to wine. This is my blood, poured out for you. God lives in our suffering. God is thirsty too.
When I finished reading this out loud to my mom, dad, and Nick. I remembered that I, too, had to preach this Sunday. I was curious what the lectionary text this week would be, so I asked my dad to look it up. And what would it be? The Wedding of Cana of course.
In that moment, I truly felt grace. I felt epiphany. I felt God tap me on the shoulder and say, “Hey, pay attention, this is for you.”
So I can’t help but stand before you, my Beloved Bonneyville, and say, “Grace is here. Grace rains down. Grace in Grapes, Grace in Mary, Grace from a thirsty God. The God of the Cross. The God who bears our suffering with us. For us. So hey, pay attention, this is for you.”
“Abundance For All by Karoline Lewis - Craft of Preaching - Working Preacher.” Accessed January 17, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=5276.
Bolz-Weber, Nadia. Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. FaithWords, 2013.
“Commentary on John 2:1-11 by Karoline Lewis.” Accessed January 14, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1556.
“Commentary on John 2:1-11 by Lindsey Trozzo.” Accessed January 14, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3946.
“Commentary on John 2:1-11 by Roy Harrisville.” Accessed January 14, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=501. Feenstra, Ronald J. “Hills Flowing with Wine: A Meditation on John 2:1-11.” Reformed Journal 38, no. 4 (April 1988): 9–10.
“John 2:1-11,” n.d. Klink, Edward W III. “What Concern Is That to You and to Me?: John 2:1-11 and the Elisha Narratives.” Neotestamentica 39, no. 2 (2005): 273–87.
Rice, Charles L. “John 2:1-11: A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany.” Perspectives in Religious Studies 37, no. 2 (2010): 195–99.
“The Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11): A Pentecostal Meditation?: EBSCOhost.” Accessed January 17, 2019. http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=0&sid=f6139175-4cdb-499b-9570-5bbb429feb4a%40sdc-v-sessmgr01.
Wiesel, Elie. Night. Translated by Marion Wiesel. New York: Hill and Wang, 2006.