A few weeks before I moved to Russellville and started working here at All Saints’ as your Curate, I got engaged. Ernest, my now fiancé, proposed to me while we were on this grand adventure out west. And I say adventure, not a vacation. Vacations in my mind imply going somewhere (or staying home) to find stillness and copious amounts of rest. This was not that. In the ten days of our travels, we covered thousands of miles by car, crossed five state borders, and hiked close to 10 or more miles every day at different state or national parks. Anyway, in the midst of all of this exploring at a spot under some redwood trees, Ernest asked me to go on another sort of adventure with him and I agreed.
So, now I’m engaged and I find myself in the very beginnings of just slightly, tentatively, slowly easing myself – SLOWLY – into wedding planning. And even at this point, where we really, truly have not even began to do any serious planning yet, I’ve already had my first wedding planning nightmare!
In my dream, the day had arrived! It was our wedding day and I was about to go into the wedding ceremony right when I realized, we totally forgot to plan the reception! Just completely forgot about it. Hadn’t made any decisions about it at all. Dream panic ensued: what were we going to do with all of these people?! Where would we put them after the ceremony? What would we feed them or give them to drink!?
And a wedding nightmare of this sort is right where we encounter Christ in our gospel passage for today. John, the Fourth Evangelist, provides just the essential information of a typical wedding announcement. When: on the third day, where: Cana of Galilee, who: Jesus, his mother and his disciples, why: a wedding feast, what: the first sign of Jesus’ ministry.
On this third day, seemingly three days into Jesus’ life post-baptism, John tells the story of Jesus at a wedding where his mom notices that the wine has run out. This would have been a serious problem in the Jewish culture, which highly valued hospitality. Prompted by his mother to notice the potential catastrophe of shame that could fall upon the wedding hosts, Jesus at first appears to resist being revealed as someone who has the power to do something about all this, saying “What is this to you and me? My hour has not yet come.” But, then, acting on his own time, Jesus appears to miraculously change 120-180 gallons of water into wine.
In one moment, the six jars are filled with water and in the very next, with wine. The exact moment of transformation is not explained or recorded, but this is a miracle and the first vivid enactment of the gift that Jesus has to offer to the world. What John does provide in the gospel is that Jesus did this, the first of his signs, which revealed his glory; and the disciples believed in him.
So, what does this story tell us about Jesus? Who is Jesus here according to John? The reported extravagance and copious amount of wine reveals the super abundance of gift available through Jesus Christ. While this moment of transforming water into wine is a miracle for those who see at the wedding feast – and the celebration continues without shame – John also highlights for the reader the significance of that which the act points to. On another level, this moment of water becoming wine is also the inaugural act of God’s promised salvation breaking into the world.
In the Hebrew scriptures, an abundance of wine is often used as a symbol to announce the arrival of God’s joyous age. The prophet Amos symbolizes the arrival of God’s kingdom as a time when the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. With this act of transformation, Jesus begins his work of bringing God into the world and reveals his own glory as he begins his path towards the cross.
And what does this story mean for us? What does it mean to follow Jesus?
It takes intention and practice to see and believe as the disciples did in that moment. Did they see only a miracle that saved the wedding hosts from shame or did the disciples who believed in him see Christ bringing God’s presence and revealing God’s work in the world? To see like this, to act as a witness to miracles, one must be willing to allow their preconceived perceptions and expectations of the world, their categories of possibilities, to be reshaped. To see and witness to the miracle here is to see and believe that Christ brings God to us.
So, here, we are called to ask ourselves “what will it take for us to see God’s power of salvation at work in the world and react in faithful obedience? To both see God’s abundant grace and do our part to help enact it in the world?”
These are questions that I began to wrestle with during my time living in St. Louis with the Episcopal Service Corps. In the Deaconess Anne House program, I lived in an intentional Christian community with six other young adults. We lived and worked north of the Delmar Divide, which is a road that serves to drastically segregate the city of St. Louis by race and income.
North City St. Louis is a space full of abandoned buildings and lots with crumbling structures, an area deserted after the city’s experience of white flight out into the suburbs. There is a deeply held perception of North city as dangerous and this often prevents those south of Delmar from ever venturing north to even see it.
As a part of our orientation, we talked a lot about preconceived perceptions versus the truth. We discussed how preconceived perceptions often leads to fear and stops us from acting in the world or from engaging with people. As part of our orientation, we watched a documentary about the housing project called Pruitt-Igoe that served to harbor and isolate a large population of people of color in the area north of Delmar and contributed to the history of how this drastic racial divide was created.
I remember a particular story from the documentary that a young black man shared about his experience of living in the project as a young boy with his mother. He shared that as the living environment of the housing project began to decline because of the city’s neglect of promised maintenance and as crime rates increased, he was forced to take on an air of hardness to protect his mother and his own body. Externally, he had to appear tough so that no one would think about messing with him or his family.
This story stuck with me. Slowly, as I recognized and worked to overcome my own preconceived perceptions about our neighborhood, I started running in the streets around our house – going out to engage with the neighborhood. As I ran, I would sometimes cross paths with rough looking characters, most likely squatters occupying the abandoned buildings nearby. In these moments, I would run into my own preconceived fears of the unknown which worked to distort my vision of the person before me.
The story of the young man from the documentary would return to me. I learned to take a risk. I would wave. Immediately each of our hard exteriors would melt away. The face of the other would transform into a smile, “Hello,” the person would shout back. “Look at you! Good job!” It wasn’t a long moment and neither of us entirely fixed each other or erased the pain of America’s history, but encountered and fundamentally changed by the exchange, we each continued on our ways, slightly more likely to encounter again; slightly more likely to recognize Christ in the other person. My preconceived perceptions were being miraculously transformed, one encounter at a time.
It was the first year of the program and, I remember that, when introducing this new ministry at Diocesan Convention, the bishop was quick to say, “The Deaconess Anne House was not put in Old North to fix it, but to become a part of it. We are not here to bring Christ into Old North. We are here to witness the Christ that is already present.”
I came to recognize that while I ran through my neighborhood, I was learning how to see it – to witness to what was truly there – Christ ushering in God’s abundant gift of love for all. In this year of service, I discovered that Christ is often found in the most unlikely places and people, the ones that are often hard to look at, the ones I first identified as rough looking characters and places but came to know as friends, neighbors, and home.
As I reflected on the bishop’s words, I began to learn how to see what was already miraculously occurring in those streets and every street – the miracle of Jesus revealing God’s abundance and love to the world. Miracles, in their very essence, tend to shatter expectations and preconceived perceptions. There is no explanation recorded or provided by John at the moment of the wedding nightmare resolution where water transformed into wine, beyond the fact that Jesus is capable of providing in abundance.
The ultimate challenge of miracles for us is will we allow our perceptions to be altered? Will we allow the impossibility of the goodness that just occurred to exist within our reality? Will we allow for this insight into the presence of God in our midst to exist within our lives? And how will we share this with others?