Why Change the Water into Wine?

January 29, 2017
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Isaiah 62:1-5; John 2:1-12

When last we saw Jesus he had just delivered a withering homiletic critique of his neighbors in the synagogue in Nazareth. He had refuted their assumption that God’s intentions for the human family were reserved solely for them and their nation.

It turns out, Jesus says in that inaugural sermon, that God is a lot bigger than they had thought. God’s favor extends to the poor everywhere, to those excluded everywhere, to those living under oppressive systems everywhere. God’s love is not confined to one nation or one religion.

The townspeople nearly throw Jesus off the cliffs outside Nazareth for saying that, but somehow he escapes. Today we meet him on the road to Cana.

A year ago my wife Beth and I walked that same path, from Nazareth to Cana. Our pilgrimage began about two miles south of Nazareth, where the bus from Jerusalem dropped us off. As we came into Nazareth we could see the sharp cliffs that defined the edge of town. Up through Nazareth we walked, pausing in the old city at the historic “White Mosque,” drawn in by its welcoming signs. The climb continued until we were on a hill high above the city from where we could look out and spot other towns speckled across the hills of Galilee, gleaming white on the brown canvas of the earth.

About nine miles to the northeast lay Cana. We wondered if Jesus had seen it from the same vantage point as he left Nazareth. Off we went in the direction of Cana, over rocky ground, across dry wadis, through cool pine forests, and silver-leafed olive groves laden with green-grey fruit.

A few days earlier in Jerusalem an Israeli Palestinian had told us to watch for prickly-pear cactus on the way through the hills of Galilee. Palestinian villagers, he said, used it to define the borders of their land. Today, he explained, the cactus marks where Christian and Muslim villages – more than 400 of them – had once stood before being destroyed by Israeli Jews in what Palestinians call in Arabic the Nakba, the “disaster.”

We might have missed the ruins but for the cactus pointers. All along the way we found the flattened villages, framed by prickly-pear. We tried to honor each site we came to by walking through it in silence.

Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwesh writes about the Nakba

“When the blossom died and the fruit swelled,

the prickly pear was incapable of repelling

the weapons of the killer army,

but it remained a faithful guardian of the signs:

there, behind the plants are houses buried alive

and kingdoms,

kingdoms of memory,

and life waiting for a poet

who does not like stopping at ruins,

unless the poem demands it.”

(Mahmoud Darwish, “Prickly pear,” A River Dies of Thirst; Archipelago Books,  2009)

Kingdoms of memory.

Historian Douglas Smith, who grew up at Westminster, has written a book about the early 20th century displacement of the Russian elite in the revolution in that land. Those expelled from their homes and persecuted were officially called “former people.”

Kingdoms of memory are where former people live.

We walked among those depopulated villages, ghostly reminders of similar towns in every age and ever  y land. If we had trekked across parts of Eastern Europe we would have found evidence of centuries of violent pogroms directed by Christians against Jews. Former people.

No religion or nation is innocent. It’s what Hutus made Tutsis into in Rwanda, what Christians did to Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina, what whites did to blacks in South Africa. Former people.

It’s what Europeans in this land did to indigenous people and enslaved Africans. It’s happening now to Muslims and Christians in Syria, in unprecedented numbers.

And it’s what the people of Nazareth did to Jesus. He became a former person, a person without a home, rejected by his own people and expelled. It had happened to him before, when the Holy Family had fled to Egypt with the infant Jesus to escape the violence of King Herod. Now, when Nazareth runs him out of town, Jesus becomes a refugee again. He never returns to his hometown.

It must have been a long, difficult walk for Jesus from Nazareth to Cana. It was for us. We did it mostly in silence. A trail of tears through the kingdoms of memory belonging to refugees of every time and place.

“Once you were no people,” I Peter says. Those of us who follow Jesus are no different from the refugees of our time. Once we were former people. Forgotten people. Displaced people. At the heart of our faith is the claim that God stands with those cast out who now dwell in the kingdom of memory, and the mandate that we stand with them, as well.

“Once you were no people, but now you are God’s people,” I Peter goes on to say.

“Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to…conduct yourselves honorably…so that…they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when God comes to judge.” (I Peter 2:10-12)

Judgment is a word to be used sparingly and with great caution, but in the midst of one of the greatest refugee crises in history, we as a nation, and certainly those of us who follow the refugee named Jesus, will be judged by our response. Assuring the safety and security of our country is essential, but when we indiscriminately close our borders to mothers and fathers and children fleeing violence in their homeland and when we refuse entry to people solely on the basis of religion or national origin we are no different from and no better than those across history who have forced others to become former people.

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” Emma Lazarus said in her poem written in celebration of the Statue of Liberty, which she called the Mother of Exiles, “The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”

Remember the ship called the St. Louis carrying Jews, forced from our harbors to return to Nazi Germany? Or Japanese-Americans driven from their homes and put in camps? Or the Dakota people expelled from this state and their land? Have we learned nothing from our history?

We live in a nation founded by people fleeing persecution. As people of faith we cannot remain silent in the face of policies that run counter to the biblical call to “welcome the stranger in our midst” and that ignore the American commitment to offer refuge.

Once we were former people, but now we are God’s people.When we finally reached Cana on our walk that day, we found ourselves welcomed into the largely Muslim town by several local residents. We asked an Arabic-speaking young man where the Christian quarter was. He spoke no English, so we resorted to gestures as a way to communicate what we were looking for, making a cross with our fingers. He then understood, smiled, and pointed the way. We took selfies of each other and waved farewell.

By the time we saw a church steeple in the distance, it was early evening. They still had Christmas lights up; the Orthodox churches had just celebrated the birth of Jesus. We followed the light and found our lodging for the night, slowly climbing the stairs to the home of the Arab Christian family hosting us. We were exhausted by the events of the day, carrying a load of sorrow along with the packs on our backs.

When Jesus arrived in Cana he was invited to a wedding feast. We had no such luck, but the family did offer us refreshing drinks on the patio of their home – and there would be wine at dinner that evening. Their living room had one entire wall painted as a mural depicting Jesus and the six jugs of water he turned into wine.

It’s the first miracle of the ministry of Jesus, and it’s the only miracle that serves no ostensible purpose other than to keep a party going. It relieves no suffering. Think of the later miracles of Jesus…people with no sight, see…those who cannot walk, get up and run…those with skin ravaged by disease, find themselves cleansed…a father grieving his dying daughter sees her healed…a woman bleeding for thirty years is cured.

All of that good miracle work has a purpose. So…why turn the water into wine? It’s the only time Jesus deploys his heavenly power for what appears to be a frivolous purpose. It’s a delightful story – who doesn’t enjoy Jesus conjuring up a high-quality cabernet – but to what end?

The Cana miracle comes at the start of the ministry of Jesus, after he’s been nearly killed and run out of Nazareth. It comes after he’s been despised and rejected, as the seers of old said the Messiah would be. It comes after he’s been made a former person.

And then he shows up at a wedding feast.

Marriage is a recurring metaphor in scripture for the relationship between God and the people of God. The prophets used wedding language to describe God’s desires for the human family, especially for those who suffer. Isaiah’s words, directed to a long-ago people in exile, may have been read that day:

“You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married.” (Isaiah 62:4)

You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate. The marriage scene in Cana offers a counterpoint to the violence Jesus experiences in Nazareth. It opposes his dehumanization. It reaffirms God’s love for one who has been subjected to hatred. For the Lord delights in you.

“Jesus did this,” John says, “The first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” (John 2:11)

The wine signals something. The marriage feast with its abundant drink is a sign that God will not abandon the outcast children of God but will instead delight in them. God will contest those who seek to deny the humanity of others, in this case, Jesus, the former person from Nazareth. God uses the wedding feast to show that the degradation of humankind will be resisted, and that the resistance will be girded in joy.

Yesterday a Jewish congregation in Illinois welcomed a Syrian family that had arrived in the U.S. on Friday, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the very day new rules excluding all refugees were issued. A day later the American Jews welcomed the Syrian Muslim family to their new town near Chicago with hugs and cheers and toys for the children. The members of the synagogue – and more than 100 were involved in supporting the family – then brought them to their new home, where they had prepared a feast, complete with a Syrian-style cake.

“If this is the last group of refugees to get in,” the rabbi said, “We will show them the best of America.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/28/us/refugees-syria-trump.html?mwrsm)

It was the miracle of Cana all over again, and God’s intentions for the human family carried the day.

That’s why Jesus changes the water into wine: to signal God’s hospitality to those rejected by others and to reveal God’s delight in those deemed to be former people.

At the wedding feast in Cana Jesus launches a movement, a movement of joyful resistance against the baser impulses that run through each of us and through the principalities and powers of every time and place.

Today, in our time and in this land, the church still finds its calling in that same movement.

Thanks be to God.


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