The wedding at Cana is a well-known story. Preacher Fredrick Buechner says that, “Like so much of the Gospel of John, the story of the wedding at Cana has a curious luminousness about it, the quality almost of a dream where every gesture, every detail, suggests the presence of meaning beneath meaning, where people move with a kind of ritual stateliness… voices speaking words of elusive but inexhaustible significance.”
What a lovely description. And no doubt there is an abundance to uncover here, but most people I think would probably just say this story is confusing. Sorry Buechner.
I mean, for starters, what is Jesus doing at a wedding with his mother and the disciples so soon after he had started his public ministry? Already taking vacation days? He just had his coming out party complete with baptism and now he’s back home at on old college buddy’s wedding. We also sense something going on between Jesus and his mother, though we can’t quite put our finger on it. She is, for some reason, worried because they have run out of wine and says so to Jesus. Despite what you might think we don’t know if this is a big fancy wedding or a run of the mill Jewish wedding in rural Galilee. Either way, hospitality was a priority in the ancient world- there was far less concern about the gown or the flowers, and almost 100% emphasis on making sure your guests felt welcome and had plenty of food and drink. But, despite all that, Jesus doesn’t seem to care.
He calls his mother “woman” which sounds like nails on a chalkboard to our feminist ears, but really it wouldn’t have been taken as condescending- it might have even been a term of endearment. But Jesus’ mother either doesn’t hear what Jesus says or- more likely- ignores him and just forges ahead, telling the servants to do what he tells them to. This scene is actually… pretty funny. Jesus, the son of God, caves to his mom. And in a split second we are drawn into a very human, very relatable scene between a mother and son. The story takes a quick, turn, though. As long as Jesus is going to succumb to the whims of his mother, he is going to go big or go home. He skips the usual wine jugs and goes straight for the 30-gallon stone water jars. Fill them up, he says, and suddenly the water brimming over them is turned to wine- the best wine. Like 150 gallons of great wine. The servants haven’t the faintest idea how this just happened, and when they share a cup with the chief steward guy, confused, he credits the groom with waiting to serve the good wine, last.
Now, unfortunately, people have often read this story and landed on prosperity gospel. You know what that is, right? Ask and ye shall receive. Knock and the door will be opened unto you. Seek and ye shall find. Just tell Jesus what you need and he will shower you with… wealth. That’s not quite what I think is going on here, but it is confusing.
If you think about it, this isn’t your typical miracle. Usually miracles involve a healing of some kind, or an otherworldly amount of compassion or relief or even a resurrection of the dead. But, giving people a bunch of really great wine when they’re already drunk? Doesn’t that seem like a waste? The Chief Steward thought so, but apparently not Jesus. Like Buechner tells us, though, we have to look deeper, here. There’s nuance in this abundance that we can’t overlook.
When I was growing up there was a woman who ran the nursery at our church. Patty would let those of us who were at church a lot- aka the kids of church staff members- come down to the nursery and help with the babies and eat their snacks. Patty was a member of the church and had three of her own kids who were around my age, so we all grew up together. Just to give you a picture of Patty, she was a robust, vivacious woman with beautiful black curly hair, and always had amazing lipstick on. She was so full of life and joy and laughter, and so different from a lot of women I grew up around. Patty was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen, and probably made more so because she would give you the best hugs and so much love. She exuded abundance from the inside out. I would go play at Patty’s house sometimes, and her house was a lot smaller than ours, but it was magical- decorated from floor to ceiling with the coolest stuff you’ve ever seen.
The girls room had dark blue walls with white stars everywhere, she had an old-fashioned stove you had to light with match, and her room in the back of the house was painted a bright red with a matching red canopy bed. Every time I went over there something was different- the furniture had been rearranged or Patty would be having some giant family party in the backyard with string lights and a DJ and tons of food. Her spirit dazzled me, and her life seemed so full. She made our stuffy, well-meaning church vibrant.
I picture Jesus as Patty in this story. Patty didn’t care who you were or what you already had, she always wanted you to have more. She would give you as much as she had and it somehow seemed like more than any of the rest of us could muster- even those of us with bigger houses. Abundance, it turns out, depends a lot on how you look at it.
And, there’s something about this story from John that shakes my foundation loose regarding abundance. On the one hand, I think we have a problem with abundance in our nation- there is real dissonance in how we think about the greatness of the United States of America and the reality it is for many. We have far too many poor people and an ever-increasing wealth gap. We tend to romanticize poverty and push manifest destiny; we assume everyone should be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps; and we fail to recognize how closely what we have or are able to get is tied to our privilege and access.
I’m sure when I was growing up I didn’t see the real hardships Patty was going through that made her life a lot less rosy than I thought it was. But there is something here, in this story from John’s Gospel, that begs the question about where real abundance comes from, and what it looks like.
Jesus doesn’t think the wedding guests need more wine, but he realizes this is about more than him. It’s about his mother and the disciples and everyone else at the party. This story isn’t about an abundance of stuff, it’s about the extravagance God shares with everyone. Jesus puts wine in those big stone jars because he’s throwing everything off course- all expectations are thrown out the window. He’s doing a new thing. Serving copious amounts of the best wine last to people who are drunk is so ostentatious it makes our hard, little American hearts cringe. They didn’t earn it, we think. We assume they aren’t deserving. And, the most startling thing is that I think deep down inside us, underneath our ego, we have these thoughts because we believe we aren’t deserving of this kind of abundance, either- a God who loves us so much, who is so vibrant and bold, who throws caution to the wind to give us everything we never knew we wanted, or needed. You see, our jump to wealth is just the cover up. It’s the false God. And poverty is the real-life result of our worship of it. I believe what we all really, truly desire is a God who loves us extravagantly whether we think we deserve it or not.
I’m sure Patty would have liked to have more money, but I don’t think she let that rule her life, and she didn’t let it convince her she wasn’t worthy of abundance. When I think about Patty I see her as wise to the world, because I imagine that if she read this story of the wedding at Cana, she would have gotten it right away.
Writer Anne Lamott tells a story about spiritual abundance from one of her friends, too. Funny how our friends teach us more about abundance maybe better than anyone else. She writes, “I have a new perspective on spiritual abundance, thanks to my friend Michelle, who told me about going to Starbucks the other day for a pecan sticky bun. She normally doesn’t order pastry at Starbucks, because it’s fattening, but the other day she decided to treat herself to a pecan sticky bun. She spent quite a lot of time picking out the exact one she wanted, which meant the one with the most pecans. She pointed it out to the counter person. He had to move a few others that were in the way, so she took her coffee and sat down. He brought the sticky bun over, all wrapped up and on a plate. She started taking it out of the paper, and instantly saw that it was the wrong bun, not the one she had chosen. This one had only three pecans on top. She wrapped it back up and walked to the counter, where she pointed this out to the young man, with crisp annoyance. He looked at her incredulously. “Lady,” he said, “turn it over.” And on the other side, the bun was tiled with candied pecans.”
Maybe if we turn over our hearts we’ll see the sign John is trying to point to in this story. The crazy notion that we are worthy of God’s extravagant love. Claiming this kind of abundance is a subversive thing to do in a world that defines abundance by wealth, power, and ego. But, Jesus gives us permission to unwrap all that grace has to offer, and treat ourselves. Thanks be to God. Amen.