Epiphany 2C — John 2:1-11
In the name of God, who transforms our scarcity and shame into abundance and glory. Amen.
One of my favorite children’s stories is an old folktale called Stone Soup. In this story, a weary traveler is hungry, in need of food and a hot meal but she has no money. So she comes up with a clever solution. The traveler puts an empty pot over a fire and places a few stones in the bottom of it. As townspeople pass by, their curiosity gets the better of them and they ask what in the world the traveler is doing cooking a rock.
“It’s stone soup,” she exclaims, raving about her grandmother’s recipe and how good it will be. Except, she adds, she’s missing just one ingredient her grandmother used to really make it delicious. And with each different person passing by she suggests how much better the soup would be if she just had one more ingredient, carrots, celery, potatoes, or bones for broth. And each time, the townspeople go back to their homes and return with that one ingredient.
By the time the sun sets that evening, the weary traveler — through her cleverness and the simple gifts of the townsfolk — has cooked a sumptuous stew not just for herself but for the entire town. She has created a feast out of empty pot and a simple stone, abundance out scarcity.
In a way, today’s gospel story about the Wedding in Cana reminds me of Stone Soup, because we see a story unfold that begins in emptiness and ends in abundance. As Jesus’ inaugural miracle in John’s gospel — the sign to reveal God’s glory in Jesus — many theologians explain that this story is symbolic of God’s providence and abundance, of God’s ability to transform our emptiness into celebration and feasting.
And while this is true, as I have looked around at the world this week, if I’m honest, I’ve seen a lot more emptiness and need than abundance and feasting. And so I have found myself identifying more with Mary who goes to Jesus in urgency to explain that something has gone terribly wrong at the wedding. The wine has run out, she says, and she knows this would be a social disaster. At the time, weddings were these great, weeklong parties involving entire towns, and the wine was a particularly important, serving as a primary symbol of God’s abundance and blessing. In essence, she is saying, “The wine is running out, and this party is over, Jesus, unless you do something about it.”
And isn’t that what we do, when met with disheartening or distressing news and events in the world? We run to Jesus and we say, “The party is over, the wine is running out. Do something Jesus. That’s your job. Fix. it.”
The Anglican Communion is in disarray again, the Episcopal Church sanctioned, and people begin to whisper, “The party is over for us. The wine is running out. Fix it Jesus.”
Ongoing refugee crises in Central America and in Syria, war and violence, people with nowhere to go, and we pray, “The wine is running out. Do something, Jesus.”
Famine and drought are breaking out in the Horn of Africa, in Ethiopia and Uganda. There isn’t enough food and people are dying. “The wine is running out. Help us, Jesus.”
Whatever the issue of scarcity and need in the world or in our own personal lives, I dare say we know exactly what it’s like to come to Jesus with Mary’s urgency. We know what it’s like for the wine to run out.
Of course, we all know the surprise waiting happily at the end of the story, the good news that the wedding feast continues with the finest of wine. But if we skip from the urgent crisis to the blessed transformation at the end, we risk missing what’s most important about this story. We run the risk of believing that when faced with crises in the world if we just let go and let God, these things will miraculously take care of themselves.
It’s in God’s hands, we say. God will provide.
But that’s not exactly what happens at Cana when all the careful and tedious planning of a wedding begins to unravel and descend into chaos and shame. Just having Jesus at the party doesn’t seem to be enough in Cana.
So it’s worth asking how abundance manifests in this story. If we look at what actually happens in this story, it makes me wonder whether there is more than one miracle at work here, more than one sign revealing the glory of God in Jesus.Because Jesus doesn’t really fix the situation all by himself. He doesn’t manifest wine out of thin air like God does with manna from the sky for the Israelites. If you notice, he does precious little and does so reluctantly. To me, the abundance in this story, God’s providence, looks a lot more like the miracles of Stone Soup than than the miracle of manna falling from heaven.
So I began to look at what — and who — happens in in this story. And I noticed that without the other people surrounding Jesus in Cana, this sign never happens, the wine would have run out, and the party would have indeed been over.
Jesus needed Mary. In her compassion and empathy for others, she sees the coming disaster for the party and shame looming for the bridal family. Now, she doesn’t have a solution for the scarcity, but she notices when no one else does, not the steward of the feast and not even Jesus himself. And she has the courage and tenacity to speak up. Mary alone sees the need.
Jesus needs the servants, too. They, quite literally, do the heavy lifting, drawing 180 gallons of water from the well, carrying 1,500 pounds of water on backbreaking trips to fill up the six stone jars of purification. At some point, they must have exchanged glances and wondered what the point was, whether their work was all for nothing. In their exhaustion and their sweat, I can’t help but wonder if they paused to ask if two jars were enough, or three, or four, but Jesus had told them all six and all to the brim. And then, for some reason, they had the courage and the trust to take this ordinary water from the jars used for washing hands before meals and serve it to the wedding steward as if that bathroom sink water was indeed fine wine. I am in awe of their faith in the face of what must have seemed simply absurd or futile.
Mary sees the need. The servants see the possibility in ordinary water.
And Jesus even needs the steward, too. The steward tastes, celebrates, and proclaims that the fruit of God and of God’s people is indeed the finest of wine available. And that was the steward’s job at the wedding: to manage the feast and to ensure that everyone — not just the bridal couple and the honored guests — had the finest wine in their cups, that it never ran out, that it was always full. He ensures the feast is truly a feast for all, not just for some.
Mary sees the need. The servants see the possibility. The steward sees the thirst of the people.
Without Mary, the servants, and the steward, the wine would have indeed run and the party would have been over. Independently, their actions don’t make a lot of sense, useless in the face of the need. But all these people pull together to do something extraordinary in the face of crisis, chaos, and the impending break up of the whole party. Together, with Jesus in the mix, they create the first miracle. They create a sign that abundance is possible when we work together.
That, too, is the miracle and the potential of the church. That in spite of the dire news and predictions, with all of our gifts, and passions, our various contributions both large and small — with Jesus present — we can create a feast of love, abundance and celebration in a world where all evidence points to the party being over.
To be sure, Jesus transforms the water into wine. But he doesn’t do it for us. He does it with us. Jesus is that weary traveler who comes to start a fire and to set a pot atop of it to invite us to make stone soup, a sumptuous feast out of nothing except whatever we have at hand. He comes to awaken us and reveal in us the miracles that are possible when we come together, as St. Paul says today, to use all our gifts from the Spirit for common cause and the common good.
So when we look at the world, at the news about the Anglican communion, about refugees, about famine, and need in the world and in our own lives, may we remember the recipe for Stone Soup. May we be reminded of what happened in Cana.
May we be like Mary who sees the overlooked needs of the world and dares to speak up.
May we be like the servants who do the absurd, who faithfully continue in the work of God, believing in the possibilities of the ordinary.
May we be like the steward who tastes the work of God and of God’s people, in bread and wine, and exclaims with surprise and joy to all those gathered, those grabbing their coats and heading to the door in despair and sadness, “Don’t go anywhere. This party is definitely not over. Take your seat at the table. Because the best is yet to come.”
In probably the strangest thing that’s happened to me on social media, my friend and former choirmate in high school wrote a sermon with almost the exact same theme, except with deeper exegesis. Check out this post by Jeremy Marshall to explore these themes in-depth.