Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany January 14, 2007, delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
Water Into Wine
Water into wine. When in your life have you experienced water turning into wine?
Maybe one night you have a bad sleep. You toss and turn, fretting about something that you just can’t shake – maybe a financial concern, or a conflict in your family, or the increasingly hellish war in Iraq. Feeling utterly defeated, somewhere before dawn you finally haul yourself out of bed, pull on your clothes, and go outside. The last stars are shining, the morning air is cool on your cheeks, you breathe in the tang of frost and grass, and for some reason your worry and preoccupation fall away. You take a deep breath and you know you can go on – and not only go on, but go on with fresh energy and hope. Standing there in the front yard, you are inexplicably happy, for suddenly it comes to you that life is good, life is a gift. The day ahead of you is wide open, full of possibility. You can’t help but rejoice.
Water into wine.
Or maybe it happens one evening after a long hard day at work, or a long hard day at home. It’s that strenuous period in the late afternoon, early evening, when everyone is tired, everyone is hungry, and everyone is getting on each other’s nerves. You feel so tempted to lash out, so ready to give someone a piece of your mind and just let loose with all the pent up frustration of a difficult day. But instead for some reason you contain yourself. You remember how much you love these dear people, how much you want them to be happy even if they bug you sometimes, and all at once your turmoil drops away and the path ahead of you is clear. Out of your mouth come words that are gentle; you say something kind or you make a little joke, and before long everyone is laughing and your household is at peace.
Water into wine. When in your life have you experienced water turning into wine?
Here is when it last happened to me: last Wednesday. I spent a week at a wonderful writing conference in California and then came the time to to fly home. Before I got on the plane I called my sister from the airport, and she warned me about the high winds moving up the East Coast.
“You’d better take some Dramamine,” she suggested, very kindly. “It will put you right to sleep so you don’t worry about a thing.” She knows I can be a bad flyer – I’m the type who notices every little bump and air pocket, and peers anxiously out the window and clutches the armrest.
I decided not to buy any Dramamine but I did keep in mind the possibility of ordering a glass of wine once I got on board – something to take the edge off my anxiety. I got on the plane and we took off, and I began reading a book about God’s creativity. The flight was smooth, so I forgot about ordering any wine, and I put the book down and began to think about my life. You know how it is on a plane sometimes, when you are above the earth and from that height you seem to see your life whole, so that you can look back into the past and ahead to what comes next? I surveyed my life and all the things I was grateful for – all the people I loved, the dear friends I’d left behind in California and the dear friends and family I looked forward to seeing in Massachusetts, all the work I had done in the past and the work I still hoped to do in the future, and before long I was launched into that prayer of thanksgiving that I’d grown up saying in services of Morning Prayer – “Almighty and most merciful Father, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life ” [BCP, p. 58]. I know that some of you know that one by heart.
I was completely immersed in the desire to thank God, completely filled with expressing love and praise. It was as if my eyes, my attention, my whole spirit was fixed on God and filled with God. We began to make our descent into the Hartford airport, and sure enough, the gusts of winds became very strong. The airplane began to bounce around violently, up and down, side to side, and it got very quiet in the cabin. I knew that the passengers around me were nervous, and I heard the man across the aisle say to his friend, trying to sound nonchalant, “I sure hope the pilot has both hands on the steering wheel!”
But for once the turbulence didn’t bother me. I was completely absorbed in gratefulness and joy, completely caught up in praising God. My only regret was that if the plane crashed, my family would think that I had died full of fear, and I wanted somehow to tell them, “Don’t worry – I died happy! I died giving myself to God, and I died full of joy!”
Water into wine.
Well, as you can see, the plane didn’t crash, and I’m here to tell you what you already know from your own life: Jesus turns water into wine. He did it not only once, in that long-ago wedding at Cana when the wine ran out and Jesus took the six large stone jars of water and turned their contents into the finest, most delicious wine anyone could imagine. He also does it today, in my life and yours, in all those occasions when we find ourselves caught up in that mysterious, unlikely transformation of despair into hope, of fear into gratefulness, of sorrow into joy.
There must be a river of divine creativity at the very center of things, ready to pour into the most ordinary moments of our lives so that we are filled again with reverence and wonder and fresh possibility. I wonder if we are rather like those stone jars in the story, standing in place full of plain, everyday water, stuck in our habits and fixed ways of thinking, repeating our endless stories of argument, worry and lament, and then along comes Jesus to quicken our hearts and wake us up and fill us with his wine. It’s better than drinking hard liquor, that’s for sure, and I wonder, as Carl Jung once suggested, whether an alcoholic’s addiction to spirits isn’t a misplaced search for the Holy Spirit, that delicious and intoxicating presence that gladdens our hearts and draws us out of ourselves and gathers us up in love.
Water into wine.
Today’s passage from the Gospel of John is the first of seven so-called “signs” that John offers his readers to reveal who Jesus is, to disclose his true nature and divine glory. The image of turning water into wine isn’t original to John. The Greek god Dionysius – also known as Bacchus – was said to turn water into wine, and the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria wrote that the Logos, the creative power of God, gave the people wine instead of water. But I find it fascinating that this story is central to Christianity, so that the story of Jesus turning water into wine should have such primacy of place. John’s Gospel makes it the opening event in Jesus’ public ministry.
What does that mean? Among other things, it means that the Christian life is a life of ecstasy. “I have come that they may have life,” says Jesus elsewhere in the Gospel of John. “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly” [John 10:10]. “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” [John 15:11]. As I learned from Henri Nouwen years ago, Jesus calls us to live the ecstatic life, a life in which we move out of the static place. That is the meaning of the word: ex-static. Jesus calls us to live away from the same old place, that tired, dead, fixed place where nothing new can break forth, nothing new can be born. If we don’t expect anything new to happen, life soon gets flat and dull and loses its vitality. We feel utterly defeated, we turn cynical and sour, and life becomes “the same old same old.”
But Jesus turns the water into wine. God intoxicates us with new life and new hope. The ecstatic life is the creative life, a life that is open to surprise.
There are disciplines that open us to the ecstatic life, practices that make us available so that when the Spirit comes, the water of our lives can be turned into wine. I’d like to mention just two of them.
One is to learn to praise God. We hear it all the time at the Eucharist – “it is right to give God thanks and praise” – but I want to add, it is not only “right,” it is not only “right and good and our bounden duty” as we say in the Rite 1 version of the Eucharist – it is also the secret of joy! There is nothing that opens us so quickly to God’s presence as the practice of giving thanks and cultivating a grateful heart. I can’t explain it, but finding a way to praise God and give thanks is like priming the pump of joy: before long our empty places are filled and what was once just another ordinary day has turned into something vibrant and alive. Prayer is the secret place where our inner waters turn into wine.
A second practice that opens us to the ecstatic life is the practice of healing. The question we need to ask ourselves is: Does what I do bring healing? Does what I do bring new life? Does what I do make new connections among people or encourage other people to open to new life? An ecstatic life is a life in which our focus is not so much on ourselves and the state of our own inner “waters,” but a life in which we plunge into the possibility of turning other people’s water into wine.
Take, for instance, the possibility of creating peace with every word you speak, so that what you say is so accurate and true, so filled with God’s loving Spirit that communication opens up with everyone around you. That’s a way to live an ecstatic life, and if that appeals to you, I hope you’ll show up on Wednesday night for the first in our series of evening programs on non-violent communication.
Or take the possibility of healing the Earth. You know that 2006 was the hottest year ever, and that 2007 is right on track to top that scorching record. OK – water into wine. What if we created the biggest demonstration against global warming in U.S. history? What if we decided that 2007 was going to be the year that American citizens reached the “tipping point” and finally pushed their political leaders to lead? That’s exactly what we intend to do with the Interfaith Walk for Climate Rescue, an interfaith pilgrimage that will begin in Northampton on March 16 and end in downtown Boston on March 24. I hope you’ll sign up to walk. I hope you’ll invite your friends and neighbors to sign up to walk – just go to climatewalk.org. You can sign up as an individual or as part of the “Grace Church, Amherst” team. You can walk for an hour, a day, a weekend, or the whole nine days. But I invite you to walk with us for at least a little while as we step very literally into an ecstatic life and move out of the static place.
I like to think that Martin Luther King, Jr. would be walking with us, if he were alive today. On the eve of his birthday, maybe he is the man to lift up as an example of what it means to live an ecstatic life, as you and I explore what it means to praise God in our own lives, to work for healing, and to give ourselves wholeheartedly to that mysterious, marvelous, God-centered alchemy of turning water into wine.