Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 20, 2013. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Isaiah 62:1-51 Corinthians 12:1-11
Psalm 36:5-10John 2:1-11

You have kept the good wine until now

“When the steward tasted the water that had become wine… the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “…You have kept the good wine until now.” (John 2:9-10)

A few weeks ago I came across an essay on the editorial pages of the New York Times in which – as I remember it – the author described the personal and professional hardships of turning 40.  He listed all the reasons why the decade of your 40’s is particularly difficult, but it turns out that he wasn’t looking back nostalgically at a happier time in his youth – he had found every decade of his life unsatisfying.  His essay laid out the reasons why being in your 30’s was pretty awful, too; why it was a burden to be in your 20’s; and why it was so tough to be a teenager.  The essay did not go unanswered.  Before long a letter showed up, in which a reader was keen to carry on the line of reasoning and to inventory all the difficulties we face in our 50’s and 60’s.  I am waiting for a letter that comments on the decades after that. 

Now I don’t have a problem with being clear about the challenges of life, but isn’t it true that something in us hungers for more than a life filled with complaints and regret?  Isn’t it true that we want more out of life – and to give more to life – than to find ourselves perpetually hemmed in by frustration and disappointment?  It is so easy to settle for being only half here, to be caught up in anxiety about the future or weighed down by bitterness about the past.  We can look as if we’re alive – we can go through the motions: we can walk, talk, drive to work, deal with the kids and the grandkids, run the errands – but inside we can be irritable, depressed, worried, and only barely present.  Deep down, isn’t it true that we long for so much more?  The truth is that we’d like our days to be brimming with wonder, not with worry.  We want to be able to rise to the challenge of whatever life brings, to find a way to live with zest and creativity, with curiosity and compassion, no matter what the circumstances of our lives may be.  We don’t want to succumb to cynicism or despair.  We want to be fully alive, not partially alive. 

I can’t help but turn to a poem by Mary Oliver that expresses the determination not to settle for anything less than fullness of life.  It’s called “When Death Comes,”1 and the poet writes, at the end:

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement. 
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. 

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real. 
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument. 

I don’t want to end up simply having visited the world.

Jesus would understand a declaration like that.  Jesus came to show us a path to fullness of life.  “I have come that you may have life,” he tells us in what sounds to me like a mission statement, “and have it to the full” – or, as another translation puts it, “I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).  “I am the bread of life,” he says (John 6:35).  “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6).
And so his first miracle – the first of the seven so-called “signs” in the Gospel of John that disclose Jesus’ true nature and reveal his glory – is to turn water into wine.  You know the story: during a wedding at Cana, while the festivities are in full swing, the wine runs out.  Jesus points out six large stone jars, all of them empty, and has them filled with water; then he turns their contents into the finest, most delicious wine that anyone has ever tasted.  Jesus is an agent of change, a transformer.  By his words, at his touch, in his presence, what is ordinary and lackluster, “same old same old,” becomes vital and sparkling, as delicious and joy-inducing as the very best – well, choose whatever most pleases you – cabernet sauvignon, merlot, champagne… 

What the story suggests is that there is 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, with a sense of courage and fresh possibility.  Jesus turns water into wine, not only once, at a long ago wedding in a far away place, but whenever we find ourselves caught up in that mysterious transformation of despair into hope, of fear into gratefulness, of sorrow into joy.  I know what it’s like – you know what it’s like – we all know what it’s like – to find ourselves standing motionless like those empty stone jars, stuck in our old habits and fixed ways of thinking, hopelessly repeating our endless stories of worry, argument, and lament – and then along comes Jesus to wake us up and to fill us with his wine.  Carl Jung once suggested that an alcoholic’s addiction to spirits might be a misplaced search for the Holy Spirit, that intoxicating presence that gladdens our hearts and draws us out of ourselves and gathers us up in love. 

Speaking of love, it’s no accident that the story of Jesus turning water into wine takes place in the context of a wedding.  One commentary2 I read on this Gospel passage argues that it’s strictly incidental that the setting of this miracle story is a wedding, but personally I think that the wedding imagery is crucial.  The wedding is an image of erotic love, of passionate commitment and fidelity.  The poet’s words echo again in my ears:

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement. 
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. 

What transforms the water of our lives into wine?  Discovering that we are deeply loved, discovering that there is an unshakable, eternal Something at the heart of reality that is always giving itself to us in love and always inviting our passionate response.  God is looking for us and longing for us with the ardor and tenderness of a bridegroom looking for his bride.  How else are we transformed except by love?  We can’t turn the water of our life into wine by ourselves.  We can’t force ourselves to change.  Brute willpower can never accomplish deep and lasting transformation of our hearts and minds.  What changes us – what transforms the water of our lives into wine – is the experience of being deeply loved.  So if we want our lives to be transformed, and if we, too, like Jesus, want to be healers and transformers, people who are themselves fully alive and who bring life to others, then we can do what Jesus did: we can listen patiently and faithfully to the inner voice of love.  We can make ourselves vulnerable to the divine touch of God.
You could do worse than to sit down this week and to read through today’s first reading very slowly, receiving the words as if they were personally directed to you – not only to Zion, not only to Jerusalem, but also to you.  “You shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.  You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.  You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land” – that is, the living, natural world around you – “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.”  Now here’s the finish: “For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder” – that is, God – “marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:2b-5).
Can you take this in?  It doesn’t matter how old you are or how young you are.  It doesn’t matter if you’re in your teens, your 30’s, 40’s, or 90’s.  It doesn’t matter if you’re single or divorced, partnered, married, dating or widowed.  None of that matters.  God is longing to take you, and us, and all God’s creation, into God’s heart.  God wants to give you, and us, and all Creation, a new name, a new identity.  We are no longer to be called Forsaken, but rather My Delight Is In You; we are no longer to be called Desolate, but rather Married.  Whenever we glimpse that union between the soul and God, whenever we taste that marriage between heaven and earth, whenever we discover again how precious we are, and how precious the whole of God’s Creation is, what can we do but come to life?  

Now is the perfect moment to come to life, for we’re living at a pivotal moment in human history when our choices really matter.  As philosopher Joanna Macy points out, we live between two competing possibilities: the possibility of life unraveling on this planet and the possibility of creating a life-sustaining society.  We don’t know how the story will end, so it matters whether or not we are awake.  It matters whether or not we are growing in love for ourselves, for our neighbors, and for the earth on which all life depends.  It matters whether or not we are finding some way to become healers and transformers in a troubled world.  Howard Thurman, the spiritual mentor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., used to say, “Don’t ask what the world needs.  Ask what makes you come alive and go out and do it.  Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

We may say to ourselves, “Oh, it’s too late for me and for the world; I’m too set in my ways, and the world is too far gone.  After all, the Arctic is melting, there is a mega-drought in the Amazon, and some scientists say that we’re past the point where the world’s warming can be limited to 2 degrees.”  Yet here comes the steward, reaching out to take a sip of Jesus’ wine, and saying with astonishment, “You have kept the good wine until now!” (John 2:10b).  What if we are on the brink of – and are in fact already caught up in – a process of radical transformation, in which hate is already being turned to love, despair to hope, and water into wine?  Are we willing to become a bride married to amazement, a bridegroom who takes the world into his arms?

I’ll end with some lines by Adrienne Rich from the last section of her poem, “Dreams Before Waking” (1983):

What would it mean to live
in a city whose people were changing
each other’s despair into hope? —
You yourself must change it. —
what would it feel like to know
your country was changing? —
You yourself must change it. —
Though your life felt arduous
new and unmapped and strange
what would it mean to stand on the first
page of the end of despair?

1. Mary Oliver, “When Death Comes,” New and Selected Poems, Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

2. Reginald H. Fuller, Preaching the Lectionary, revised edition, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1984, p. 450.

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