Do Whatever He Tells You
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 10, 2004
I may not be much of a party animal, but I love the story of the wedding at Cana. Maybe that’s because I sympathize a little with Jesus when we first see him there. He’s travelled with his mother to this wedding in Cana, just a few miles away from their home in Nazareth. We’re not sure who the wedding is for. One old tradition says it’s the wedding feast of John, the “beloved disciple”, with whom Mary would go to live after Jesus’s death. Another tradition says that the bride is Mary’s niece, the daughter of Mary’s sister; so, then it would be Aunt Mary and Cousin Jesus, who had come to the next town for a family wedding. (Nothing unusual there, certainly.) What’s clear is that Mary (and Jesus) are more than casually connected to the family putting on the wedding; they’re either very close friends, or (more likely) relatives.
We know that there’s a close relationship here because Mary is very concerned when the unthinkable happens: the host runs out of wine. Now, such a lapse in hospitality would be a severe mortification for any of us, even today. (Which is why some of us, as a matter of course, always cook two or three times more than we’ll ever need when we have company coming.). In the ancient Near East, with its extremely strict code of hospitality, this would have represented a severe loss of face; it would have been a really Big Deal. But it has happened, perhaps because wedding feasts in the Near Eastern tradition didn’t go on for a few hours, like ours do; no, they went on for a few days—up to five days, or more. So a lot of wine gets imbibed, and maybe the host didn’t figure right, or maybe the guests were especially thirsty, but at any rate, now they’ve run out. Mary-- either because of her close relationship to the people involved (maybe she met her distraught sister in the powder room), or because of her intense sense of womanly intuition, or for whatever reason— knows all about it. Furthermore, she knows who can fix the problem.
So, she goes over to Jesus—she goes over to her son—who is probably just sitting there, talking with a couple of friends about great spiritual matters, or about the politics of the day between Rome and Palestine (“Hey, Cuz, did you catch the Pilate-Caiphas debate the other night?”)—or maybe he’s sitting all by himself, just chewing on his ice cubes. And she says to him, “They have no more wine.”
This is not what Jesus wants to hear. We can sense that he’s no little bit annoyed, too. “Woman,” he says (sometimes softened a little in translation to “Dear woman”) “why do you want to involve me?” (According to one writer who reads ancient Greek [which, needless to say, I do not], in the original language of the text, addressing his mother as “Woman” would not actually be a sign of reproach (as it sounds to our modern ears), but rather of closeness, and intimacy (sort of like, in English vernacular, addressing someone as “Man”, as in “Hey, man, what’s goin’ on?”). But at any rate, this isn’t what Jesus wants to be told right now (he probably feels like a plumber at a party being told there’s a clogged drain upstairs). “Why do you want to involve me in this?” he asks his mother. “This isn’t any of our business.” Then, he adds (in words that only he and Mary would probably understand) “My hour has not yet come.”
But Mary knows that it has come.
Mary, as the mother of Jesus—as his helpmate and partner in faith at every step of the spiritual journey—knows that he has divine powers to heal, to transcend limitations, to set the world on its head—and that it is time for him to show his stuff right now. His time has come. As only a mother knows, Mary knows that Jesus will come through. As only the Mother of All Nations knows, Mary knows it is time to usher in a new way of relating upon the Earth.
She says nothing else to Jesus, but she probably just gives him that deep, motherly look; their eyes meet; and she knows he will respond. Mary goes over to the servants, the temporarily-redundant wine servers, and she says, simply, “Do whatever he tells you.” These are Mary’s last recorded words in Scripture; her charge to the servants—and perhaps to all of us: “Do whatever he tells you.”
Even Jesus knows that he can’t resist his mother. He knows that mother (usually) knows best. He goes over to the servants, and he points to six large stone jars—each holding between 20 to 30 gallons of water. “Fill the jars with water,” he tells them, and they do; they “fill the jars to the brim”, the gospel of John tells us. Then he tells them to draw out a draught of water, and bring it to the chief steward, the master of the banquet (the head caterer, I guess we’d say). They do so, and the steward tastes the water (which is now wine), and he is amazed. It’s not even water anymore—it’s wine! Not only that, it’s the best wine; the real good stuff. “Ha!” he says, “you people are something! Usually people serve the good wine first, and then the cheaper wine after people have had too much to drink (and probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference anyway!) But you’ve saved the best until now! “
A major social faux pas has been avoided. Everybody gets to stay at the wedding feast and have a good time. And, John tells us, in this, the first of his miraculous “signs”, Jesus reveals his glory, and sets out on the road that will lead him, ultimately, to crucifixion and death in Jerusalem (and, in the Christian tradition) to his resurrection and glory.
That’s the story of the wedding at Cana. And at first, it might seem like a rather strange story, at that; curious, at best, one observer has said, objectionable at worst. Certainly, it seems one heck of a reason for Jesus to perform the miracle that will get his earthly ministry rolling. People have puzzled over it for centuries, wondering what it’s supposed to mean; clinging sometimes a little too closely to the surface of the narrative to grasp some of its deeper lessons. Often, we have approached it like the little girl who came from Sunday school one day, and was asked by her mother what they had talked about in class. “The wedding at Cana in Galilee,” the little girl responded dutifully. “And what did you learn from it?” her mother asked. And the little girl hesitated for a moment, and bit her lip, and thought about it, and finally said, tentatively, more as a question than as a definitive answer: “If you’re planning a wedding, you sure as heck better invite Jesus?”
But I think the wedding at Cana is more than just a quaint little story. It is a bit of scripture that has intrigued me for years, and the more I look at it, the more I see. It’s like a hidden treasure chest, full of spiritual jewels.
First of all, just by showing up at the wedding, Mary and Jesus show us, yet again, that “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.” (This is the second week in a row I’ve used that quote from St. Bruce, so maybe it bears listening to.) There’s no contradiction between enjoying life and striving to walk a spiritual path. Indeed, the spiritual pathway can often lead us into times of joy and celebration and sharing community with one another. Life doesn’t have to be a struggle. It can be a wedding feast instead. Religion isn’t just about stern, dry rituals and serious, dour faces. We need to allow ample space for frivolity, and revelry, and celebration in our approach to the Spirit—just as Jesus and Mary did when they blessed the feast at Cana, both with their very presence, and with their spiritual presents, their spiritual gifts.
Secondly, we need to do everything in our power to help one another. Mary knew that instinctively, and it was a value she never tired in teaching to her cherished son. “They have no wine,” she told him—and then—unposken—“Do something about it.” When your friend is in need, don’t waste time by asking, “What can I do to help?” Rather, delve deep into your heart and discern what it is that you can do—right then, right there—to lighten his or her burdens. It might be something very small; it might not fix their situation in the long run; but it shows that you care, and it demonstrates your love in that moment. No act of kindness is ever wasted.
Don’t stand over others in judgment, but stand by them, trying to help. Jesus didn’t say sanctimoniously (as too many of his so-called followers have in the years since he lived) “Serves them right, they should have planned better.” Or, “Look at those lushes! They shouldn’t be drinking, anyway.” Or, “What do I care? I’ve got plenty of wine of my own stored away at home? Let’s go back to Nazareth.”
No, Jesus gets up off his bench (perhaps a little reluctantly; he’s only human, after all) and does what he can to help someone in need. He does this because of the prodding of his mother, Mary. Mary—ever practical, ever alert to the depth and meaning and purpose of the situation in every given moment—ever willing to discern the workings of the divine in the everyday—Mary reminds her son that this is his business—that all humankind is his business—and that we are bound to one another in an interconnected web of all creation.
Mary also knows, deep in her heart, where all this will lead. She knows that this will be, in time, a sword that will pierce her heart, as Simeon had told her when Jesus was still a babe in arms. She knows it will break her heart to see her son nailed to a cross as a common criminal. But she also knows that the divine lessons of love and justice and the coming of the Reign of God which are his to teach must be brought forth upon the Earth. She knows he has a divine calling, and that it is time for that calling to be activated in the life of the world.
So it is that from this relatively insignificant and small event—a wedding party for a typical Jewish family in northern Galilee—the world will be turned on its head. When the age turns, that which was once insignificant becomes very significant, and those things once thought unbeatable and powerful and impenetrable turn out to be mere chimeras and walking shadows.
The call of Jesus (and of Mary) is a call to turn the “accepted” and “acceptable” political and social and economic and religious norm of society on their heads. They speak of a world of abundance—abbondanza!—where there is plenty of wine for everyone, and plenty of food for everyone, and plenty of justice for everyone—and plenty of grace for everyone. They speak of a Reign of Heaven where God does not apportion the divine blessings in little dribs and drabs, like a miser handing out coins—but where abundance reigns and there is joy a-plenty. Jesus doesn’t just make one more teensy glass of wine for everyone, and send them on their way. No, he has the servants fill six stone water jars, each holding from 20 to 30 gallons—120 to 180 gallons in all—and he fills them with the finest fruit of the vine. That’s a lot of wine for a simple country wedding—that’s the way our Mother Earth and our universe pours out its blessings upon us. Like Mary, we too need to see how we can help this divine possibility live abundantly in the lives of all of our brothers and sisters on this Earth.
The water becomes wine. It wasn’t just any kind of water, either; it was the water used in religious practice, for ceremonial washing. The old ways give way to new ones in matters of faith, too. The old rituals and practices of creeds and duty and legalism and crossing each “t” and dotting each “I” give way to new ways of celebration and joy and ecstasy.
Richard Wilbur, the former poet laureate of the United States, once wrote:
So John tells how, at Cana’s wedding feast,
The water-pots poured wine in such amount
That by his sober count
There were a hundred gallons at the least.
It made no earthly sense, unless to show
How whatsoever love elects to bless
Brims to a sweet excess
That can without depletion overflow.
The first miracle of Jesus in the gospel is about celebration. His voice calls to us, down through these twenty-one centuries: When you celebrate life with one another—remember me. When you feast and when you dance—remember me. In your communities and in your families, remember me. In your holy marriages—in the deepest love of two people for one another—remember me.
May we let that remembrance banish from us all thoughts of “This is none of my business.” or “My time has not yet come.” It is time now for you—and me—and all of us-- to know the divinity in our souls. It is time for us to be part of God’s great abundance upon this Earth.
Joe was a recovering alcoholic, who in his recovery had developed a very strong religious faith. Some of his less devout friends kidded him about this, and didn’t quite understand it. One night, as they were sitting around after a AA meeting, one of Joe’s friends held up the bottle of water he was drinking, and said, “Hey, Joe—if you’re so religious, can you turn my water into wine?”
Joe thought for a moment, and then he responded: “I can’t turn your water into wine. But because of faith, and hope, and most of all love, I have seen my wine turned into food for my family, and clothes for my children, and a rent check for our apartment.”
May we also, prodded by the wisdom and the urging of our Mother Earth, arise now to live out our truest calling—to love, and serve, and help bring forth a New Creation. May we listen to our Mother—and may we listen to the voice of the Spirit in our souls—and may be do whatever the Spirit tells us to do, and go where the Spirit wants us to go—through all the days of our mortal pilgrimage on this Earth.
Do whatever your Higher Power tells you to do—so that your spirit of abbondanza—abundance—in all of its glory—may be poured forth lavishly upon the Earth.