A sermon for the second Sunday after the Epiphany, and Martin Luther King, Jr weekend, 2019. The gospel reading describes Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11)
Have you ever done the maths on the jars of water that Jesus turned into wine at the wedding in Cana? It’s a massive amount. William Barclay’s commentary notes that the capacity of those jars represents the breadth and depth and reach of God’s mercy:
“No need on earth can exhaust the grace of Christ.”[i]
One of the places I visited while I was on sabbatical, apart from the Holy Lands, was the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Museum is a remarkable place. I don’t know anything about architecture, but even I could read the parable that this building writes on the National Mall.[ii]
Aside from the immediate and visible experience of African influence and African American labour on the structure and culture of this country, the journey through the museum’s interior made me think of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Above ground, reaching to the sky, with views from Washington’s monument to the White House, the culture exhibits on the upper levels reminded me of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – full of colour and celebration, hard work and inspiration, controversy, community, and creativity. But to tour the history floors, you have to head underground, six stories deep. The elevator opens on the past, and the only way out, the only way back up to ground level and the present day is through the history of this country’s relationship with its own people, through the lens of the African American experience.
I can’t begin to describe to you briefly the impact of walking that history of inhumanity and human dignity, the weight of those ceilings, each one a century, and the heaviness of your footsteps as you climb closer to our own day of reckoning: Which side are you on, boys, which side are you on?
Praying before the casket in which Emmett Till was buried – the casket exhumed when his case was reopened, and preserved as a memorial when he was returned to God’s ground – I can’t begin to describe it to you (and unfortunately you’ll have to wait until the government shutdown ends to attempt to experience it for yourselves if you haven’t already been).
When you emerge finally from the halls of history, there is a reflection gallery, a place of peace and quiet, light and water, in which to sit and recover your breath, and replenish the defences which you wear in order to go about daily life pretending that all is well.
(Although the experience of Native Americans this weekend on the same National Mall argues otherwise).
[Updated to note that some differing accounts of the incident described at the link have now also been reported.]
On the walls, a quotation from the Revd Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, echoes the falling water:
We are determined to work and fight … until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Of course, Dr King was himself quoting the promise of the prophets of the radical and refreshing and overwhelming quality of God’s justice, that judgement which brings with it mercy, and the steadfast loving kindness of God:
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24 )
In today’s gospel, that outpouring of love and justice is illustrated by what Jesus does with the water.
I wondered all last week why it was that in John’s gospel this water into wine wedding sign is the first public manifestation of Jesus’ miraculous power. All four gospels begin to describe his ministry broadly speaking with his baptism, with his proclamation of the coming gospel, with his calling disciples to follow him, and with his preaching from the prophets the good news of God’s kingdom, the justice that is to roll down and the waters of life which will buoy up God’s people.
But in the other three gospels, the first individual miracle, the first breakthrough sign is one of healing; of making a leper clean and whole, or of casting out an unclean spirit. It occurred to me that this sign at the wedding of Cana most probably, for John, also represents healing, wholeness, and restoration.
John’s story begins, “On the third day,” and it ends, “he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” For John, Jesus is the healing miracle. He is the restoration, the refreshment, the fulfillment of the prophets.
And now I notice that at the start of the story, it is not only the wine that has run dry. The stone jars that hold fresh water themselves need filling up before anything else can happen. Even the water has run dry. It is a theme repeated through the gospel of John, when Jesus encounters a woman beside a well in Samaria, and asks her for a drink, because he is thirsty, and when he cries out from the cross with his dying breath, “I thirst!” Jesus is the living water that runs with justice and righteousness and slakes the thirst for life; and he is the first to point out how thirsty the world is for such relief.
Emmet Till’s body was found in the river, a river now polluted by injustice. From the empty jars of Cana to Flint, Michigan, not all water runs clean. Sometimes, the thirst for justice threatens almost to drown us.
In John’s story, the jars designed to hold water have been used up. In practical terms, the guests used them to wash up for dinner. They used the water to wash their feet before the feast, just as later Jesus would tie a towel around his waist and wash the feet of his disciples before he fed them with bread and wine.
So where does that leave us? What do we do?
“Do whatever he tells you,” Jesus’ mother says in the story.
I read another story this week, in a book that was published a matter of months before Dr King’s assassination in 1968.[iii] It carries a young girl’s account of attempting to go to school in a legally integrated but lethally segregated southern city in 1957. Elizabeth Eckford, whom history knows as one of the “Little Rock Nine,” described the nightmarish morning in which she tried to go to school, and was damn near lynched for her trouble. She said:
“I turned back to the guards but their faces told me I wouldn’t get help from them. Then I looked down the block and saw a bench at the bus stop. I thought, ‘If I can only get there I will be safe.’ I don’t know why the bench seemed a safe place to me, but I started walking toward it. I tried to close my mind to what they were shouting, and kept saying to myself, ‘If I can only make it to the bench I will be safe.’
“When I finally got there, I don’t think I could have gone another step.”
A bench at a bus stop became a beacon of safety to that young girl, and I couldn’t help but picture in my mind’s eye our own, new bus stop bench, and wonder how we are living into our call as a haven of safety, a place of redemption and rescue, and a harbour against the storms of racism and other oppressions that continue to swirl around and within us.
We have a ministry of place, to be a safe space, a bench at a bus stop ready to receive the weary and the fearful and to offer a defence against the violence of this world. We have a call to provide refreshment to those seeking resurrection, those who are thirsty for justice, and hungry for grace.
“Do whatever he tells you,” Jesus’ mother told the servants. We servants of Christ are instructed to fill the jars with water, to fill our own lives with justice, to fill our world with the gospel of righteousness that frees the prisoners from oppression, lifts up the faces of the poor, sustains the orphan and the lonely, and provides a place of safety for every child of God. We servants of Christ are instructed to fill the jars with water, for the world is thirsty still for the justice that runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream. We are called to do whatever he tells us, and let Jesus do the rest, turning water into wine, humility into glory, justice into victory, and the kingdom of God into a present and living reality. He is the living water that runs with righteousness, and he brings the wine of justice, the wine that tastes so good, when the kingdom of God is realized and all of God’s children are gathered in: no exceptions.
[i] William Barclay, The Gospel According to John, Volume I, The Daily Study Bible, 2nd edition (Westminster Press, 1956) 89
[iii] Black Protest: History, Documents, and Analyses 1619 to the present, edited by Joanne Grant (Fawcett Publications, 1968), 276
Featured image: glass recovered from the 16th Baptist Street Church, Birmingham, Alabama, after four young girls were killed at Sunday School by a racist bombing attack in 1963