I’m guessing that the famous first miracle of Jesus from the second chapter of the Gospel of John was not a favorite of the Christian Temperance Movement. There are many things that could be said about this famous “water to wine” story, but perhaps one of the more interesting observations to make is that Jesus is not the gloomy, party-pooper he is too often portrayed as. In fact, we find just the opposite. He is not only the life of the party, he is its sustenance. Without him the party dies!
But for our culture there may be a more important lesson to be learned. We know that around the globe cultures vary from those that are more community focused to those that are more individually focused. I don’t think this is a matter of right or wrong. The healthy thing to do would probably be to avoid either extreme. The words of Aristotle from 2500 years ago still ring true: “In all things, moderation.”
There is no doubt that by world standards our culture leans toward the individualistic side of the spectrum. We have some expressions in our culture that would simply baffle folks in other cultures. I am thinking of expressions like, “the self-made individual” or “pull yourself up by your boot-straps.”
So, what does all this cultural commentary have to do with the story of Jesus turning water into wine? Well, there is a feature of this story we have not mentioned yet which I believe is critical. The hosts of the party, the ones who were saved from terrible embarrassment, never knew from whom their rescue came (at least insofar as the story tell us). In fact, we don’t know if they were even aware of the problem! Jesus may well have saved the day before the embarrassing predicament became known to the hosts. And we should not underestimate the potential humiliation from which they were saved. To compare it to something today, imagine preparing a lavish wedding reception for your child, no expense spared, and the hundreds of guests arrive only to discover that the caterer had made a mistake and thought the affair was another evening.
Looking at Jesus’ miracle in this way raises for us an interesting question. Just how much of life do we blissfully glide on through, unaware of those who have prepared the way for us? How often do we assume when all goes well that it is all our doing? The dangerous flip side of this is the assumption so easily made, when we see someone not succeeding, that they must not have worked hard enough. It might be worth a moment to consider how much of who you are has been determined by forces outside your control, by forces operating before you were even self-conscious to any significant degree.
If you are one of the lucky ones you had a mother who, while pregnant with you, ate well and avoided smoking drinking and drugs. How much control did you have over that? And yet those actions on your mother’s part, along with your genetic inheritance (and how much control did you have over that?), have gone a tremendous way to make you who you are today. Once born, the first two years of life were the next most crucial. Psychologists have looked at brain scans of two year-olds who were raised in what we might call a healthy manner with plenty of time spent being loved and held and spoken to. Their brain scans are a dazzling kaleidoscope of bright colors, oranges and reds and blues and greens. The brain scans of those who were neglected, who lay alone most of the time, are a strikingly different monochrome greenish-grey. And again I ask you, how much control did you have over any of this?
Jesus’ miracle reminds us that there is much that has gone on behind the scenes to make our joy possible, our very lives possible. I am reminded of a man who was watching his 87 year-old neighbor working in the garden planting an apple tree. He asked him, “You don’t ever really expect to eat apples from that tree, do you?” The old man rested on his spade and then responded, “No, at my age I know I won’t. But all my life I’ve enjoyed apples – and never from a tree I planted myself. I’m just trying to pay the other fellows who planted the trees for me.”
You will never know who all has helped you along life’s way. That’s okay. The old man didn’t know who had planted all those apple trees, either. The mistake, the thing that’s not okay, is to think that you’re above needing help.
The question before us is not whether or not we will know who planted the trees. The question before us is whether or not we can get outside the myth of the self-made individual long enough to observe, simply, that we’ve been eating a whole lot of apples from trees we never planted. Amen.