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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Epiphany 01/20/2013

The water to wine miracle is another Bible story that we tend to think of as common knowledge, one that everyone knows (although more and more I wonder about how much we can assume anything about the Bible is common knowledge anymore).  But, for example the birthday card my brother sent me that I told you about back in November where the clergy person had been pulled over in his car and told the cop he had just been drinking water and the cop says “Why do I smell wine on your breath?” and the clergy person says “Darn, he did it again,” it’s not funny unless you know the story but if it’s in a greeting card the assumption must be that most people know it.  Like I said though, these days I’m not so sure.

Anyway, the Wedding at Cana, water to wine miracle is called the first of Jesus’ signs in John’s gospel, a sign being defined as a miraculous act that conveys the power of God in a manner accessible to the senses.   Just because it’s accessible to the senses though, doesn’t mean that everyone gets it which is evident in the telling of this story.  Some guests at the wedding can’t see anything out of the ordinary.  They provide a rational explanation with the assumption that the good wine had been available all along but had been held in reserve.  Others though, namely the disciples, saw something else.  They believed in Jesus based on what they saw. 

With all of the signs in John though, it’s not just what people see, it’s not just what is accessible to the senses; the signs still have to be interpreted and in large part that interpretation depends on one’s openness to the possibilities.  For the disciples, the belief that’s expressed at the end of this story didn’t begin with seeing the sign.  In John’s telling of things their view of things had begun to change as they came into contact with Jesus.  They had already identified him as the Messiah, they had called him the Son of God and the King of Israel. What they had experienced alreaedy gave them a perspective that allowed them to see this sign differently, to imagine this sign differently.

What John does in the way that he tells this story is to set up what really becomes the decisive question regarding faith, a question that has always been there but which seems to be more prominent than ever these days when fewer and fewer people find religious faith to be relevant in their lives.  The question is, are we like the disciples who are open to seeing the presence of God’s glory in this act of changing water to wine or are we like the steward who can’t imagine anything beyond what he can rationally explain, who can’t imagine new possibilities beyond the surface of what he can interpret literally?

What John does very consistently throughout his gospel is to try and move people beyond the literal and toward the imaginative because that is where they encounter the reality of the divine.  This story today is the first example, but in the first few chapters of John the same thing happens with Nicodemus when Jesus talks to him about being born again and at first Nicodemus is stuck on the fact that that doesn’t happen; you’re only born once; but Jesus was inviting him to imagine something different.  When Jesus talks to the woman at the well about living water and eternal life in her experience neither of those things make sense; but as was the case with Nicodemus, Jesus was trying to help her see life differently, to expand her worldview to be open to realities and truths that are beyond immediate perception.

As John wrote his gospel that’s what he was trying to do because that’s what Jesus was trying to do, that’s what those who wrote the Old Testament were trying to do.  What the Bible as a whole is trying to do is convey the reality of God’s presence and activity in the world and it’s done in imaginative ways, imaginative ways that require an imaginative interpretation on our part.  Too often though, instead of responding with imagination we’re like the steward at the wedding whose vision ends with the rational and explainable and can’t entertain anything else.

This week on Public Radio in the morning they did a series of features called “Losing our Religion: The Rise of the Nones,” n-o-n-e-s, defined as those who claim no religious affiliation.  The thing on Public Radio is just the most recent example of this kind of thing; lots of the journals I look at have had similar articles, in fact the cover story of the latest Lutheran is titled The Shrinking Church, which is, for the most part, addressing the same thing. 

When they interview people as to why they have fallen away from religion, there’s always a variety of answers, for example sometimes it’s a piece of doctrine someone doesn’t like, sometimes it’s a perception that the church is too much about rules and regulations and who’s acceptable and who isn’t, too judgmental in other words, but the one that drives me crazy is when someone says they just can’t believe that everything in the Bible happened just the way it says, like they can’t believe that Moses raised his arms and the waters of the Red Sea parted or that Jesus changed jugs of water into wine for that matter. 

Now, it’s true.  When we all learned Bible stories they were told as if everything happened just this way and I think we thought that’s what we were supposed to believe, that was faith.  But, if my faith depended on believing everything in the Bible literally, I wouldn’t be standing up here because I think there is very little in the Bible that was intended to be an accurate historical account; pretty much all of it is interpretation, divinely inspired imaginative interpretation intended to help us understand ourselves, to help us understand God, and to help us develop a relationship with that God. 

With the Bible, on a literal level I hit a lot of dead ends, dead ends that would have me sleeping late on Sunday morning, reading the paper and having a leisurely brunch with the rest of the nones if literal was the only possible interpretation.  Viewed imaginatively though, those dead ends open up and we get glimpses of the divine, glimpses of God’s glory.  Instead of asking, “Did this really happen just this way?” a question that pretty much leads nowhere, you ask what does this tell me about God, what does this tell me about life, what does this tell me about me?  What’s the truth that’s being explored?  Asking those questions you get into the mind of those who wrote these texts and into the reality of the God who inspired them to write.

Today’s reading from Corinthians is part of a discussion about spiritual things.  Spirituality is a popular topic.  Among those n-o-n-e-s nones it’s trendy to say, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual,” to which the mean, nasty part of me wants to say, “You’re full of something, but I’m not sure it’s the spirit.”  What we heard today was a list of spiritual gifts.  It’s not the only such list that Paul has in his letters but it’s pretty typical; the utterance of wisdom and knowledge, healing, prophecy, the working of miracles, speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues and so forth. 

What makes these gifts spiritual though is the ability to imagine and see more than what meets the eye.  Paul doesn’t include imagination in his list, but it’s kind of implied in all the others.  In the water to wine miracle that ability to imagine is what moves you from “the bridegroom must have been holding out on the good wine,” to “Jesus revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him.”  That’s the imaginative difference

As I’ve said before, I fear that when we use the word “imagination” in reference to the Bible and to our faith what immediately comes to mind for many people is “that means it’s not true.”  However, I think it’s quite the opposite as it is imagination that enables us to engage the deepest truth and truth about God is as deep as it gets.

The water to wine miracle is unique among Jesus’ miracles in that on the surface of things, nothing terribly useful is accomplished; no one is healed, no one is fed, nothing like that, just lots of wine.  What it points to though is the abundant and joyful life that Jesus wants for us, that Jesus brings to us.  It points to a relationship that isn’t just about rules and regulations and obediently following but one that invites you to live life to the fullest with the God revealed in Jesus at the center.  It’s a relationship and a life that’s filled with possibilities, if you can imagine it.    

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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