January 13, 2019: Miracle Machine by Rev. Beth Hayward (John 2: 1-12)

You may remember a news story from five years ago about a couple of experienced wine makers in the Napa Valley. One night after possibly consuming a bit too much wine they came up with an idea. One of them joked to the other “Jesus made water into wine, with all the technology available why can’t we do the same?” When they woke the next morning one called the up and said, you know what, this just may work. And so they put their heads together to come up with an invention that you might agree is rather aesthetically pleasing. This is a Miracle Machine and it’s described like a soda stream for wine. Just add water, yeast, grape concentrate and some finishing powder, put it in the miracle machine, pick up your phone, open the app and choose one of six types of wine, wait three days and boom, you’re good to go.[1] Water from wine, a miracle; technology can do that.

Who doesn’t like a good miracle? People tell me that this bible story, the Wedding at Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine, is not actually about miracles, or at least that’s not the main point. But I find the miracle part of it a little distracting. To tell me to not focus on the miracle here is a bit like putting a kid in a candy store and saying you can have anything but the jellybeans. Of course, then all you can think of are the jellybeans.

The miracle bit does give me pause. Could Jesus have really done that, I mean really, without technology? Do people still believe in miracles? Certainly many do. The prosperity gospel is built on it. You know the version of Christian faith that says, if you pray hard enough and live well enough every last one of your prayers will be answered. For prosperity proponents any unanswered prayers are the result of you not living well enough or God deciding he wants his way.

But other people believe in miracles too. Some in this very room swear they have been witness to something akin to a miracle. In fact some theologians make a compelling case that miracles are not the result of human mind games of force of a powerful God out there doing things that go against nature every now and again. Process Theologian Bruce Epperly says that in turning the water into wine Jesus takes his place in a long line of magicians or shaman who are able to change cells as well as souls.[2]

He says too that miracles are not violations of the laws of nature, when God intervenes in how things normally work. Instead they arise from a deep alignment with a deeper wisdom. They aren’t the unilateral action of an omnipotent God, they aren’t fabrications of our minds but part of a “multifactorial context in which intentionality and healing-transforming energy is at work relationally and persuasively within a multitude of other influences.  Divinity is within, not outside of, the normal cause and effect process.”[3] All that is to say, miracles happen but it’s complicated.

Let’s say miracles do exist. More troubling in this story is how frivolous it seems. If you can do something miraculous Jesus, why not heal a child, or feed five thousand with a couple of fish or raise the dead? I mean there’s no indication that the wedding was a flop, they’d already had a good bit of wine. Why waste a miracle on something so lavish and let’s face it unnecessary? What a frivolous luxury. Why water into wine when there are so many others miracles waiting in this world. Why water into wine at a party when loved ones still die too soon and people go hungry and the oceans are choked with plastics? Why not a miracle where it really might have made a difference?

They say the miracle is not the point. John’s gospel tells seven stories that are described as signs. Each sign reveals, sheds light on Jesus true identity, his cosmic Christ, divine presence, his glory. The difference between a sign and miracle is our response. With a miracle you say ‘Whoa, how’d you do that?’ But a sign, that elicits a different response. With a sign you say  “Wow! Who did that?”[4]

What’s infinitely fascinating here is that Jesus did it using ordinary things and the hands of ordinary people. He instructed the servants to fill the huge stone jars with water. And so they filled them to the brim, not half way, to over flowing. Then we instructed them to ladle some out and bring it to the chief steward to taste. That’s it, water to wine, through some old stone jars with the hands of the help. Completely ordinary people doing completely ordinary things, every last bit of it is performed in plain sight, not behind closed doors, not pulled from magic silk caps. Each and every sign in John’s gospel is an invitation away from our gut reaction of how’d he do that to instead ask who is it that can do that?

The host was oblivious to the miracle. The guests attributed it to the generous host. No matter if you knew the how of it you reaped the results of it. Every single person there felt the presence of lavish, overflowing generosity, awash in grace. That is the clue to the identity of this Jesus. One who lavishes us in grace. Why water into wine, why not? This isn’t about scarcity. There isn’t a limited pool of miracles to be had. This isn’t about rubbing a lamp for your three wishes.

Water into wine may well have been the first sign in this gospel because let’s face it, this is the kind of miracle we are least likely to notice and certainly least likely to appreciate the power of. By putting the wine story at the wedding banquet first it reveals a divine presence that relishes in the good things of life, that doesn’t dismiss good food and laughter and company and dancing. Does divine grace understand that these things are core to a life of meaning and abundance? That the material things of our lives might just be the most important in revealing the light of divine love? 

And by placing Jesus’ mother only twice in this entire gospel, first here and later at the foot of the cross, do we catch a glimpse that the entire spectrum of our lives is in fact infused with grace. From wedding banquets to funeral receptions, we are in the presence of the oneness of the divine, in the presence of tangible love.

The first story in John’s gospel after the cosmic introduction is about Jesus baptism, in fact all of the gospels include a story of Jesus baptism. It’s provided the basis for how we understand that sacrament. In one way or another every baptism story at its core is a story about your beautiful, perfect, God given gift/inheritance as a beloved child of the divine. Baptism is about who you are, when you pull back the layers, when you push the ego aside, when you stand there just as you are and the truth is revealed that you are beloved, you are love, enough, blessed, your very existence a testament to the power of love in the universe.

Baptism is not about what you do but who you are. Immediately following his baptism we are gifted with a sign of who Jesus is. He doesn’t do anything extraordinary here, in fact he does nothing at all. Regular ordinary people take all the action here. And Jesus well he’s revealed as the one who helps us bring into fruition lavish abundance. No holds barred love and joy.

I think we sometimes mistake religion, faith as being able to solve the problem of suffering and loss but that’s not its point it is an invitation to join the feast, it’s not a denial of death, we will die, and those we love will die and our dreams will be squashed. It’s not an explanation of why there is suffering in the world any more than it is an excuse. In the natural world, where miracles happen, there is joy and pain, there is hunger and need and there is dancing and laughing, crying and singing, love found and love lost.

This is not a story about the hierarchy of miracles, it’s not about who’s entitled to a miracle or not. It’s not even about why one person’s prayers appear to be answered when another’s land on deaf ears (seem to evaporate into an unresponsive void.

Every sign tells you two things: this is what abundant grace looks like, this is what it looks like to live a life orientated to seeing signs of that grace, more than that participating in growing that grace.  

Turns out we don’t need miracle machines after all, which is a good thing because that Water into wine contraption was a complete hoax! For two weeks the wine makers behind the hoax enjoyed seeing their scam go viral in a 2014 sort of way with “500 million media impressions as more than 200,000 people watched the Miracle Machine video, nearly 600 media outlets around the world covered the story, 6,000 people tweeted about it, and 7,000 people signed up for a potential crowd-funding platform to invest in the faux machine.”[5] 

There was no miracle machine; fake news. Which I suppose confirms that we’re not quite at the place where technology can do the miraculous just yet. But maybe that story wasn’t really about the miracle either. Maybe it revealed something else, something more compelling even than miracles. You see this hoax wasn’t motivated by the egocentric sense of humour of a couple of wealthy wine makers. It was actually part of a well thought out marketing campaign to help lift the profile and impact of a charity called Wine to Water and their simple goal is to provide clean drinking water to those around the world who don’t have it.[6] With every dollar they collect they claim that one person can get access to clean drinking water for an entire year.[7]

Turns out the miracle machine may have brought about some miracles after all or revealed a glimpse of what’s possible when we are attuned to universe.

It’s about who Jesus is and who you are. What if divine love and the Christ shows up in our parties, our celebrations, our family gatherings and wedding banquets, around our dinner tables and funeral receptions? What if God shows up in us? What if all of this ordinary is an opportunity for us to play our part, an invitation in the feast?  Like the wedding at Cana, to fill the jugs to overflowing and dare to taste something unexpected? Maybe we are awash in a universe of abundance – no miracle machine required. I wonder if you can taste it?

[1] https://sojo.net/tags/wedding-cana

[2] https://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/2013/01/the-adventurous-lectionary-reflections-on-the-wedding-in-cana/

[3] ibid

[4] Thanks to Rev. David Ewart for this little gem. https://www.holytextures.com/2009/12/john-2-1-11-year-c-epiphany-2-january-14-january-20-sermon.html

[5] https://www.techtimes.com/articles/4425/20140316/water-to-wine-miracle-machine-revealed-as-hoax.htm

[6] https://themiraclemachine.net/

[7] https://www.techtimes.com/articles/4425/20140316/water-to-wine-miracle-machine-revealed-as-hoax.htm