“When the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine he said to the bridegroom…..you have kept the best wine until last.”
This miracle is close to many of our hearts. You could say it is not that unusual: every year, all over the world water, grapes, sunshine and some human skill produce wonderful wine. Jesus simply speeded up the process. That alone shows his relationship to God as creator. But what fascinates me about this story is what fascinates me about much of the Christian story. Simple, ordinary, day to day water – the kind used for washing hands – is turned into wonderful wine. It’s not a conjuring trick. Jesus doesn’t perform this miracle with a great display of power. Quietly, it happens. That is the commonest Christian way. And it happens over and over again.
Water is used to wash sins away. Water brings people into the mystical body of Christ. Common food such as bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ – not just once or twice but every day. The ordinary things of this world – food, drink, books, music – can become sacramentals by which people’s lives are changed. How many people have sat in this Church and listened to us sing plainsong, pretty badly sometimes and had their understanding of God transformed? How many people have picked up a quite ordinary book and found life turned on its head? This is God’s Holy Spirit using the ordinary things of life to bring people to Christ.
There is something even more amazing than that: God uses us to bring people to Christ. We ourselves become the sacraments of Christ. In some ways that should not be too surprising. We are the pinnacle of God’s creation. We are the most complex of all the animals on earth. We have an amazing variety of gifts, talents and abilities which have enabled us to build up wonderful and complex civilizations, and also destroy the beautiful world God has made. That mustn’t be forgotten! But if God simply used the amazing gifts he has given us that would be understandable. He does use them, but he also uses our weaknesses, our failures and even our sins. That is where the real miracle lies. In fact God seems more comfortable using our weaknesses than our strengths. That should be no surprise. When we operate out of our strengths we know it is us working. We don’t really need God. We may let him add a little blessing but we don’t allow much space for him to mess up the act. How many brilliant sermons have left hearers with the conviction they have heard something amazing but can’t remember what was said? All of us who know we have gifts must be careful not to let the Devil use them. The Devil is Lucifer, the Light bearer, the most beautiful of the angels, the most expert at seducing us with the power of our own gifts. God knows how to use our weaknesses and to use them in ways we do not even know.
May I offer a parable, based on myself? I have a disability and it is sometimes quite a nuisance. Do I resent it? Actually, no. It has made me different. I grew up different from other white boys in Rhodesia. Is that why I found it easier than they did to break away from the racist attitudes of our society? Was that why I became passionate about Church? Was that why I was free to answer a call to the priesthood and even the religious life in this funny Community? I don’t know. But if it was I am very glad. It has been a wonderful life. I expect many of you can tell similar stories of what brought you here, and be glad.
Still more surprising is how God uses our sins. Those nasty sins we don’t even like to think about – the things we said, the words we wish we could get back; the actions of which we are so ashamed; how can God use them? Well he does, if we say we are sorry. Sin is the way to forgiveness and forgiveness is the way to discover the love of God. Mary Magdalene discovered that. So did St Paul. So did St Augustine. So must we if we are to have any hope of really understanding how much God loves us. And this is not just a gift to us; it can be a gift to others as well. The best confessor I ever knew was once Dean of Johannesburg. He was short and fat and looked like a frog. He drank too much, smoked too much and had a ferocious temper. But he knew he was a sinner, and a forgiven sinner and people flocked to his confessional. They knew he would understand their sin, and would be able to assure them that God forgave them too.
Then there are our failures. Perhaps they are the most painful things to remember. How can God use our failures? We look back over the hopes and dreams we once had and find them broken, shattered, come to nothing. We feel the failure of not living out what we hoped to do; of not achieving the great things that seemed within our grasp. We see the Church, or our Community, or even God himself has failed to do what once it seemed would come about. Our failure may be our fault – or it may be others who let us down. Sometimes we are betrayed. Do we give up? Do we despair? Do we let the iron enter into our souls? Or do we remember that it happened to Jesus too? No one ever had a greater failure than he did. His ministry started brilliantly with crowds of people hanging on his words, miracles, baptisms, all kinds of signs of the Spirit. It ended on a Cross, rejected by his people, judged guilty by the Romans, abandoned by his disciples, abandoned even by God. Perhaps just a handful of women and maybe St John were there at his ultimate failure. Yet because he went through that failure to its very end, and came back, he was able to save the world. And because those women stayed faithful even to his dead body, they became the first witnesses of his Resurrection.
Have I strayed a bit far from the water become wine? It is time to return. One astonishing thing about that story is the quantity of wine Jesus produced – not just a measly few bottles, but 180 gallons of it. That is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, a sign of the Kingdom: God is extravagant in the blessings he will pour out on those who stay faithful through the sin and the failure and even the despair. It is a glorious sign of his forgiveness and love. It is also a poignant thought for those of us in the Community who are now accompanying our Brother Simon on the last few weeks of his earthly life. We know our brother. We know his strengths and his joys; we know his weaknesses and his faults. What is wonderful now is to see his thankfulness and the joy as he looks forward to the joys which are to come. Richard Crashaw once wrote a poem on this miracle. It was a single line: “The modest water saw her God, and blushed.” Will we one day be able to blush?