We are a culture of sound bytes and rapid images, of information technology and data. And so we have a tendency to dismiss stories as nice but useless, not nearly as important as scientific findings and reports; and, really, who has time to listen to stories? My father-in-law used to say that if you want the unvarnished truth, ask someone under 8 or over 80, precisely, by the way, the ones remaining who happen to love stories….because the “unvarnished truth” is more likely than not to be expressed best in a story. For all our cutting edge knowledge and information, the wisdom of the ages is still retained and passed on in stories.
An old tale from Eastern Europe is told about “the great wise man, the Bal Shem Tov.”
The beloved Bal Shem Tov was dying and sent for his disciples. “I have acted as intermediary for you, and now when I am gone you must do this for yourselves. You know the place in the forest where I call to God? Stand there in that place and do the same. You know how to light the fire, and how to say the prayer. Do all of these and God will come.”
After the Bal Shem Tov died, the first generation did exactly as he had instructed, and God always came. But by the second generation, the people had forgotten how to light the fire in the way the Bal Shem Tov had taught them. Nevertheless, they stood in the special place in the forest and they said the prayer, and God came.
By the third generation, the people had forgotten how to light the fire, and they had forgotten the place in the forest. But they spoke the prayer nevertheless, and God still came.
In the fourth generation, everyone had forgotten how to build the fire, and no one any longer knew just where in the forest one should stand, and finally, too, the prayer itself could not be recalled. But one person still remembered the story about it all, and told it aloud. And God still came. [Clarissa Pinkola Estes, The Gift of Story, pp. 1-3]
The Bible is a library full of books and stories. It was with a particular kind of story, the parable, that Jesus chose to teach almost exclusively–”he spoke to them only in parables,” one of the gospels tells us–and, it could be said, Jesus’ whole life was a parable–a story that isn’t easily wrapped up and explained, but rather draws the listener in, engages you.
By the time John writes his gospel he may well have become one of those unvarnished truth-tellers over the age of 80. He is the only one of our gospel writers to tell the story of the wedding feast at Cana, and as he passed it along to the second and third generations of Jesus’ followers, it is quite possible that, like the story of the Bal Shem Tov, some of the details have been forgotten. Did Jesus’ mother really come to him in the midst of the wedding feast and tell him they had run out of wine? Was Jesus really that abrupt and dismissive of his mother–
“Woman, what is that to you or me?” Had they run out of wine because Jesus and his disciples were such heavy drinkers? It’s not overly helpful to get bogged down in those kinds of details.
But what of this story that tells the truth about the nature not just of a wedding feast but of reality? This story, set at a wedding feast, which was a Hebrew scripture image of the messianic age, this story describing the kingdom or the reign of God that is coming and now is, as Jesus says over and over in the Gospel of John, this story that describes how the Divine turns ordinary water into extraordinary wine, the stuff of our everyday lives–water, bread, work, play, sitting around tables for meals, making music, making love, walking in the woods, dying–all that “ordinary stuff” is transformed into extraordinary opportunities. God comes, if we remember only the story, or really, God is present. “The first of Jesus’ ‘signs,’” as John puts it–signs pointing to the glory of God.
And, of course, it is not just a goblet of water that is transformed into wine. It is 120 or 150 gallons of water that is transformed into the finest wine, not just the stuff that is often mixed with water and vinegar to stretch out a diminishing supply of wine. This is sheer abundance.
After the meal of the Passover seder, a song is sung called, “Dayenu.” Day- day-yenu….
Dayenu means, roughly, “It would have been enough.” The chorus of Dayenu is sung between the verses that retell God’s amazing deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery–”If He had brought us out of Egypt, and not carried out judgments against them, it would have been enough (dayenu)….If He had given us their wealth and not split the sea open, it would have been enough (dayenu)…If He had brought us through the sea on dry land, and not destroyed our oppressors…if He had supplied our needs in the desert for 40 years and not given us manna,… If He had given us manna and not given us the sabbath, If He had given us shabbat and not brought to Mt. Sinai, it would have been enough, dayenu. On it goes, down to, If He had brought us into the land of Israel and not built the Temple, it would have been enough, dayenu.
If Jesus had turned a glass of water into wine, we might say, it would have been enough. Surely that would have been enough to show that Jesus was a miracle worker, the Son of God, even. But that is not the point of this story. This is a story of a perceived scarcity, a potential humiliation, that in the presence of the Holy One, is seen and experienced as abundant and rich and sweet beyond belief. “The first of his signs,” all of which point somehow in John’s Gospel to the crucifixion, where we see, John says, God’s “glory” manifested fully. It would have been enough for God to take on human flesh and live among us, disguised as an ordinary man, but then his true identity revealed before suffering and dying. There are plenty of stories like that–the King takes on pauper’s clothing and walks about the kingdom. Dayenu. It would have been enough. God walks among us. But God’s glory was shown in going with us all the way to and through death and suffering. We are not alone, we are not abandoned by God, when we or our loved ones go through that experience. It would have been enough. Dayenu. But God did not stop there. God’s glory was not contained by death. Jesus appeared to his followers after his death, he entered into their consciousness, his presence in the world was not limited by a human body–his or theirs–or by their memories or by all the details and words, the red-letter editions of what he had said or done. It would have been enough for this great man to have lived and died among us–dayenu–but God is still speaking, God is still working, God is still creating and bringing about justice, God is still living among us and dying our deaths with us, bearing our heartaches, suffering our pains and failures, experiencing humiliation and injustice alongside us. God is still holding us in strength and comfort, God is marching beside us for justice, God is still celebrating our love and our joy.
And in our day, we may have to arrive at the point where we can say, It would have been enough for God to have become embodied in the church. It would have been enough. But God’s notion of “enough” is far more abundant and wondrous than the limits of our imaginations.
This past week the British actor Alan Rickman, known to the latest generation by his role as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter movies, died. From all the tributes to Rickman from those who knew him, he was a generous, kind, gifted man, and in one of the postings about him, came this quotation from him “on the power of stories” – “The more we’re governed by [“idiots,” was the term he used. We might give the benefit of the doubt to those in leadership positions, while acknowledging the appalling lack of ability to truly lead. At any rate, back to Rickman–] “The more we’re governed by idiots and have no control over our destinies, the more we need to tell stories to each other about who we are, where we came from, and what might be possible.”
When we are told that there is not enough to go around, that programs that might help people imprisoned by poverty and generational despair are too expensive, that we must restrict access to the freedoms and dignity and privilege that most white people enjoy in this country, that there is only room here for people who look and believe like we do, then we must remember this story of the wedding at Cana, which tells of the abundance in which we live. When we look around us and see that our neighbors, perhaps we ourselves, do not have enough to eat, or a safe, decent place in which to live, that there is indeed a scarcity of jobs or opportunities, then we must put that scarcity narrative into the wider story of abundance, where there is enough for all but not enough for a small percentage to have too much. When we look at ourselves, and think that we are not “enough,” that we are not worthy of being loved, because somehow there’s only a limited amount of love to go around and surely we’re not worthy of using up some of that, then we must remember this story of the wedding at Cana. We may have experienced love parcelled out in our families of origin, but God does not parcel out love. God pours out love and life from a well that never runs dry. We–even we–are beloved, just as every other child of God is beloved.
We may forget the place in the forest, we may forget how to get the fire started, we may forget the words of the prayer, but let us not forget the story of Jesus’ turning water poured into jars set aside to somehow “make us holy,” turning that water into rich, delicious wine, for the celebration of love and life. When we are told that terror is what rules the world, that we must circle the wagons to keep “the others” out; when we are told there simply isn’t enough to go around; when we are told – by others, or when we tell ourselves– that we are not enough, remember and tell aloud this story of abundance. And God will come.
May it be so.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark