We’ve probably all been there—anxious about how something for which we are responsible will turn out, anxious about being accepted, anxious about meeting the expectations of the people we love or the world at large. Whether we’re trying to succeed at our job, raise a child, be independent and make our own way in the world, take a test, be a good person, or even just throw a party, most of us know the feeling of apprehension, know the questioning: Will this be good enough? Am I good enough?
We aren’t the only generation or the only culture of people to ask this question, to, essentially, battle shame in our daily lives. Biblical scholars call the ancient Mediterranean culture of the New Testament an honor-shame culture. A culture shaped, fundamentally, by a constant evaluation of self-worth based on meeting—or not meeting—the expectations of the people around us. In the New Testament world, when a person did or said something outside the norms of the culture, their community shamed them, ostracized them, isolated them. That person brought shame not only on themselves but on their family. In today’s gospel, Jesus enters a shame-filled situation, but instead of shaming the person who, from that culture’s perspective, failed, he offers grace.
Here they are, Jesus, his disciples, and his mother at a wedding banquet. According to custom, the groom and his family provide food and drink for all who attend. No skimpy four-hour wedding reception in a hotel ballroom is this but likely a days-long party for the entire community. Feasting alongside everyone else, Mary alerts Jesus to a shameful predicament—one for which the groom is primarily responsible. She tells her son: “They have no wine.” A panic situation in an honor-shame culture, a goof-up that will mark the family as inferior, running out of wine at a wedding. Initially, Jesus rejects the suggestion that he take action, but not long after, Jesus tells the servants to fill six stone water jars with water. Following Jesus’ command, the servants draw water out and give it to the chief steward. Apparently confused or perhaps astonished, the steward comments to the unknowing groom: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” The gospel writer John calls this changing of water to wine the first of Jesus’ signs, an act that reveals Jesus’ glory. And that’s true. But what intrigues me today is the grace of Jesus in the midst of a shameful situation.
For at its opening the gospel of John proclaims: the Word who became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth. From his fullness, John writes, we have all received grace upon grace. The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. John scholar and Luther seminary professor Karoline Lewis writes that, for the rest of the gospel of John, we learn what grace looks like, tastes like, feels like, smells like. In this, the first of Jesus’ signs, grace tastes like the finest wine, abundant wine in a shameful situation.
Perhaps you read this week of the death of Mary Oliver, an American poet and a woman of faith. While scanning the tributes to her life and work, I read these words of hers for the first time: “You can have the other words-chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity. I’ll take grace. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I’ll take it.” At first read, my seminary-trained brain said: you know what grace is; it’s undeserved favor. But then, like Mary Oliver, I realized, I don’t know exactly what grace is. Because we so rarely show it to ourselves, we who are quick to judge our mistakes and limitations. Because showing grace to others when they don’t meet our expectations feels unfair. Because grace flies in the face of a judging, perfectionistic culture where we curate the presentation of ourselves on social media and walk away from relationships when we make mistakes instead of showing up and apologizing.
But grace is exactly what Jesus offers the groom at the wedding of Cana—and what Jesus offers to us. Grace upon grace. We do not have to be perfect. We will make mistakes. We will all fail sometime. And when we do, what we face from God is not judgment or wrath but grace.
As I think over my life, God has poured out grace abundantly like the finest wine at the wedding at Cana. In so many relationships, in so many circumstances when I failed, when I made mistakes, even when I intentionally erred, the people of God have offered me grace, have mediated God’s own grace for me. Astonishing, kind, generous grace.
When I pulled off the front end of my family’s car while backing out of the garage and the first thing my mother said was: Are you okay?
The support of this community when Ben and I got divorced
The continuing low-cost lease Grace receives on our top of the line copier in the church office, a deliberate act of grace from the person who owns the copier company
The myriad miscommunications and mistakes I have made as your pastor only to be forgiven and trusted time and time again
All the times drivers have moved out of the way to make my bike path wider and safer
The patience of my doctor in letting me ask all of my questions and answering every single one
This grace is God’s work done through our hands, the hands and hearts and lives of God’s people. Yes, Jesus has many instructions about how to live an ethical life, but we are limited, intentionally err, and make mistakes. And when we do, Jesus meets us with grace, grace upon grace. As we battle the shame-tapes in our own heads, as we consider how to respond to the mistakes and limitations of others, as we wonder whether we are good enough, hear the good news: the Word who became flesh in Jesus is full of grace and truth.