According to the writer of John’s Gospel, the first miracle Jesus did was to turn ordinary water into wine. I’ve read this story many times. Often while preparing to officiate a wedding when I’ll reference it as an illustration of God’s interest in weddings. In this story, marriage is used as a metaphor for the relationship between Jesus and the church. Jesus is the bridegroom and the church is His bride.
Some translators use this story to emphasize that following Jesus has rewards beyond the spiritual. After all, Jesus dealt with the most basic of human needs from water to food to clothing. Practical, everyday needs. The idea that the first recorded miracle performed by Jesus was the equivalent of a run to the party store to ensure the party didn’t end early leaves a lot of room for creative speculation.
Was this first miracle a warm-up act or perhaps foreshadowing? Welcome to week one of our new series, Freedom. Hopefully, the neighbors fireworks stash will soon be as empty as the wine jugs were in Cana on the night of that first miracle. Our dog, Duke, could use a rest from the every night explosions of firecrackers and rockets.
It is a tradition in this country to celebrate our freedom on the 4th of July. A freedom based on a form of government that we call democracy.
Reinhold Niebuhr, in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, writes “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” I suspect that the framers of our Constitution believed this to be true. And a great experiment began that we call democracy taking shape around this idea of freedom with justice.
Democracy is said to be government by the people — for the people. Our version of democracy is a representative democracy. We elect people to represent us in the governing process, and if they fail to do what they promised — or prove to be incompetent — we elect someone different during the next election.
We don’t all agree on what it means to be free. For some, freedom is personal choice. Walking into a building without a face mask, or ordering a fast food burger without the onions. For some, freedom is wearing a sidearm into a Walmart.
But freedom does not mean that we get to do anything that pleases us. We form a democracy for this reason. The people collectively decide on laws that help us to live together — as we pursue life, liberty, and happiness.
And as we debate how to structure and enforce laws and policies that make it possible for each one of us to experience individual freedom, we insist that all voices are heard — that each person is given an opportunity to vote and that the rights of all persons are protected.
Freedom in a democracy is not intended to be only for the wealthy — or the powerful — or any particular group of people. We expect our government to create and enforce laws and policies that preserve freedom for all — regardless of their skin color, their gender — regardless of where their ancestors lived in the past — regardless of the style of clothes they choose to wear — regardless of who they love.
And, I would argue, that a democracy depends on a mutuality that only exists when love is the building block. Freedom, itself, requires a choice to love or not to love others. But can we govern ourselves, democratically, in the absence of love for one another as a foundational principal?
Fruit water and yeast
Before we rush into other critical topics that define what is required to be free, like justice, grace, healing, confession, and forgiveness, let’s further love as a foundation for democracy. The wedding story that took place in Palestine, in a village called Cana, is definitely a love story. And it is a foreshadowing of the miraculous transformation that God had in mind for humankind since our eviction from the Garden of Eden.
Turning ordinary water into wine is a process that humankind discovered Thousands of years ago likely before the end of the Stone Age. Long before Jesus used this idea to save a party. Fruit is harvested and combined with yeast which begins the process of fermentation. During fermentation, sugars and starches turn into something new which benefits our immune system and the absorption of nutrients. In other words, turning fruit water into fine wine.
The first miracle of Jesus is also a foreshadowing of the process offered to you and I. It is a process from bondage to freedom. To be free, is to be free from bondage. Jesus frees us from bondage out of love.
You have kept the best wine until now!
Scripture doesn’t say anything about the condition of the water before it became wine. Only that the jugs used to fetch the water was for bathing. Was the water freshly drawn from the local well?
The condition of the water doesn’t seem to matter. Residents of Flint understandably shutter at the thought of using water from the public source for consumption. How could Jesus be certain that His wine was free of heavy metals like lead? Surely, Jesus didn’t start with dirty water.
So the condition of the water isn’t the point. If Jesus can turn water into fine wine, He can turn dirty water into wine that is free of contaminants. Likewise, Jesus can transform you and me, regardless of our starting point, into something much better.
A love story
One of the most intriguing books found in scripture is the Song of Songs. A collection of erotic. blush-producing love poems that are seldom discussed in church. It is also the only book that is predominately the voice of a woman.
Both Jews and Christians assert that this love story reflects God’s love for humankind, and God’s desire for people to be free. The setting is a young, black woman, dominated and controlled by her older brothers. The woman worked in the family vineyards, without voice and without power over her own body, enslaved by systemic gender bias. She is treated as property to be traded for favor.
I hear my lover’s voice. He comes running over the mountains, racing across the hills to me.
Song of Songs 2:8
The woman not only uses her voice, she also empowers all women, even referring to her household as her “mother’s” house. She is understandably skeptical and impatience with traditional wisdom. She is in love with another person that is of her choosing, going against the norm. The woman and her lover declare their freedom to pursue their love for one another, just as God offers you and me freedom to be who God created us to be.
Professor Renita Weems says this about the Song of Songs, “Intimacy can be as frightening as it is fulfilling…fraught with dangers, unknowns, demands, and unforeseeable consequences…relationships…must be cultivated, nurtured, safeguarded, and cherished.” Relationships cannot be taken for granted. Whether relationships with each other or with God.
Loves takes us beyond expected boundaries and self-interest past the limits of comfort zones. Love takes risks, embracing new ways of thinking and doing. Love says to you that your importance does not diminish my importance. Love celebrates your dreams and accomplishments.
Love does not measure your potential by my failures. Freedom without love is like wedding feast that run out of wine in the middle of the celebration.
Love presumes relating to another person. But freedom and relationships are strange bed partners. For example, there is a common tradition of throwing a party for a friend to have one last fling before marriage. One final opportunity to let loose to be single and free, as though a commitment infringes on personal freedom. Yet freedom from the joy of being loved is an empty freedom.
Likewise freedom from no relationships is emptiness. We all have a need to be loved. A need born within us and a reflection of a God who loves us without condition. Unconditional love places a value on each of us that defies calculation. There is no formula that can calculate the value of a human life, despite feeble attempts driven by profit or power to do just that. To treat another human as property is the very essence of depravity and oppression.
Democracy helps assure freedom. But freedom is only possible with relationships based on love. Love is the foundation for a democracy that assures freedom. And love talk is clearly missing in our public discourse. So, tell me what we celebrated on July 4?
Unconditional love places a value on each of us that defies calculation…
This month we focus on freedom. We are not done claiming a new normal for ourselves. We begin July with a celebration of our declaration of freedom. But it is time to live as free people by first demanding freedom for all. We aren’t interested in going back to the way things were with systems of injustice and segregation. We aren’t trying to preserve a history. Our focus is to create a future. For more information our series, Freedom, see the article, Coming up in worship on our website.
I invite you to join us each Sunday. We plan to be live via webinar, through Facebook live, or you can call (929) 436-2866 and enter the meeting number — 324 841 204. We go live at 10:30 am. You can find these links along with more information about us on our website at FlintAsbury.org.
A reminder that we publish this newsletter that we call the Circuit Rider each week. You can request this publication by email. Send a request to info@FlintAsbury.org or let us know when you send a message through our website. We post an archive of past editions on our website under the tab, Connect – choose Newsletters.
Renita J. Weems. “The Song of Songs.” The New Interpreters Bible, Vol V. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997.