“They have no wine,” his mother said to the Son of God, when the cabernet ran out, at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, on the edge of the kingdom of God. But Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t buying it. “Woman,” he says to the Blessed Virgin Mary, “what do you and I have to do with this? My hour has not come.” Family dysfunction bubbles up at weddings, even when you aren’t the one getting married, maybe even when yours is the Holy Family.
Jesus says no, but the Theotokos (Mother of God) won’t take no for an answer, even from the Word (Logos) made flesh. “Do whatever he tells you,” she says to the servants. So the One the Nicene Creed calls “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,” obeys his Mama. Six stone water jars — each 20 to 30 gallons — are filled “to the brim,” and in a twinkling, water turns to wine, but not the kind you get at the convenience store.
The caterer, unaware of the source, takes one small sip, and exclaims: “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.” (John 2:10, NRSV) “You’ve saved the best until last,” he says, moving unwittingly from spirits to spirituality, articulating the gospel without knowing it. Cana is vintage Jesus all the way.
Mother Mary seems to know, perhaps before Jesus does, that sometimes where grace is concerned you have to improvise. To live by grace does not mean failure to prepare, study or struggle; we just can’t prepare enough. All the bylaws and committee meetings, all the dogmas and justice we pursue, can never insure that we won’t sometimes have to ad lib the gospel. Life and faith thrusts us into situations we couldn’t fully anticipate, even if we knew in advance they would occur.
They will come, those moments, in some dark night or early morning, when we’re all alone, in unexpected circumstances of danger or despair, and neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton, Bill O’Reilly nor Rachel Madow, Franklin Graham nor Aretha Franklin can tell us what to do. By sola fide we improvise the most love and care we can muster, hoping God really is present, and there really is grace.
The text labels Cana the “first sign” that Jesus was the messiah! Was it also the first time he learned to improvise? Once he did, he couldn’t seem to stop. Indeed, the gospel stories illustrate Jesus’ amazing capacity for improvising grace; and cause trouble doing it. A blind man begs for sight, so Jesus makes a paste of dust, spit and grace, and healing occurs. But it happened on the Sabbath so the religious crowd challenged the possibility that grace could come outside prescribed ecclesiastical regulations. Extemporaneous grace sometimes seems a bit irreligious.
And, says Jesus, God even improvises from time to time, like when the king gives a big banquet and the proper guests don’t show. So he substitutes another, more available, crowd: people with tobacco stains on their fingers and Jack Daniels on their breaths, kids in wheelchairs, folks with no health insurance, and ex‑cons with crosses tattooed all over. “Come on in,” he says, “there’s all this food and all this grace, and I’ll not let it go to waste.”
To improvise grace is to take a chance, risking everything on faith. For it may not be grace at all, or the wrong kind of grace in the wrong kind of place. You gamble, with only moments to spare, that something will be right, and it won’t hurt more than it helps.
Does that mean the gospel is absolutely relative? No, it means life, even Christian life, is absolutely unpredictable. And the wisdom to know when to stand on unshakable convictions and when to grab for all the ambiguity you can get is what Holy Spirit is about. It is also to know moments of abject terror, for even with our best efforts, transformation seems a long way away.
NPR once broadcast a story about French wine makers adjusting to climate changes with weather that becomes wetter and warmer every year. One vintner commented that since each year’s grapes carry their own identity, the resulting wine never tastes the same, adding, “Every vintage I taste brings memory” — of the weather, the unique quality of the grapes, and “the fights we had while we were growing them.” I often recall those words, especially at Holy Communion (and church business meetings).
In this 500th year of the Protestant Reformation, we’d do well to retain the memory of earlier gospel vintages, when the wine of sola fide was new and heady, and when we had to drink it to the dregs. Like our spiritual forebears, we’d better learn to improvise in a church, nation and planet terribly divided over politics and pollution, faith and doubt. But whatever our sober condition, we can remember days when water turned to wine, when the Spirit fell like fire; days when the church seemed drunk with the divine explosion (and longs for yet). Whether marching to Zion or Washington, D.C., we can cling to the God who saves the best until last, and who saves even the last one best.