Text: John 21-11
How many of you believe in the miracles of everyday life? The rising of the sun; The serendipity of everyday life; The birth of a child; The simple act of breathing in and out; The setting of the sun. Now, how many of you believe in miracles that are considered supernatural acts? Things like: coming back from the dead; unexplained or unexpected healing; escaping a life-threatening situation; or people who report seeing visions of the future. And a last question: How many of you feel as though you have witnessed or experienced a miracle? Albert Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
The Bible is full of tales of amazing miracles — both the Hebrew and the New Testament scriptures have them. Many people today are familiar with these miracle stories of the Bible, whether they have had a religious upbringing or not: the parting of a sea; a burning bush not consumed by the fire; a talking donkey (remember the story of Balaam and his talking donkey in Numbers 22); the feeding of thousands of people with two fish and five loaves of bread; water turned into wine; and most frequently in the New Testament, healings, even of blindness, leprosy, and the reversal of death. The people of the Bible seemed to be quite familiar with the miraculous.
Yet it is not just people in the first century and the characters of the Bible who have believed in miracles. Various polls peg U.S. belief in miracles at roughly 80 percent. One survey suggested that 73 percent of U.S. physicians believe in miracles, and 55 percent claim to have personally witnessed treatment results they consider miraculous. Even more striking than the number of people who believe in miracles is the number who claim to have witnessed or experienced them. A 2006 Pew Forum survey studied charismatic and Pentecostal Christians in 10 countries. From these 10 countries alone, the number of charismatic Christians who claim to have witnessed or experienced divine healing that they consider miraculous comes out to roughly 200 million people. This estimate was not, however, the most surprising finding of the survey. The same survey showed that more than one-third of Christians in these same countries who do not claim to be charismatic or Pentecostal also report witnessing or experiencing divine healing that they consider miraculous.
Spiritual teacher and guru Deepak Chopra writes, “…there are only two symptoms of enlightenment, just two indications that a transformation is taking place within you toward a higher consciousness. The first symptom is that you stop worrying. Things don’t bother you anymore. You become light-hearted and full of joy. The second symptom is that you encounter more and more meaningful coincidences in your life – more and more synchronicities. And this,” he writes, “accelerates to the point where you actually experience the miraculous.”
We often use the word miracle in our speech when we can’t explain something with cause and effect. For example: when someone we know who has never been on time in her life suddenly shows up on time, we say, “It’s a miracle.” Or when we receive a reply email from someone who is notorious for not returning emails, we think, “It is a miracle.” Or on a more serious note: when someone narrowly avoids a car accident, we say it was a miracle. Or like the time Nora reported to Vickie while playing at the park that she had petted a snake and that the snake licked her. When Vickie asked Nora to show her the snake she petted, Nora led her to the edge of the path where a young copperhead was sunning on a large rock. And I remember saying then, “It’s a miracle.” There was no good explanation why that snake didn’t bite Nora, especially if she was telling the truth and it licked her. You get my point. We often use the word miracle in a pedestrian sense — for a wide range of things that happen in our everyday lives, some serious and some not so serious.
I would imagine that for most of us, belief in miracles — at least, the kind of miracles in our text this morning — is at best skeptical in our thinking and at worst, non-existent. And there is a good reason for our skepticism. There seems to be a randomness to how and when miracles happen. They happen for some and not others. One person’s cancer is miraculously cured while another’s is not. Jesus is in Cana working a beverage miracle, while in Newtown, Connecticut children are being shot to death in their kindergarten classroom. And some would ask us, “Why is it so hard to believe in miracles or even speak of them?” For some of us, believing in miracles goes against our understanding of “the good of the whole” and our understanding of a God who loves us all equally. If a miracle is defined as an event attributed to divine intervention, then is it not fair to ask, “How can a benevolent God pick and choose when to intervene and when to not? It is an honest question and a struggle of faith. And there is no good answer to it.
The story of the wedding at Cana of Galilee invites us to rethink miracles and their purpose in our lives as people of faith. The central act in the story of the wedding at Cana is the miraculous transformation of water into wine. As contemporary readers of this story, living in a rational, scientifically-oriented age, we tend to find this miracle puzzling at best and empty of meaning at worst. As progressive Christians, enlightened people, we are tempted to talk around the miracle by focusing on other aspects of the text (like how Jesus spoke to his mother) or to explain away the miracle by focusing on the differences between the biblical worldview and the modern worldview, as many commentators I read did. It is difficult, as experienced by the lectionary group this week, not to diminish the extraordinariness of this miracle. And yet, we are being called as readers of the biblical text today, to struggle with what this miracle means and what it says about our faith and about who God is in the person of Jesus.
The contrast between the responses of the steward and the disciples may offer us the best insight into how we might best rethink miracles. You may recall from the story how perplexed the steward is by the sudden appearance of wine of such quality and quantity — 180 gallons to be exact. He summons the bridegroom, the host of the party, because he assumes that the wine can be explained by conventional reasoning. He attributes the wine to the unprecedented hospitality of this man, but he quickly learns that the miracle cannot be explained by an irregularity in etiquette. Rational explanations miss the mark. Jesus’ disciples, by contrast, see in the miraculous abundance of good wine a sign of God’s presence among them. They recognize the revelation of God in the prodigious flow of wine — a sign of blessing in scripture; and they recognize Jesus as the one who brought God to them. The miracle of the wine at the wedding in Cana challenges the boundaries of their conventional world, and the disciples are willing to entertain the possibility that this boundary marks the inbreaking of God. The steward tried to reshape the miracle to fit his way of thinking, while the disciples allowed the miracle to reshape their thinking of thinking. It’s not unlike how we try to make God in our image instead of seeing ourselves as being created in the image of God. For sure, it is not an easy task to orient our minds to God’s ways rather than orienting God’s ways to our boundaries and limits. But this is what the story is asking of us. Do we really want to simply keep shaping the miracles in our lives to fit our understanding and our need to control and thus keep missing them? Or might we consider opening ourselves to the possibility of allowing the miracle to shape us? Someone once said, “A miracle is often the willingness to see the common in an uncommon way.”
The miracle in John 2:1-11 is a miracle of abundance, of extravagance, of transformation and new possibilities. The grace the miracle offers is outside conventional expectations. Our task is not to put this miracle in a framework in which it “makes sense,” but rather to free ourselves to receive the extraordinary gifts this miracle offers. The story of Jesus turning water into wine invites us to see what the disciples see, that in the abundance and graciousness of Jesus’ gift, we catch a glimpse of the identity and character of an extravagant God.
I imagine that I will continue to struggle with the question of whether miracles are real or not. After all, sickness and injustice remain in the world. But it is worth remembering that even in the gospels, miracles did not replace the realm of God that Jesus announced. Rather, they were signs of hope and promise, pointing those who dared to see them and believe in them toward a new reality. Albert Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” I wonder what would we have to be willing to let go of in order to stop reshaping miracles into our ways of thinking, and instead, to be reshaped by the miracles around us?