Learning to Tell Time

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

You know what they say: timing is everything. Whether it’s telling a joke, making a dramatic entrance in a stage show, or popping the question, timing is everything. When the timing is right, people laugh at your joke, gasp at your entrance, or smile radiantly in response to your proposal. And when the timing is off, they are just as likely to gasp at your joke, smile at your entrance, or laugh at your proposal. Timing is everything.

Which is what makes this wedding at Cana such a scene. The timing goes all wrong. No, it’s not that the bride or groom speaks out of turn; it’s not that the presider mispronounces names or confuses the vows in a Four Weddings and a Funeral kind of way. It’s just that the wine ran out too early.

At first blush, that doesn’t sound all that surprising. After all, John tells us that it’s the third day of the wedding banquet. Three days means a lot of wine, and if it were a particularly thirsty bunch, we can very well imagine that they ran dry.

Now if it were us, we might whisper nervously to some friends and ask them to make a run to the local wine shop and pick up some more. But in this time and place running out of wine too early isn’t a little embarrassing, it’s a disaster. Wine isn’t just a social lubricant, it’s a sign of the harvest, of God’s abundance, of joy and gladness and hospitality. And so when they run short on wine they run short on blessing. Timing is everything. The wine has run out before the wedding has. And it’s a catastrophe.

To make matters worse, Jesus’ mother doesn’t seem to have much of a sense of timing either. At least that’s what Jesus seems to think. “They have no wine,” she says to her son. Now, we don’t know whether she was close to the families of the bride and groom and so eager to help, or whether she just was particularly sensitive to this kind of social faux pas. What we do know is that she expected her son to do something about it.

But Jesus seems to think this is another instance of bad timing: “Woman,” he responds, taking an oddly formal tone with his mother. “Woman, what concern is that to you or me? My hour – my time – has not yet come.”

But Mary knows better. Rather than raise an eyebrow at his tone or offer a counterpoint to his assertion, she turns to the servants and tells them simply and clearly, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now it could be that, like a good Jewish mother, Mary knew her son would come around. Protest he might, but eventually he’ll listen to his mother.

Or it could be that Mary knew how to tell time better than Jesus thought. She was, after all, the one who brought him into the world, the one who suckled him as a babe and watched him grow, the one who dried his tears as a child and followed him when he became an adult. And so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if Mary recognized that whenever her son was on the scene, it was no ordinary time.

Well, you know the rest of the story. Jesus instructs the servants to fill six large stone basins with water and to draw some of that water, now turned to wine, and take it to the steward. And once again timing is an issue. Most hosts, you see, serve the best wine up front, wanting to make a good impression, and save the cheap wine for later, when the palettes of the guests have been, shall we say, sufficiently dulled so as to not recognize the drop in quality. But this host, the steward assumes, has bucked the traditional timing and saved the best wine for last. And suddenly this couple has six huge basins – 180 gallons – of fantastic wine, more than enough for even three more days. No one, that is, could now leave this wedding thirsty, for abundance and blessing overflowed.

Timing is everything, and not just in this scene but across John’s Gospel. In fact, there are two kinds of time that animate John’s imagination. One is the kind of time with which we count and track the everyday events of our lives. It is the time that is measured in minutes and seconds, hours and days. It is the time we spend standing in lines, or clocking in at work, or waiting at the stoplight. It is mundane, ordinary time and it beats on relentlessly until that time when we close our eyes and escape it’s dull, predictable cadence.

But there is another kind of time at play, as well, a royal kind of time, where all that is predictable fades and what emerges in its place is sheer possibility. This is God’s time, and it punctures through the ordinary canvas and clock of our lives at unexpected intervals to reveal a glimpse of the divine. So when Jesus speaks of his “hour” he isn’t speaking of a time and date on his calendar, he’s talking about the time when God will reveal his glory through his cross, resurrection, and ascension, the time when God will be accessible to all, once and for all.

That time, that hour, Jesus says, has not yet come.

Or has it? Once again, pay attention to Mary, who seems to know what time it is better than we might expect. For Mary seems not only to believe that Jesus can do something about this disastrous loss of blessing, but expects him to. And the Fourth Evangelist would seem to agree. After all, it’s the third day of the wedding, John says, wanting to grab our attention. And in response, careful readers throughout history have asked, “Wait a minute? Did you just say it was the third day? As in ‘after the third day he was raised from the dead?” That’s right. Because whenever there is need and Jesus is on the scene, resurrection and abundance are right around the corner.

And knowing this makes all the difference. For every moment that we live in Jesus, testify Mary and John, has the capacity to mediate the divine. Bread and wine can bear Christ’s body and blood. An ordinary hug can convey unbounded love and blessing. The smallest donation of food or money can tip the balance between scarcity and abundance. A simple act of kindness can make all the difference in the world. And a smile, shared at just the right time, can shed light into the darkest of places.

This peculiarly timed sign, you see, revealed something about Jesus. When he is on the scene, anything is possible. Because, as John testified in the first verses of this gospel, Jesus reveals in his own person God’s grace upon grace. So when Jesus is on the scene, so also is God, accessible, adoring, available to all.

You know the saying, Working Preacher: timing is everything. But here’s the thing: do our people know how to tell time? Have we taught them? Maybe they think it’s 8:45 on a Tuesday morning and all that’s in front of them is a pile of invoices. Or maybe it’s 6:30 on a Wednesday evening and time to start the kids on homework. Or maybe it’s 7:30 Saturday morning and time, finally, to sleep in. Yeah, sure, that’s part of the story – but the other part is that God is at work in our occupations, relationships, and family life to care for and redeem all the world. The question becomes, how would we look at all the ordinary, mundane elements of our lives if we believed God was with us, working through them to care for God’s people. Because according to Mary and John, and because of Jesus, whatever time we think it may be, it is also God’s time, and when God is around all things are possible.

Blessings to you this day and week, Working Preacher. Thank you for your work and your words. It’s just the right time for them.

Yours in Christ,