Last Monday, the third Monday in January, was - supposedly - Blue Monday. It is alleged to be the most depressing day in the year. Christmas is a dim memory. The days are still very short, and the weather is often grim.
I read somewhere that Blue Monday was actually invented by travel agents, to persuade people to book their summer holidays. In a normal year that might work as a strategy. But this year isn’t a normal year. This year, there’s Covid to contend with too. Getting away from it all would be great, but we can’t, and we don’t know when we will be able to. A fortnight in the sun, or even a decent day out seem like a distant dream right now. Feeling blue – and worse than that - is quite understandable. Infection and death rates are still high. NHS and social care staff are being pushed to the limit and beyond it. Essential workers in retail and elsewhere are receiving abuse from customers fed up with restrictions. School staff are stretched and many parents home-schooling children while trying to work from home themselves are at their wits end. Our local care home, Lavender Fields, has been badly hit by this wave of Covid, despite all the care their hardworking and dedicated staff have taken. If you are listening to this – as a resident, family member or member of staff – you are much in our prayers at the moment.
Of course, the roll-out of the vaccine is good news; my heart is lifted every time a parishioner tells me they’ve had it. But the road out of this pandemic is going to be a long one. And it’s leaving many scars, physical, emotional, financial and spiritual too. Many people feel they’ve dug down deep into themselves already, and have reached the end of their own resources. They’re running on empty.
So today’s Gospel story couldn’t be more fitting.
Jesus, his mother and his disciples, have been invited to a wedding at Cana in Galilee, but they are just guests. They have no formal responsibility for it. When Mary tells Jesus that the wine is running out, he sounds quite dismissive. “That’s not our business” he says. Apparently, in Jesus’ native tongue, Aramaic, it’s not nearly as abrupt as it sounds in English. He’d just stating the obvious. Providing wine isn’t their job. In fact, wading in and trying to sort out this problem might even seem rude – an implied criticism of the hosts, drawing attention to their shortcomings.
But Mary knows her son. He won’t ignore people in trouble. It’s not in his nature. If there’s a need he can meet, he will. It’s not just about the wine; it’s about the shame the host family will suffer in the eyes of their neighbours. They’ll never live it down. And what does it say about their hopes for this marriage, their confidence in it, if there’s not enough wine to go round for a proper celebration?
“Do whatever he tells you,” Mary says to the servants, and they seem to trust her. When he tells them to fill the huge stone jars nearby with water, and draw off some to take to the steward, that’s exactly what they do. We aren’t told what they think about it, but they have to be aware that they’ll get it in the neck if they suggest to their boss that they start serving water.
But they do it anyway, and somewhere between drawing the water out of the jars and pouring it out into the steward’s cup for him to taste, they discover that it’s turned into wine. And not just any wine, but the best wine, rich wine, wine that will make glad the hearts of those who drink it, and make this party famous as the best wedding ever!
Neither the bridegroom nor the steward had a clue how this had happened. But there’s a lovely little detail in brackets in the story, which says that, “the servants who had drawn the water knew”. The ones who did the work. The ones who took the risk. The ones who trusted this strange wedding guest enough to take him at his word. They’d dared to believe that there might be more to life, more to Jesus, than met the eye, that there could be hope even when everything looked hopeless, wine where there had only been water. And as a result, a miracle happened.
Of course, it isn’t really about the wine, however handy it would be if we could all replenish our stocks from the water tap, and it’s certainly not an invitation to get blind drunk. This is a story about the joy and generosity and most of all, hope, that God offers to us, his promise that he will graciously provide what we need, even if we don’t know where it comes from – like that gift of bread and wine given to Abraham by the mysterious king Melchizedek in the Old Testament reading, who appears from nowhere with his gifts.
God is in the business of giving us what we never dared to expect and know we could never find for ourselves. But sometimes, like those at the wedding in Cana, hope, joy feel as if they are in short supply. What are we to do then? Where are we to find these gifts of God? Perhaps Mary’s words to the servants are words for us too. “Do whatever he tells you”, she says. We can’t turn water into wine. We can’t find the strength we need at times like this when life feels beyond us, but we can “do whatever he tells us” and leave the rest to him.
And what is that? What does Jesus tell us? He tells us to “love the Lord our God, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.”
First, love God, he says. What might that mean when we have run dry? At its most basic loving God means telling him what we feel and think, how it really is for us, being with him honestly. Sharing who we are is at the heart of every loving relationship, and it’s no different with God. We don’t need to pretend. We can turn to him in prayer, just as Mary does to Jesus and say “I have no wine” “I have no joy, no energy, no hope”. That’s what loving God might look like just at the moment.
Then Jesus goes on to tell us to love our neighbour, and ourselves too. How? Love for others and for ourselves isn’t usually shown in grand gestures. It’s the small things that count. Filling some jars with water and drawing it out wasn’t rocket science, but it made all the difference. The miracle wouldn’t have happened without it. Often, all it takes is everyday kindness. Kindness to those around us, and ourselves, says that they matter, that we matter, that we are all God’s children, loved by him, of worth to him, whatever is happening around us. Even if it’s just a thank you to the shop worker worn down by abusive customers, or a word of encouragement to a friend or family member, or taking some time to care for ourselves, it can open us up to God’s presence.
“Do whatever he tells you” said Mary – to the servants and to us. Last Monday may have been blue. This Monday may be just as blue. But the good news of this story is that when we’re running on empty, God isn’t. Sorrow is real, but joy is real too. Despair is real, but so is hope. When all we have is water, the wine of God’s love can richly sustain us.