Archive for November, 2010

Hospitality: Turning Water into Wine

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

Jesus went with his mother and disciples to a wedding in Cana. Noticing the host had run out of wine, Jesus’ mother asked him to help out. Jesus answered, “I’m busy right now, Mom.” But his mother knew her son well and knew he’d help if she got things started. She gathered a few servants and told them to go to Jesus and follow his instructions.

When the servants reached Jesus, they said, “Your mother sent us to you.” Jesus looked over at his mother and smiled. He excused himself from the conversation he’d been engaged in and asked the servants to fill jars with water.

Following Jesus’ instruction, they took the water-filled jars to the chief steward. Yet, when the chief steward drank from the jars, he tasted wine. “Why did you save the best wine for last?” the steward asked the bridegroom, who had no answer.

And thus the party, and the reputation of the host, was saved.

This story, from the Gospel of John in the New Testament of the Christian Bible, is presented as the first miracle Jesus performed. According to Wikipedia, it serves as the basis for arguing that God approves of marriage and celebration (and, presumably, drinking wine). Additionally, this parable is sometimes studied because it highlights Jesus’ mother’s influence on her son. I’d like to look at this parable in a different light, however.

Isn’t it interesting that the first miracle Jesus is said to perform is one that essentially serves to preserve the reputation of the host of a wedding celebration? Instead of the first miracle being the one of the loaves and fishes or of raising Lazarus from the dead, it’s saving a party. It’s as if this is the Emily Post period in Jesus’ life.

On the other hand, if you consider the story further, beyond the fact that Jesus was ipso facto blessing the celebration, he was also supporting the art of hospitality. On its surface, hospitality is offering one’s home as a sanctuary and place of repose to a guest. In some parts of the world where the environment is severe and life-threatening, such as in the Sahara desert, deep and beautiful traditions of hospitality have developed. (One would be hard-pressed to find a more hospitable culture than the Arab culture, for example.)

If one extends the metaphor of hospitality beyond its address of physical needs (food, drink, rest), however, one can consider hospitality as a spiritual practice, too. This is corroborated by Jesus’ statement, “For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat: I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink: I was a stranger, and you took me in (Matthew 25:35).” In this statement, Jesus enjoins his followers to consider all those in need as himself and thus to attend to their needs. You can look at this as a call to perform acts of charity, but I have a feeling a deeper reading of the story is not so much how many charitable actions one takes as what is the spirit in which one takes those actions. If one cultivates a spirit of hospitality in one’s heart, then one’s actions perforce will follow.

I think it’s also significant that Jesus’ purported first miracle was domestic and celebratory. At a wedding feast, where family and friends were happily gathered, Jesus performed a miracle that kept the party going. Sometimes the kindest acts are the everyday ones that keep life moving along merrily.

Kindness and hospitality are the miracles at the heart of the story of turning water into wine. Our everyday lives offer everyday opportunities to cultivate loving kindness. As we are hospitable to others, friends and strangers alike, we too turn the water of our everyday lives into a richer spiritual practice, the “best wine” of love.