Sometimes the story is within the story. For instance, the Miracle at the Wedding in Cana often becomes the locus for a debate about alcohol, at least in my tribe, or the elusive Jesus, a reference to Jesus’ self-disclosure as, “not yet my time.” If not those then it simply represents the first miracle that vindicates, or at least substantiates, John’s witness to Jesus. Shane Hipps drew my attention to a detail overlooked when any of these options become the focus.
What containers did Jesus ask to be filled with water before it became wine? They were not wine pots. Jesus noticed the water containers used for ritual purification. After taking the reader through the distinctions and ways in which the mixing of water and wine in these containers made both unclean he writes,
Jesus went out of his way to needlessly mix two things that should have remained separate. His miracle actually violated a fundamental boundary and challenged a belief system. By turning the water in the purity jars into wine he contaminated both according to religious boundaries. What makes this miracle so astounding isn’t just the change in chemical composition from one liquid into another, but the flagrant disregard for religious boundaries. (Selling Water by the River,p.36)
Often we miss the polyphonic of a given story for our monotone renderings. Or, sometimes the improvements to a parcel of land obscure the value of the soil.
Recently I attended an event at which I was surely in the minority. Many in my tribe consider any affiliation with said group to have traversed a boundary at great peril. I intentionally write with ambiguity for some would stop reading at this point only to be dismissive. Leading up to the event some participants wondered who from their denominational affiliation would be in attendance. After some time, I risked the same question. “Dare I ask if there will be any Baptists, even Southern Baptists in attendance?” No one took the occasion to bash Baptists and offer scorn to Southern Baptists. Instead, one by one many noted their own Baptist heritage, even if they had moved on to Canterbury, Geneva, or Alder’s Gate. They would feel no peril with someone from my tribe in attendance.
Some with whom I gathered had been friends more than ten years. Others who came for the occasion were new to me and I to them. Mingling in various settings left me always noticing someone whom I had never met. I am sure they had much to offer in friendship, learning, and fellowship.
The most glaring new face was the one in my car, John. I am sure John had no deep interest in the subject of the event, the future of Christianity through the eyes of a long-time observer of things Christian, both personal and professional. He likely had no frame of reference for the discussed subject matter and the context of those leading. No. John was interested in the two fellows who also rode in my car. Lost on John were the subtleties of the event. He did not care how he would be perceived should word get out he was with those people.
John uses a different vocabulary than those presenting. He is a pharmacist. Context is important and often when recognized opens up possibilities not considered when our world is only made up of those like ourselves.
Amidst all of my takeaways – in agreement or disagreement – John looms as the story within the story of this event.
More than ten years ago John led a small group at a local church in another town here in Oklahoma. The two young traveling companions were in one of John’s groups. When the idea of a road trip came up, one of the young men invited John to go. Honor. Respect. Investment.
I do not know the entire story, but I do know that from the way these two young men interacted with John, their lives would be considerably different had he not invested in them. On the last evening as John and me walked back to the hotel room, I said to John, “Those are some fine young men. And, I am certain you had much to do with that.” John deferred to their tenacity, their will to fight through any adolescent obstacles. He expressed his sentiment humbly, and not the false sort either. John is rightly proud of these young men, even if he is at a much different place in their lives than before.
Today John is still mentor. He is also learner. The relationship I observed is a case study in mentoring and reverse mentoring. John needs to see the hope these two young men posses despite circumstances that could rightly leave them jaded. One day this may be the very draw that leaves John knowing these two are now investing in him as a way to say, “Thank you.”
The closing session of the event we attended came with a call to transmission. Keeping the life and love of Jesus alive for generations to come prompted metaphors and images pointing a possible way forward. Generally, this group is considered destructive to any hope-filled transmission of the faith. Not so. Theirs is a hope that comes amidst an every-changing world and the limber nature of the Good News to avoid being stilted and controlled in another place and time. In Hipps’ words, that which does not bend, breaks.
My friends, who garner disdain and vitriol, point toward not a breaking faith but a bending Jesus, even a condescending Jesus. Theirs is a faith in God in whose vocabulary Jesus is both the primal word and final explication of love. But, they also believe the age of the Spirit creates faithful expressions of that love in the material lives of those given to Jesus’ way in every era, new.
Our penchant for boundaries that make of other people problems rather than possibilities shows up in the Gospels. Interestingly, Jesus seems always on the side of breaking those boundaries rather than sustaining them. Thank you John for doing more than teaching. Friends, thank you for the embrace rather than the exclusion. My life in Jesus is richer for it.