Last week, the ELCA Seminary Leaders got together in person for a few days down in San Antonio, and it was wonderful: wonderful to be in person with these amazing colleagues for the first time; wonderful to think and dream together about the ways the ELCA Seminaries can continue to support the church for the sake of the gospel in the world; wonderful to develop and deepen relationships.
I offered the opening devotion, and I shared some reflections on John 2–the first miracle at Cana. I wanted to share those reflections here, because I think they might resonate with many of us in the church at this time. I hope you find them helpful!
Do Whatever He Tells You
As a new president, I find myself thinking about these words of Mary a great deal: “Do whatever Jesus tells you to.” And I often find myself thinking, “Mary, would you please be more specific.”
The setting of this text is a wedding, seemingly far removed from the context of theological education, and yet, I feel some resonances with our current situation.
At this happy event, even in the midst of much joy and celebration, much to look forward to, there is a problem, and to those there on the ground, it feels like a big one. It is a problem of scarcity: there is not enough, we are running low, and we don’t know how to get more.
In this situation, I imagine there is a lot of whispering behind closed doors; much hand-wringing and rushing around. I imagine the first-century equivalent of brainstorming sessions to try to figure out a possible solution; and perhaps among the younger, less experienced servants, even some weeping and gnashing of teeth.
And then Mary steps into the situation, with poise and confidence, and she gives a simple, straightforward instruction to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you.”
Now, we don’t know exactly how they hear Mary’s words: Are they relieved that someone else is going to take charge? Are they in despair, thinking, “Has it really come to this: we’re putting our reputation into the hands of some no-name carpenter?” I wonder if they have even a little hope that everything is going to turn out ok.
To be honest, for me, these words ring as law in my ears. Again, as a new president who wants desperately to do what Jesus wants me to do, I have to admit that I very often have no idea exactly what that is, and I feel a lot of pressure to do something, anything, in response to this command.
And some of this is because, in my eagerness and in my ignorance, I stop reading the text right here, with those words, “Do what he tells you to.” And I make the panicky mistake of thinking that these words are the whole point of the text, when in reality, they only create the setting in which the gospel can unfold.
Because, when we read further, it seems like the most important thing that the servants can do, the thing that Jesus is asking them to do, is get out of his way. Get some water, fill some jars—and stand back.
Jesus nudges the servants out of his way, and makes space for himself to do what God has been doing since before time: creating a new thing, making something out of nothing, bringing good things out of a bad situation, and surprising everyone with the unexpected—more than anyone could have hoped or wished for. And in the end, superior wine flows, and the day is saved.
So, when I allow myself to read this text all the way through, and not just stop at the part where all the responsibility is on my shoulders, and the salvation of the situation is up to me, I am reminded of several things that continue to bring me hope.
God is always present and among us, even when we are rushing around and not paying attention.
If there is transformation to be had, God is the one who is going to do it. And that is a very good thing, because if it would have been up to the servants, things would have turned out very differently. Because the servants were busy just trying to find more of what they had before, more of the same: they were solving problems. But when Jesus gets involved, he is working miracles, looking to the future; and in Christ something new and better emerges, something different from what was before.
So, yes, it may be true that we are called to follow Mary’s admonition and “Do what he tells us.” Yet, this text reminds us that in doing so, we get to participate in the transformation that Christ is working. And in doing so, we are cracked open and invited to experience how often Christ works in ways that we are not expecting.
Our “doing” is not the gospel in this text—it never is. But there is gospel to be had, where it always is, in Christ.