When "We're Number One" sounds hollow, and when Jesus present another model of understanding what "exceptional" really looks like.
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you." Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, "Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward." So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now." Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.This passage is from a section of John's Gospel commonly called the "Book of Signs" which sets a series of markers around actions that Jesus takes which offer an outward sign of the majesty at work within him in his expression of being the incarnate Son, the logos brought into the world and made flesh. The word "signs" are also interpreted to mean "miracles" and indicate the profound and reality-altering nature of the things done that tell us, the witnesses to the accounts of the Gospels, just how exceptional this Jesus really is.
The thing is, I don't think testimony to the effect that Jesus is exceptional is any particular favor to us in our culture as we experience it in a 21st century, "American" society that is driven by consumption (and thus leads people to be judged by output) and determines success as a quotient of just how much we are able to materially manifest in this life, in our work and in our relationships. Jesus' exceptional nature, his unique presence in our midst and the events that surround that uniqueness are ones that offer examples of God's bountiful love for us. That love can light us up for the sheer abundance of grace poured out onto and before us, and for the beauty of a world in which what perceived winds up challenging us to expand our expectations of God, and this of ourselves as God's witnesses in the world.
Sadly, that same example of miraculous abundance when God is active as Jesus in our midst also sees us succumbing to temptation. We get so caught up in the ideal that miracles SHOULD mean excellence, blessings and plenty that we wind up often missing the point. We expect SUCCESS to be the full fruits of God's love for us over and against the deeper truth that if we are to have Jesus in our midst we have to be ready to abandon expectation and be ready for ANYTHING to happen that will deepen our call (and our abilities) to serve the world (particularly the POOR) in the name of Jesus.
Those who follow Jesus struggle continually with something that curses our current state of being as a society. We are continually tempted to see a miraculous life as one of expected exceptionalism. We KNOW we are "number one," even when we are not able to support that expectation with evidence that is unbiased and tested for veracity. Being in Christ is not to be "the best" over and against anyone. Jesus himself testifies continually that if anyone wishes to be a follower they must first reject those metrics of driven success in favor of a life lived more fully in a sacrificial and servant-minded manner. We find true "success and exceptionalism" in humility and generosity.
I have been a member of this society, and a citizen of this nation for nearly half a century. I have seen my country and society distinguish itself in the community of nations as a people who innovate and form new and revolutionary approaches to the ills that plague humanity and its biosphere. I have seen people walk on the moon. I have seen art and technology, communication and connection leap light years in evolution....from dial-up phones clicking signals over copper wires to wireless connectivity made affordable to the most remote peoples on the globe. I have witnessed amazing medical advances that mean people I would have buried just ten years ago "after a short illness" will now live long, productive lives.
All of that, when coupled with our society's sense of primacy over and against other peoples and nations, has fostered a mindset that "we're number one." What has become to matter, even as our place as leader among nations has slipped, is that we KNOW we are better than others. We carry the pride and self-importance and forget why that was once true. We like to think we know better than the other guy. We KNOW we know better than the other guy....and as competence slips when we indulge too much in complacency, we become increasingly (and frighteningly) strident that our need to dominate will somehow mean safety and the assurance of being in control.
Those are illusions.
When Jesus turns water into wine, he asks that the water he ordered poured into the ablution vessels be taken to the chief steward. It is then that servants charged by Jesus realize that the water had become wine. Actually, it had become fine wine. The bridegroom is then confronted with this compliment: "Most people at a feast serve the good wine, and then that of poorer quality after people are drunk. You have saved the good wine for last." Think about it....the human practice and the God response. We put the good stuff out first, and then sneak the less-than-adequate in after people are inebriated with the best. God brings the best wine out of what was water.
When we set aside pride, vainglory, the anxiety to be "the best" up front....when we do that and then let God in to be active through us, then true grace abounds around us. Think about it.....the same culture that sees professional athletes, artists and leaders often show the worst side of what success and privilege can engender also, from time to time, see folks in those lines of witness who rise to great heights but who are chiefly remembered for their humility and their "love of the game."
Water into wine is not about learning to live a "gospel of success." It is instead an invitation offered by Jesus to see life in Christ as one in which we let God turn us from water into fine wine, given to the world at the late hour of the feast. Once given, we then get the opportunity to release ourselves into the simple work of loving God with out whole being while loving our neighbor with the same abandon.
That is what "success" in Jesus' company really looks like. Time to reframe our expectations, yes?