Anecdotes can be illuminating as well as entertaining or moving. Sometimes an incident becomes the stuff of family or community legend, and is embroidered in the telling. Even so, it can shed light on the people involved. And, by engaging listeners’ imagination and connecting with their experience, it can sometimes encourage them to look afresh at what is around them.
An unusual wedding party
Asian weddings can be big occasions, especially in cultures which emphasise the value of marriage and fertility. Many years ago, a young couple, their families and friends gathered for a wedding feast, where there was much merriment.
“Eat, O friends, and drink; drink your fill, O lovers,” ran a popular love-song of the time. In the event, the wine flowed rather too freely, and ran out when the party was still in full swing – a social disaster.
Though the status of women was not high in that society, it was to a widow, wise and sometimes outspoken, that those in charge of the feast turned. She in turn called her son, who with his friends was also among the guests. Unusually for that time, he was unmarried.
He was at first reluctant to act. But he gave way to his mother’s insistence, and told those serving to fill some water-jars. When the master of ceremonies tasted what was inside, he told the bridegroom, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now."
Some readers will recognise this as the story of the wedding at Cana, in John 2 (and the love-song as the Song of Solomon). This Gospel is often regarded as largely a theological reflection on Jesus’ life and work, which is true, but to me it is also rich in fascinating incidents and characters. Sometimes these involved food or drink, such as his encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well (John 4), in which refreshment was offered and barriers overcome.
John’s Gospel (like the others) goes on to tell of many occasions when he brought freedom and healing to those in need, heralding a time of abundance though he himself apparently remained poor and celibate. He also encountered different kinds of families; John 12 describes how he dined in an unusual household made up of two sisters and a brother, whom he loved and whose lives he had transformed when tragedy struck. But he antagonised the powerful and self-righteous, who set out to destroy him.
The following chapter narrates how, shortly before he was arrested and sentenced to death, he had supper with his disciples. There he washed and dried their feet, taking on the role of a servant or wife, showing up the hollowness of the status-seeking and competitiveness that so often affects human relationships.
He urged them too to wash one another’s feet, and told them, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
As he hung dying on the cross, and his mother and the disciple whom he loved in a special way stood by, according to John 19, he told her that they would now be mother and son to each other, and this disciple took her into his home. The next chapter recounts how he was the first of Jesus’ friends to see the empty tomb.
A partnership through the years
Centuries later, in a different part of Asia, another young couple got married. They were from different ethnic groups and there were some misgivings among their relatives, but they were idealistic and in love, and the wedding went ahead. The couple and their friends and families celebrated, and this time the refreshments did not (as far as I know) run out.
O Thou Who gavest power to love
That we might fix our hearts on Thee,
Preparing us for joys above
By that which here on earth we see
sang those at the wedding, and:
Grant them the joy which brightens earthly sorrow;
Grant them the peace which calms all earthly strife,
And to life’s day the glorious unknown morrow
That dawns upon eternal love and life.
They went on to have children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren – though one of their daughters was noticeably different from an early age, and ended up partnered with another young woman. They too pledged their commitment to each other, surrounded by family and friends.
This Asian couple’s marriage was fruitful in other ways too: the husband and wife supported one another in being inspiring teachers, generous neighbours and passionate campaigners for justice. At times they faced hardship, danger and loss, but got through this together.
Many years later, the fresh-faced bride was wrinkled, frail, unsteady, and increasingly forgetful and confused. The dashing groom was now grey-haired and weary, though still devoted to his wife. They moved in with their lesbian daughter and her partner, of whom they were deeply fond and who in turn loved them as parents; and this made it possible to cope with domestic tasks and meet care needs.
Another daughter sometimes travelled long distances to help, other family members visited when they could, and care assistants too gave and received kindnesses from the couple. Though they struggled with health problems, in that home there was also music and laughter, the sharing of food, drink and tenderness.
No special guest dropped by to turn water into wine. But perhaps, in the love those in that household had for one another, despite their human weaknesses and failings, they sometimes encountered the Love at the heart of the universe. If one or another occasionally felt so heavily laden that they could barely carry on, from somewhere they found refreshment and renewal.
At last the husband became seriously ill and died, to the deep sorrow of his wife. Though by this time her condition was poor and she needed a great deal of support, she remained in her home, where she regularly received communion.
Finally, surrounded by her children, she died peacefully in the room the couple had shared. A thanksgiving service for their lives was held in a place of worship with a beautiful picture of the wedding at Cana.
Beyond rivalry: love and family life
Through the centuries, at certain times and in some churches, celibacy has been exalted and marriage treated as second best, while at other times the reverse has been the case. Even now, in some circles, this rivalry continues.
However many people have come to recognise that different people have different callings, and that married people and celibates both make an important contribution to the wider ‘family’ of the church, and indeed humankind.
Perhaps Christians have a tendency to get trapped in sibling rivalry, convinced that, unless God disapproves of those with a different identity or way of life from their own, they themselves cannot feel secure in God’s acceptance. The latest version of this is the claim by certain church leaders that too welcoming a stance towards same-sex partnerships involving the minority of the population that are lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans (LGBT) somehow devalue or threaten heterosexual marriage.
Yet the God portrayed in John’s and other Gospels, who shared the joys and sorrows of human life and continues to offer refreshment and healing, is not like those parents who stir up rivalry among their children. God’s love and goodness are abundant: nobody need fear that it will run out unless certain social groups are shouldered aside.
The psalmist wrote:
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
The children of humankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life (Psalm 36.7-8)
You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills;
they give drink to every beast of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst (Psalm 104.10-11)
The Jesus whom Christians worship extends an invitation to all: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink” (John 7.37). No-one need fear that, if others drink deeply, they themselves will be left thirsty.
Men and women can become part of that abundance, organically connected with God and neighbour: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing... If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15.5, 10-12).
This is far removed from the patterns of envy and competitiveness that all too often affect human relationships, but which (with God’s help) can be overcome.
Families and communities may be made up of single people, couples and smaller sub-groups or networks, differing in sexual orientation, gender identity and many other ways. All may make a unique contribution, and grow in unique ways while drawing closer to the One whose love sustains the universe, brings abundant blessings and satisfies the deepest thirst.
(c) Savi Hensman is a well-known Christian commentator on religion, politics and society. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the care and equalities sector.