How Past Pain Leads Us To Empathy

At some point after his baptism in the Jordan and after he had begun calling people to follow him,  Jesus, his mom and his disciples attended a wedding.  We aren’t told who the bride and groom were—John doesn’t include the bit about when the save the date card came out, or if there was a bridal shower—we just know there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and Jesus and Mary and his disciples got an invite and showed up.  [Read the whole story here.]

Weddings are always a big deal.  A young couple fall in love, tell their respective families about it, begin making plans, and then invite a bunch of friends, neighbors, extended family and work colleagues to come celebrate with them. Having been through my own wedding, and also as one who is in the business of weddings, I can assure you that they include a lot of work and preparation.  If it’s a formal affair, crafting seating charts becomes a herculean task.  Where do you put the friend who recently broke up with that other friend? Or that couple that should sit at the table of college friends, but you only get ten seats per table, and they would push it to twelve? You consider which relatives aren’t speaking with each other.  Days can be spent looking at that diagram of the ballroom trying to make it all work.

Never mind things like the menu tastings, and the gown fittings, or choosing between carrot cake or the one with raspberry buttercream.  You think you’ve made progress when you finally choose the DJ, but then she hands you a list of over a 1000 songs asking you to select the playlist.  Of course, as a priest, when I meet with the couple I want them to spend time thinking more about their marriage and getting ready for a lifelong relationship rather than just choosing between daisies and brown-eyed Susans for the bouquets.  I remember as a groom longing for the days when Melissa and I could talk about anything else besides our wedding plans.

So imagine what it had to be like for that couple and their parents there in Cana to learn that, in spite of all their best planning, the formula they used to calculate the amount of wine needed for the reception was faulty.  The party was just getting going—the music getting good for dancing—when the alcohol had dried up.  And they couldn’t keep it quiet either.  A few people had come up to the bar asking for a refill of that pinot noir they had been enjoying, only to find out that there wasn’t any more.  When they looked at the wine selection and picked out another, they learned it was gone too.  Then the bartender, getting a bit sheepish, said, “I’m sorry, but there isn’t any wine left.”  That little piece of news likely ran quickly through the crowd like wildfire. 

And Mary, upon hearing it, had pity on the hosts so she came over to her son and asked for a word.  “They have no wine,” she told him discreetly.  Jesus replies, “Woman, what concern is that to you and me? My hour has not yet come.” With that she does what many a mom has done and ignored his reply. Jesus watched as she went over to the servants standing nearby.  “Do whatever he tells you,” she says, and then she moves aside and waits.

Why would she do this?  What was Mary thinking that drove her to come over to Jesus and essentially force his hand? 

In his book, Drops like Stars, Rob Bell writes about things that connect us with other people.  If I were to ask you to raise your hand if you’ve ever been to Disney, you would look around, and it might connect you a bit.  “Where’d you stay?” you might ask a neighbor, and then compare notes.  Or you might ask what the crowds were like when you went.  Or if you uncovered the secret for finding good food or getting the music from “It’s a Small World” out of your head.  It’s a connection, sure, but not a very meaningful one.

But, Bell writes, if I were to ask to raise your hands if you’ve been impacted by cancer in a significant way, well then the link would be much deeper.  Or if I asked for a show of hands of those who have experienced divorce, or if you have a child who battles addictions.  When you looked around to see who else’s hand went up, the bond would be greater.  When we go through difficult events—when we suffer—our connections with those who’ve faced something similar strengthen.  We understand something that others who’ve not faced that situation can’t fully comprehend.  Suffering regularly leads to empathy.

Surely Mary, attending this wedding for a young couple, recalls her own difficult situation when she was young and in love.  She experienced the amazing epiphany at the Annunciation—when Gabriel came to her to tell her God had chosen her to bear a son. But then she had trouble explaining that unexpected pregnancy to others.  Her fiancé considered quietly seeking legal procedures to put her away.  Since her pregnancy came before the marriage, I can assure you talk of their upcoming nuptials contained the words “shotgun wedding,” and people looked down on both Mary and her parents.  Surely Joseph’s family got questions too, wondering why on God’s green earth he would marry this young woman who certainly had to be a floozy.  Didn’t he know what this would do to his reputation?  The expected joy of that wedding had been tamped down considerably.  The seating assignments made significantly easier because of all the regrets sent in response to the invitation.

Mary knew firsthand what it was like to have a wedding go south.  And so when she got wind of the gossip floating around that all the wine had been consumed, she went over to her son.  “They have no wine,” she said.  He looked at her quizzically: “What is that to you or me?”  Oh, it meant a great deal to this woman who remembered.

What happens next is truly miraculous.  Jesus went over to the servants instructing them to fill up those huge empty jars with water.  When they finished, he simply tells them to take some over to the steward.  And when they do, that water has been transformed into wine.  The steward, on tasting it, is astonished.  He finds the groom himself and exclaims, “I have no idea where you’ve been keeping this wine, but it is even better to the wine you served earlier.  Usually hosts serve the best wine first because the guests won’t notice after they’ve had a few.  But you’ve done the exact opposite!”  

With 180 gallons more of that superior wine in those jars, I suspect that party when on for some time. And when people met weeks, months and even years later they likely said, “I still can’t believe how excellent the wine was at that wedding in Cana. Remember how that rumor spread that the alcohol had run out, when in reality they had secretly kept the best wine for later!  What a great celebration! It was truly amazing!”  

Mary taught Jesus a bit about empathy on that day in Cana of Galilee.  He would come to learn a lot more firsthand, of course.  He’d experience far deeper pain and hurt when he faced temptations, and rejection, and ultimately death.  As the writer of Hebrews puts it, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with us in our weaknesses, but one who in every way faced temptation and trials, yet without sin.”  But more than his empathy, he also offers us new life.

If this is just the first sign of Jesus to show forth his glory, a miracle in order to help a couple and their families save face in their community, imagine what he will do with the other ways in which we’ve faced suffering.  Those other signs in John’s gospel include feeding hungry people, restoring sight to a blind man, raising a dead man back to life.  In all of them, he transformed the suffering of someone else.  He miraculously took their pain and gave back the gift of joy.  

Yet when he did this, he didn’t wipe the memory of the suffering up until that point.  He brought healing, not amnesia.  And in this way, he allowed them to see how their experiences might now bring life and hope to another.  How empathy, when it grabs ahold of us, allows us to walk alongside a suffering neighbor offering them life when all they can see is pain.  Jesus’ miraculous signs always bring new life through transformation and healing.  They always bring resurrection.  John wants us to remember that most of all, and I suspect that is why he begins this story of the water turned into wine with those four simple words: “On the third day.” 

Photo Credit: worldchaos81 Flickr via Compfight cc.

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