The Labor Of Grace


Those Who Provide Grace Often Receive It In Abundance

by Eric Elkin

Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim.
— John 2: 7

A high school students' first summer on staff is always the most difficult. Especially when the camp they are serving is the one they grew up attending. For most young people, they see being on staff as a crowning achievement. They dream of being idolized by campers just like they adored their own counselors. As staff members, they often assume they will get special “privileges.” 

It takes about 24 hours for all of these dreams to come to a crashing halt. Adoration is not something one bestows on a person it is earned. The privileges of being on staff pale in comparison to the demands of the job. Campers never see the drama and interpersonal conflicts between staff. Those things happened behind closed doors. Campers only see a counselor's joy. 

I could share stories about these difficult transitions, but they would hit too close to home.  Too many people might think I am talking about them. The fact is young people making a tough transition from camper to staff happens every summer, in every camp.

The servant work necessary to provide a welcoming environment is one of the hardest lessons to learn. Campers are the recipients of the labor which goes into providing hospitality. Staff are the workers. They are the servants who must see themselves as providers, not recipients, of grace.

For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.
— Nelson Mandela

The “Wedding at Cana” is one of my least favorite stories in the Bible. I feel like theologians really have to look deep into the implications to find meaning. However, this morning the words, “Fill the jars with water,” caught my attention. First, Jesus did not use the magic word, “Please.” Second, I’ve never really considered the work necessary to fill the jars.

A commentary by theologian and author, Karoline Lewis, called attention to the abundance of wine produced. She noted, those jars for Jewish purification rites held 20-30 gallons of water. I did not see abundance, but labor. The servants did not hook up a hose and turn on a faucet to fill those jars. To fill those jars, they needed to carry 120 gallons of water on their shoulders. That is a lot of work!

When the steward tastes the water and discovers it is wine, he has no idea where it came from. The servants, on the other hand, did. They were the providers, not the recipients, of this grace. Jesus uses their labor to serve and provide hospitality to a thankless crowd. The recipients, as far as we are told, enjoy abundance unaware of its source and the labor required to make it happen.

There is something I read into the story myself. A concept we are not explicitly told happened. I hear joy in the servants understanding of the source of wine. They both see the power of Christ and their role in “the first of his signs.” 

I like to think the joy of the wedding guests, who enjoyed abundance, becomes the joy of the servants as well. My understanding comes from years of working with summer camp staff. Those who learn to be servants discover by providing grace, they actually become recipients of it as well.

Click to read John 2: 1-11

Reflection Questions:

  • When has a job turned out to be more work than you imagined?

  • What did you learn from the experience?

  • Where do you try to provide grace?

  • Where do you go to receive it?

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