Ali had texted me, asking me to stop on the way home and pick up a package of necessaries.
So naturally, I did what any mature, poised, self-confident man would do. I texted back: “Sure honey, no problem at all. Need anything else while I’m there?”
And then I drove to the grocery store, driving past the little Soviet Safeway just down the street, driving an extra 4 miles and through 1 cellphone dead zone and 2 red lights, in order to get to the BIG SAFEWAY at Belle View because the BIG SAFEWAY HAS SELF-CHECKOUT.
What am I, an idiot? I’m not going to risk some checkout clerk announcing into that little microphone “We need a price check…..” I’ve seen Mr. Mom. No thank you. the self-checkout was designed for the expressed purpose to spare husbands like me exactly that sort of shame.
Is it any coincidence that the increase in protected, safe-sex among young people coincides with the creation of self-checkout by Howard Schneider in 1992 for Price Chopper Supermarket in NYC?
You think Magic Johnson made a difference in the fight against AIDS?
He’s got nothing on Howard Schneider whose invention gifted the world with a less awkward way to buy prophylactics.
So there I was at the BIG SAFEWAY, standing in the self-checkout queue, like a dutiful knight securing his queen what she requires, the feminine hygiene products discreetly hidden in my basket underneath a 6-pack, the latest issue of Garden and Gun, and a bag of potato chips.
Sure enough, as if to prove my hypothesis about Howard Schneider and the purpose of the self-checkout, I watched as the guy at the front of the line scanned and beeped from his basket the following items:
1 jar of kosher pickles
1 bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos
2 boxes of “Protection” and
1 package of Vermont Maple Syrup-Flavored Breakfast Sausages.
“If you can do that after eating that more power to you,” I said, not as quietly as I’d intended judging from the look he shot me.
As he did, the cart behind me hit me in the ankles for the third time. The cart belonged to that lady who dresses as Martha Washington at Mt. Vernon.
I know it was her because she was dressed like Martha Washington, her hoop skirt that would make Sir. Mix-A-Lot salivate knocking into the candy bar rack.
I turned around and glared at her again and then looked down into her cart. She had berries and sugar and flour and butter. She’s making a pie, I thought to myself, of course she’s making a pie.
What else would Martha Washington being doing besides white-washing indentured genocide?
Baking a pie- how wholesome is that?
And then I noticed that underneath the berries and the flour and the sugar and the butter, Martha Washington was also buying a copy of the National Enquirer. And, Star Magazine.
Martha caught me looking into her cart, like a Peeping Tom.
“It’s bad manners to be nosy.”
“Lady, people who live in glass houses with slaves shouldn’t throw stones.”
The guy in front me had started to scan and beep the items from his basket. He was wearing khakis and a distressed blue blazer. Standing out against his ruddy complexion was a neatly trimmed white beard.
Sunglasses were perched on top of his curved orange Orvis cap, and his feet inside his boat shoes were bare.
Basically he looked like someone who stills shells out money for Jimmy Buffet concerts.
He had a sticker stuck to the end of his finger.
It caught my eye, and I watched him. He pulled a package of steaks out of his basket, stuck the sticker on it over the one that was already on it, and scanned the steaks, a package of 4.
$4 and change appeared on the screen.
Next, he took out a can of off brand coffee, scanned it, and set it not in the bag but on top of the candy bars and instead from his basket he drew out a bottle of red wine and put it immediately, unscanned, into his shopping bag.
I looked over at the self-checkout clerk who appeared to have the mental acuity of R.P. McMurphy at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
He was oblivious; meanwhile, I was transfixed, staring like you do at a car accident or the Trump White House.
Next, he took out a package of shrimp, a couple of pounds it looked like, and he didn’t scan it. He set it down it on the scale instead and then he entered the code for bananas. He did like that for a number of other items too- let’s just say he bought a lot of bananas. Then he clicked “Finish and Pay.”
And, as he pulled out his wallet, he looked sideways at me and he winked: “Surf-and- Turf.”
“That’s the most affordable surf-and-turf I’ve ever seen,” I replied.
He shrugged his shoulders and gestured at the self-checkout machine: “If they’re going to make me work at their store, then I deserve to get paid, right?”
And no joke, my first reaction, my immediate reaction (I’m not proud; I’m a sinner) was: “Huh, that’s a good point.”
This happened several months ago. I’d forgotten all about it until I read an article entitled “The Banana Trick: And Other Dark Arts of Self-Checkout Theft.” Apparently using the code for bananas or a bunch of grapes and then socking a more expensive item of similar weight into your shopping bag- apparently that’s a thing, people.
Apparently that’s such a thing, so common a thing, the entire supermarket industry has a name for it: The Banana Trick.
The industry has other names for other ways customers con the self-checkout. There’s the “Pass-Around,” the “Switcheroo,” and the “Illy” (named for the expensive brand of expresso…basically a version of the Banana Trick).
According to the article: “Beneath the bland veneer of your friendly neighborhood supermarket lurks something dark and ugly.”
The industry estimate is that over 20% of all self-checkout customers shop-lift. Steal.
Actually, the supermarket industry prefers to call it “External Shrinkage,” which sounds like what happens to me after I go swimming in a chilly pool but never mind.
20% steal. 1/5 of you all.
And of those 20% over 50% do so because it’s unlikely they’ll get caught.
What’s revealing is that most of these people aren’t thieves (ordinarily) nor are they so much thrill seekers. They’re just ordinary people like you. Says Barbara Staib, the Director of Communications at the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, most self-checkout shoplifters:
“are in fact law-abiding citizens. They would chase behind you to return the $20 bill you dropped, because you’re a person and you would miss that $20. A robot-cashier, though, changes the equation. It gives the false impression of anonymity.”
In other words, the anonymity afforded by the self-checkout reveals our true selves. Without the threat of consequence (or the promise of reward- being thanked for returning that $20) even the best of us do not reliably obey the law.
For this very reason, police departments, such as the Dallas Police Department, now refuse to respond to self-checkout shoplifting calls.
“Of course people steal when they think no one is watching,” one cop commented.
“The Law,” the cop said- pay attention now, “doesn’t change us. The Law can’t change our human nature. The Law can keep us from doing bad, but it doesn’t make us good.”
And that brings me to my first point. See, you were starting to worry I didn’t have any point. I’ve actually got 3.
What the cop says in that article is what John wants you to see in this sign at Cana: that the Law cannot change us. This wedding shows us what the Apostle Paul tells us about distinguishing between the Law and the Gospel. Jesus in John’s Gospel doesn’t do miracles. Jesus in John’s Gospel performs signs- only 7 of them.
Each of these 7 signs serves to foreshadow what Jesus will do fully in what John calls Christ’s “hour of glory.”
And in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ hour of glory is paradoxically his humiliation, hanging naked and accursed on the cross.
This is why John decorates this first sign, the wedding at Cana, with so many on-the-nose allusions to the cross and resurrection:
- Jesus and the disciples arrive to the wedding party on the third day just like Mary Magdalene will arrive at the empty grave on the third day.
- When Marry worries: “They have no wine” Jesus responds “My hour has not yet come,” which basically means: It’s not time for me to die.
- Jesus calls his Mother “Woman” just like he will- the only other time he will- from the cross: “Woman, behold your Son.”
- Even the abundance of wine: Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and the Psalms- all of them prophesy that the arrival of God’s salvation will be occasioned by an abundance of the best wine.
All 7 signs in John’s Gospel, then, point to the Gospel, to what God does in Christ through the cross, and this first sign is intended for you to see how the Gospel Christ brings is distinct from the Law.
Right before the wedding at Cana, John tells you- he telegraphs it- “The Law indeed was given through Moses, but Grace and Truth came through Jesus Christ.”
And then immediately after this wedding at Cana, Jesus cleanses the Temple in Jerusalem, hollering to all who can hear that his crucified body will be the New Temple. In other words, the truth that was thought to reside in the Temple has arrived in Christ, and the wedding which comes before his Temple tantrum shows how grace has come in Christ. And grace, the Gospel, is not the Law.
That’s why John gives you this seemingly random detail about the 6 stone water jars.
There amidst the wedding finery and the china and everyone dressed to the nines and filled with dreams of happily ever afters, the water jars are a reminder of the “dark and ugly truth” about us.
According to the Law, the water in the stone jars was used for washing away sin. The jars were made of stone not clay because clay is porous and the water would get dirty in clay jars and the whole purpose of these jars is to remove impurity. As the wedding guests would arrive, the servants would cleanse the guests’ hands with the water from the stone jars; so that, the wedding festival would not be sullied by sin or shame.
The water in the stone jars was for the washing away of sin and shame, but it didn’t work.
And you know it didn’t work because John tells you there were 6 stone jars, and 6 (being 1 less than 7) is the Jewish number for imperfection.
On top of that little detail, John tells you that the wine at the wedding feast has run out, and, in an honor-based culture like first century Judaism, running out of wine was more than a party foul. It brought great shame upon the bridegroom and his family.
So what John shows you with these six stone jars and this one family in shame is that the Law (commandment-keeping, the rituals of religion) is powerless to produce what it prescribes.
The Law might give you clean hands.
The Law might compel you to charity.
The Law might keep you from stealing.
But the Law cannot free you from sin and shame nor can it make your heart glad.
And the problem, St. Paul says, isn’t with the Law. The Law, Paul says, is holy, righteous, and good. Love thy enemies, do not steal, forgive those who trespass against you. Those are holy and good commands. The problem isn’t the Law. It’s us. The dark and ugly truth about us, our sin, is deeper than where water can wash it away.
What John shows you here is what the New Testament Book of Hebrews tells you: that all our religion and rituals, all the ways we try to be all we can be for God, “can never make perfect those who practice them, and, as such, they only remind you of your sin.”
Just as Jesus announces in the second half of chapter 2 that he fulfills and replaces the Temple, here in the first half of chapter 2 he signals that he fulfills and replaces the Torah, the Law.
He answers his Mother’s urging by telling the servants to take these stone jars, symbols of the Law, and then, the One who a few chapters later will call himself Living Water, he tells them to fill the jars with it.
To fill them to overflowing.
In other words:
Jesus fills and fulfills all the commands and demands of the Law by his own perfect faith and life.
When they draw out the wine that had been water, it’s no 3 buck chuck. It’s top shelf and it’s already aged. And there’s an abundance of it. I did the math. At a minimum, it’s 2160 glasses of wine- that’s more ridiculously extravagant than a Scott Pruitt pool party.
See what John wants you to see in this sign:
Out of these stone jars
Out of the means by which we attempt to cleanse ourselves of sin and make ourselves right and good and acceptable before God
Out of the Law is drawn the Gospel: the wine of salvation.
Wine, which Jesus says in an Upper Room, is his blood poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
He transforms what we do for God into a sign of what God does for us.
This sign shows what that cop says.
The Law doesn’t change us because the Law cannot take away our sins. Only the Lamb of God can take away our sins, as John the Baptist declares at the very beginning of John’s Gospel.
You’d never know it from the prodigal way he doles out salvation that Jesus is about the only person NOT drunk at this party.
And that’s my second point-
Just as Jesus distinguishes the Gospel from the Law, so too his grace, his gift of salvation, is not karma.
Grace is not karma.
According to the Mishna, Jewish weddings in Jesus’ day lasted 7 days. And under the Law, it was the obligation of the bridegroom and his family to provide a week-long feast for the wedding guests.
This wedding is only on day 3. They’ve got 4 more days to go. Unless Steve Larkin was at the party, there’s no reason they should’ve run out of booze so soon.
The bridegroom and his family simply failed to do their duty under the Law. They deserve the shame in which they stand under the Law. They do not deserve what Christ does for them.
And notice, not only do they not deserve what Christ has done for them. They get the credit for what Christ has done. As though, they had done it themselves.
The party planner tastes the wine that had been water, John says, and he chalks it up to the bridegroom’s extravagance.
Grace is not karma.
Karma says that what you put in is what you get out. Karma says that as you give so shall you receive. Karma says that what goes around is what will come back around. Karma says that what God does for you is based on what you do for God.
Karma is how most of you try to speak Christian.
It’s karma not grace that says this horrible nightmare in my life must be happening to me for a reason.
It’s karma not grace that says God must be doing this to me- this diagnosis, this disease- because of that sin I did.
It’s karma not grace that says if I just do my part (pray, serve the poor, go to church, give to the church) then God will do his part and bless me.
Karma is not Christianity.
When all is said and done, there’s really only been 2 religions in the history of the world.
On the one hand, there’s all the religions that tell you what you must do for God and for your neighbor (or else). That’s Karma.
And on the other hand, there’s the Gospel of grace, the news of what God has done for you and your neighbor despite your failures to love him or them.
You can’t speak Christian with Karma because God doesn’t give you what you deserve. God gives you infinitely more than what you deserve. God gives you the credit Christ alone deserves. Or, as John puts it here in this sign: “The master of the feast said to the groom- not to Jesus- you have saved the best wine for last.”
And that brings me to my final point-
This gift of salvation is true for you
It’s true about you whether you appreciate it or not.
Jesus responds to Mary’s alarm that the already drunk guests have run out wine by making more wine. And he makes not Boone’s Farm but he makes the best wine for drunk people to drink.
He makes the best wine for people already too drunk to appreciate drinking it.
As the master of feast says to the groom: “Everyone brings out the best wine first and then the cheap wine after the guests have gotten drunk, but you have saved the best wine for now when they’re drunk.”
In other words, he’s saying: “It’s a waste.” Their taste buds are shot. They’ll probably just spill it all over themselves. And you can be sure they won’t even remember drinking it come morning.
His punch-drunk love is such that he sheds his wine for people too far gone to appreciate it.
If this at Cana is the first sign of his hour of glory, and if his hour of glory is when we behold him bleeding and dying on his cross, then his grace, his one-way love, his gift of salvation it’s yours.
Whether you appreciate it or not.
Whether you give him thanks and praise for it or not.
Whether you know about it or not.
Whether you change your ways because of it or not.
None of that changes what he has done: He has drunk from the cup he prayed would pass him. He has poured himself out to give you the wine of salvation.
He’s served salvation up for a world too far gone to give two rips about it.
But whether you do or whether you don’t, what he has done- it’s as real and undoable as a hangover.
All is forgiven. Salvation is served. You don’t need to come up here in an altar call for it to be true for you. And you can’t backslide your way out of it either.
The rich, young ruler who asked Jesus “What must I do to be saved?” asked him that question before his hour had come.
But the hour has long since passed.
And now, thanks to his punch drunk love, the answer to that question (“What must I do to be saved?”)…the answer is “Nothing.”
You don’t have to do anything.
Because everything has already been done.
The wine’s been served.
The party’s already started.
And the music has been raging since the first third day.
The only thing there is for you to do is what those disciples in Cana do.
Trust and believe.
According to the article, “The Banana Trick: And Other Dark Arts of Self-Checkout Theft,” the Criminology Department at the University of Leicester audited self-checkout cameras where, over a year, the transactions totaled $21 million, a million of which, they found, left the store without being scanned or paid for.
As a result, the article noted how many stores, such as Albertsons and Big Y Supermarkets, are cancelling out their self-checkout programs.
They just can’t afford the loss, the article says.
The economy of Easter, though, is different.
As Frances Spufford says, grace, the gift of God to us in Jesus Christ, is “love without cost-controls engaged.”