Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Swanson, John August. Wedding Feast, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=58581 [retrieved February 8, 2022]. Original source: www.JohnAugustSwanson.com - copyright 1996 by John August Swanson.
John 2:1-11: The Wedding at Cana
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.
Filling the Jars: John 2:1-11
In the book of John, there are seven signs that show us something about Jesus. The scholar Karoline Lewis says it is best to think of signs not just as revelations of God manifesting through Jesus... seven epiphanies, if you will. In six of the stories, he commands a tremendous amount of power. In chapter four, Jesus heals a sick child. In chapter five, Jesus heals a man who had been paralyzed. In chapter six, he feeds 5,000 people and walks on water. In chapter nine, he heals a man who was born blind, and in chapter eleven, he raises a man named Lazarus from the dead. Those stories alone, where is upends the laws of physics and overpowers death, would be enough to show us that something divine was happening in Jesus.
But there’s not just six stories. There’s seven. And this sign, turning water into wine, is the first of the seven. Why start with this story about that doesn’t, at least at face value, have anything to say about life or death like the others do? I think it’s because this story, as simple and kind of funny as it is, is here to show us the ethics that undergirded all the later healings. Isn’t there another part of the Bible that says that those who can be trusted with small things can later be trusted with large things? Well, at this wedding, Jesus comes through in a low stakes way that helps us see that he can do something important when the stakes are high.
I want you to picture a wedding. It could be your wedding. It could be one you’ve seen on tv. It should be one where most things are going pretty well and people are having a good time... and probably drinking too much. And, the caterer should look stressed out. Because they are running out of wine. And, this is the kind of wedding where you had to have wine. Jesus and his mom are at the wedding. Mary is sure Jesus can help out. And, as any a mother proud of her special son would do, she insists that he fix the situation.
Jesus tries to decline his mother’s request. He says “my hour is not yet come.” But his mother has already decided he will help and has walked away from him and up to the servants. She says, “Do whatever he tells you.” Jesus realizes that he has already lost this argument and goes about doing what his mother says. The servants line up 6 jugs that each contain 30 gallons of water. That is a lot of water. These servants are the only ones who see what happens next.
Jesus tells them to draw some of the liquid out and take it the head waiter. Sometime between that moment that they draw up the water and the moment the steward tastes it, it has become wine. And, not just any wine, but very good wine. The steward just assumes that the groom had good stuff socked away and did the weirdly generous move of bringing it out after everyone was probably too drunk to appreciate it. What is interesting, beyond the fact that they now have 180 gallons of wine is that Jesus doesn’t explain why he decided to make all this wine. He explains the purpose of all of the other 6 signs after he does them. As you heard, the story simply says that this was the first of the signs and revealed his glory to his disciples and a bunch of wait staff. That’s it. That’s his first public act. Make a ton of wine at a party and only the wait staff see him do it.
A few points I’ve learned in researching this scripture. Wine is important, not just because it feels celebratory, but because it is usually safer to drink than water during this time. Scholars who know about wedding customs of this era note that to run out of wine in the middle of what is probably a multiple day wedding celebration is to run out of a basic provision of life. This is more than simply running out of drinks at a short party and sending people home. The family hosting the wedding provides food and drinks and the family and friends attending chip in with food and drinks. Someone did some bad planning or someone had a family that either couldn’t or wouldn’t help take care of the food and drink needs for all the attendees. The lack of wine could be a sign of greater issues going on. Jesus and his mom had likely already contributed food and drinks to the event. Isn’t it interesting that his mom encouraged him to give more... to be more gracious than necessary and not to just go home and grumble about the bad hosts?
Do you remember that part of Proverbs where God’s Wisdom is personified as a woman who builds a house and sets a rich feast for all to enjoy? I’ve preached on it a couple times. It’s interesting to me that the beginning of the book of John guides us to consider Jesus to be God’s Wisdom come alive, in flesh like ours, and living among us. Jesus, in helping this couple host their friends and family, becomes Wisdom who fills cups until they overflow and fills bellies until they are full. Jesus shows us that God starts with enough, more than enough, in fact. And, Jesus himself will begin his public ministry in that same spirit of abundance.
Karoline Lewis, who has a great commentary on the book of John, actually notes that abundance is part of many of the more serious signs. Fore example, in chapter 5, when Jesus heals a man, the man was just asking for help getting into a healing pool. Jesus gave him enough grace that he didn’t even need the pool to get better. In chapter 9, Jesus heals a blind man and the community gets really scared by the miraculous act and expel the man from their community. Jesus finds the man an even more gracious community by inviting him to become a sheep in his fold. Even the eventual raising of Lazarus doesn’t end with the resurrection. Instead, the last time we see him, he is eating a meal at a full table with his sisters. Though out the book of John, Jesus will so be identified with reckless and extravagant acts of grace that, after the resurrection, the disciples, when they meet a man on the beach who they think is Jesus, they will believe it’s him when he tells them where to fish and that catch so many that they can barely drag the net back to shore.
We read about the water becoming wine first, before all the rest of the signs, so that we know God is offering us more than the bare minimum in this incarnation. God's love, God’s wisdom is best known in extravagant hospitality and deep generosity. In a world that keeps telling us and that we’d do better to hoard than to share, this story stands in holy contrast. More is possible. Enough is possible if we do what Jesus says and line up the jars so the miracles can happen.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Lindsey S. Jodrey: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3946
Eliseo Pérez-Álvarez: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2748
Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 2nd Ed
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014)
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5276
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.