Water into Wine
I prepared this sermon, thinking that the text for the third Sunday after Epiphany was Jesus turning water into wine at Cana. As it turns out, the lectionary readings for today have nothing to do with the wedding at Cana. So, I was trying to be all traditional and connected, and instead today’s text is completely random, and connected to nothing. That’s a little how I felt while I was writing the sermon too…disconnected and discombobulated.
Anyhow, the reading for today, which may or may not have anything to do with the third Sunday after Epiphany, is from John 2, and is a description of Jesus’ first miraculous sign. Let’s read it:
(read John 2:1-11)
There’s a lot going on in this passage, and lots of it I’m not going to talk about. And, I’m not going to address the question of whether this really happened as written - the whole question of miracles, and what physically happened to the water. What I’m interested in is the meaning of the event, its placement in the gospel of John, and what the symbolism can communicate to us about a life lived in the company of Jesus.
The first thing that it’s helpful to know is that John’s gospel is structured a little bit like a whodunit, and the reader/hearer is the detective. It’s all about clues – moments of revelation of who Jesus is – signs and words that point to his identity as the Son of God. Jesus is progressively revealed throughout the gospel, with each section of the narrative shaped around a sign or a declaration that points to his glory, for those with eyes to see. What it’s also important to know about John’s gospel is that it’s organised more by theme than by plot. John uses material from the other gospels, but often in a different place in the story, or to make a different point.
The miracle of changing water into wine in the passage that we just read is the first ‘sign’ in John’s gospel – we read that in verse 11: ‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him’.
I like the fact that the first sign is a social sign – it happens at a party, at a wedding celebration, and is an act that brings extra fruitiness to the celebrations. It’s not a sign that asks us to look up into the sky for the meaning of Jesus’ presence among us, but to look around us, at each other, at the happy events that bring communities together, and celebrate relationship. The first clue to Jesus’ identity firmly establishes him as a participant in ordinary human events.
A significant participant in this story is Jesus’ mother. In John’s gospel, Mary is not named, she’s just ‘Jesus’ mother’. She only turns up twice in the gospel – here, in this scene at the wedding, and then again at the foot of the cross. John has no nativity story. His gospel starts with the prologue ‘In the beginning was the Word…’, and much more firmly than the other gospels, locates Jesus’ ‘origins’ as divine, with God, there at the creation. There’s no Mary and Joseph, angels, and manger in this gospel. Instead, John imports the figure of the mother of Jesus to point up two specific moments of Jesus’ ministry – its beginning and its end. You could say that in this gospel, Mary gives birth to Jesus’ activity in the world, ushers it into its full being, and then is there to cradle it at its end. She mothers the adult Jesus, rather than the baby Jesus, and in this way has a quite powerful presence.
The conversation that Jesus and his mother have before the miracle itself concerns this idea of Jesus’ ‘hour’. ‘And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”’ This idea is a recurring one through the gospel – it’s used at least seven times in different places. There are two incidents where the crowd cannot harm Jesus because ‘his hour had not yet come’. And then, there’s the slow turn towards the crucifixion, where Jesus realises that his ‘hour’ has come, and he uses that word to signal that he must soon die. The narrative also uses the term to describe his time to depart from this world, and to be ‘glorified’. In this gospel, the moment of his death is the moment of his glorification. It’s as though the whole story is ticking down to this hour, this moment. Everything leads towards the cross, and all the other signs and events in the gospel are pointing to this ‘hour’. So, the use of the term in this passage is worth paying attention to.
Jesus’ mother is the first to notice that the wine has run out, and mentions it to him. I notice that she doesn’t actually ask him to fix the problem, but it’s obviously implied, as Jesus responds with this ‘what do you want me to do about it’ question, telling her that his hour ‘has not yet come’. And then, Mary, flexing her maternal muscle, over-rides his diffidence, and instructs the servants to do what he says.
This interaction between Jesus and Mary is hard to understand – why does Jesus say that it’s not their concern, and then fix the problem anyway? Why does Mary ignore his statement and go ahead and instruct the servants despite his unwillingness to get involved? The simple answer is – I don’t know. But here are some guesses.
One way of interpreting it is that Mary - who we are told in other gospels treasured in her heart all the things that she learned about Jesus’ destiny - has a better sense of her son’s ‘hour’ than he does – she knows that this is the time to begin, that there are many minutes in the hour, and that this is the first. There’s a note in my bible that suggests that Mary is out of line here – the note reads: ‘The hour of Jesus’ self-disclosure was determined by God, not by Mary’s desires’. But maybe what we see here is exactly the opposite – it’s Mary’s instruction that determines the moment of Jesus’ first sign, and it’s possible that she acts as an agent of God to Jesus in forcing his hand here.
Another way of reading Jesus’ response of ‘my hour has not yet come’ is to see it as a narrative signal that this event is not the thing itself. This miracle that Jesus was about to go on and do with the water and the wine is not the main event. His signs are meant to point us forward in the story to the final revelation of God’s glory in Jesus, which is his crucifixion and resurrection. We’re not meant to get stuck on the signs themselves as the meaning of Jesus’ presence.
Another way of reading it is in terms of the symbolism of wine (and I’ll be saying more about this soon.) In its full significance, wine has a blood connotation…and it may be that Jesus, while intending to help out with the social problem of the lack of wine, wants to signal that there will be another time, down the track, when he will offer a different kind of wine to people at a different banquet… when his blood is shed and they drink of his life.
So, he turns the water into wine, and it seems that only the servants and the disciples get to be in on the secret. But we learn that ‘the disciples believed in him’ as a result of this event. However, I think that their belief, their trust has to do with more than a simple magic trick. It’s not just about ‘hey, look what I can do!’ Jesus’ signs say something not just about his power, but about his purpose, and his identity. Not just ‘I come from God, because I can do tricks’, but ‘I come from God, because the tricks that I do show you who God is, and reveal God to you in a new light. I come from God, because my actions enlarge your spiritual vision, and invite you to participate in the eternal life that God offers.’
So our reading of this text should ask the question ‘what picture of God’s intentions do we get from this event?’ What is Jesus showing us of life in the kingdom through this sign?
Some clues to that lie in the symbolism of wine as it’s used in the bible as a whole. There are about 254 references to wine in the scriptures, used variously positively and negatively. There are negative images of decadence and drunkenness, of wine drunk in the worship of idols. The image of being drunk also suggests that one has consumed the essence of something else - e.g. they were drunk with the wine of Babylon – which is to say, they had taken on the behaviours and beliefs of that foreign nation. And then there are the positive images of fruitfulness, of bounty, of harvest and fertility. In the New Testament, Jesus uses the image of new wine in new wineskins, to refer to the new life of the kingdom, and, famously, symbolises his blood with a cup of wine.
In the gospel of John, where our story is located, there is no last supper communion – Jesus is not recorded as handing his disciples bread and wine with the words ‘this is my body…my blood’. Instead, in chapter 6, Jesus calls out to the whole crowds, telling them that he is the bread from heaven, and that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood, in order to have life in them. Towards the end of the gospel the wine symbolism does turn up again, but only in the message Jesus gives the disciples that he is the vine, and they the branches, and that they must remain in him.
Is it too far fetched to suggest that this miracle of the water and the wine could also be seen as John weaving part of the imagery of the last supper into the earlier part of the story? In telling this story, John might be relying his readers’ awareness of the wine symbolism of the other gospels, the practice of the Lord’s supper in their early Christian communities, and of the images of life and fruitfulness symbolised by wine in the First Testament. By doing this miracle, Jesus is perhaps implying: “when you participate in what I am doing, you get real drink. The good stuff. The best wine. Which is myself, my fruitfulness, my plenty, my life poured out for you.”
Another hint as to the meaning of this miracle is found in the identification of the water jars as jars ‘for the Jewish rites of purification’, that is, the ritual washing before meals, as prescribed in the law. We learn from Luke’s gospel (chapter 11) that the Pharisees told Jesus off for not engaging in this ritual washing religiously enough. And here in this story, Jesus transforms the purposes of the purification jars, and has them bring forth new wine instead of ritual water. Here we have a symbol of Jesus’ message of renewal and grace. The instruments of law, used to enforce strict observance of a set of rules, have been used as vessels for a celebratory beverage that symbolises bounty and fruitful harvest. In other words, the new wine of Jesus’ grace, and the message of the kingdom, has replaced the old water of the Jewish ritual code. Jesus, accused elsewhere of being a drunkard and a glutton, is the one who provides the wine for the party, and the promise of a renewed, free, full life for the partygoers.
So, what might we be able to take from all this, other than the useful advice ‘listen to your mother’, and ‘put Jesus on your party guest list’?
What I take from this sign, this story, is that Jesus is about transformation into a more abundant life – and I have three thoughts about what that means.
Firstly, life with Jesus is about more, not less. It’s not about what we stop doing, or what we cut out of our lives. Life with Jesus is not defined by what we don’t do – whether that’s smoking or drinking or swearing…or whatever. Life with Jesus is defined by what we engage with, what we participate in. It’s about enjoyment – of food, people, creation, dancing…a full engagement with this world, and its gifts, and a concern that others get to participate in these things too.
Secondly, life with Jesus is about drinking deeply from Jesus – consuming him, being consumed by him, participating in his eternal life, and in his body – which is all of us. At our communion services we drink wine as a symbol, as a mysterious way of entering into his command to eat and drink of him, and to remain ‘in the vine’. We need to keep cultivating ways of praying and focusing on Jesus, reading the gospel accounts of his life and death, meditating on him. Jesus is at the centre of our faith, and this image of wine is an image of drawing from his life by drinking from his cup.
And lastly, life with Jesus is about transformation, more than obedience. Following Jesus is not about laws, rites of purification, observance of rules. It’s not defined by our church attendance, or bible studies, or evangelism (although we may want to do these things, and that’s okay too!) Life with Jesus consists of God being present in, with and through us, changing us, bringing transformation into our world and heart, by means of God’s Spirit in us, and in the community of Christ’s body that we belong to. Sometimes, this transformation can take a long time, sometimes, it’s fairly swift. Sometimes, it involves quite a lot of work and trust and attention on our part. But as we drink the wine of Jesus’ new life, we are changed, not because of what we do, but because of what God does in us.
Set out around the space are some wee cups of wine (and juice for those of you who don’t want to drink alcohol). I invite you now to take a moment to ponder on this story, and to reflect on one aspect of your life that feels empty, diminished, or stuck in a rut. You might want to invite Jesus into this situation, and ask for him to do a miracle of transformation. Invite Jesus into this part of you where the wine has run out, and ask him to bring new wine into it. Then drink from the wine, as a symbol of your prayer and trust.