January 20, 2019
The wedding at Cana - this scene where Jesus famously turns water into wine - is the first of Jesus’ “signs” in the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John doesn’t talk about miracles. Miracles, from the Latin, mirari, are things that cause wonder or amazement. They don’t necessarily reveal anything, but miracles draw folks in by their astonishment of the event in and of itself. In the Gospel of Mark, for instance, Jesus’ miracles often obscure who Jesus is just as much as they reveal something about Jesus. When Jesus walks on water and stills the storm, the disciples are utterly astounded, but they don’t get it. In fact, the text says that their hearts were hardened, comparing them to the Pharaoh that wouldn’t release the Hebrew people from Egypt. Ouch. It is all part of Mark’s secrecy motif, that readers and characters are only able to get so close to Jesus’ identity, keeping that identity at a distance, until the cross and the empty tomb, where Jesus’ identity is ultimately revealed. That’s Mark.
On the other hand, the Gospel of John talks about signs. Signs, in contrast to miracles, serve to point to something beyond the event itself. Signs are not about what we see, but rather go beyond it. In the case of this gospel, signs are things that help point to Jesus’ identity as the messiah, as the Word made flesh that dwells among us. They are specifically meant to reveal something about who Jesus is - for us and for the world. Near the end of the Gospel, the writer states, “now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these [signs] are written so that you may come to trust that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through trusting, you may have life in his name.” The signs reveal who Jesus is and inspire trust and faith in Jesus. Today’s gospel reading is the first recorded sign in the Gospel of John.
While I am not afraid to admit that I enjoy a glass of wine now and then, I find this to be an odd start to ministry. And I find it odd that this is the first thing Jesus does to point to who he is. In our adult forum a couple weeks ago, we kinda scratched our heads there too. And it is one that I struggle with, both as a pastor and as a scholar. I’d expect Jesus’ first act to be one that is big and showy. I’d expect everyone to know he did it. Perhaps, I’d expect the Gospel to start off with the raising of Lazarus or the healing of the paralytic. But we get Jesus turning water into wine. In comparison to other signs in the Gospel of John, it feels almost like a party trick. And the only ones who know that he did this sign were Jesus’ mother (who remains unnamed in this Gospel), the servants, and the disciples. That’s it. The majority of the people around them have no idea that the wine nearly ran out and they nearly missed a sudden end to the festivities. The bridegroom doesn’t even know. The good wine keeps flowing.
Thinking about this event as a sign, the event isn’t about the wine itself. It isn’t about the ability of turning water into wine (which is pretty cool in and of itself), but if we stop there, we miss the point. We’ve gotta get deeper than that. So I must ask what does the event of turning water into wine reveal about Jesus and who he is - for me, for you, and for the world that God so loves? For the other signs, I think that’s an easier question to answer - for instance, as Jesus raises Lazarus, we can say that Jesus comes to bring life out of death, and death never has the final word. It is a bit trickier, at least for me, to see what is supposed to be revealed about Jesus today.
God’s grace tastes like the best wine that you’ve ever tasted when you expect the cheap stuff. It’s like getting the expensive, luxury wine (that I couldn’t dream of purchasing) when you expect to get the boxed stuff. If you’re not into wine, substitute whatever you do like to drink or whatever you like to eat. Grace tastes like a gourmet roasted chicken dinner - like the best you’ve had, seasoned perfectly, juicy and moist - when you’re expecting McDonalds chicken nuggets. Not only that, it is abundant and over the top. There were six stone jars, each holding twenty or thirty gallons, filled to the brim with that water that Jesus turned to wine, giving us 120-180 gallons of wine. That’s a lot of wine. To put that into perspective, that is 600-900 of our standard bottles of wine. That’s enough for everyone to their have fill and then some. It is free flowing. And indeed it is good news. It is akin to John’s telling of the feeding of the 5000, where five loaves and two fish feed 5000 people until each taking as much as they wanted, with twelve baskets left over. No one goes hungry, and there’s food left over.
When have you experienced the Grace of God? When have you tasted, touched, felt that grace overflowing for you? Maybe it was in true acceptance from a loved one. Or in kindness from a stranger. Or in hospitality around a table where you didn’t expect to find it. Or maybe it was felt in the presence of someone in your pains. Or in the gifts of God in the sacraments (which are tangible experiences of God’s grace). God’s grace and love isn’t a theoretical thing, but it is tangible and can be touched, tasted, felt.
For me, I experienced it most powerfully when I was in Tanzania. I was fourteen, travelling with
people that I barely knew, to a place thousands of miles from home. Getting there was… an experience. We flew out of Dulles on a ten hour red-eye flight to London. Had a ten hour layover in Heathrow. Then an eight hour flight from Heathrow to Dar Es Salaam. Then a twelve hour drive from Dar Es Salaam to Tukuyu. As we were leaving Dar Es Salaam, we stopped to pick up Mama Allen, who at the time was the bishop’s secretary. I was in the middle of the back seat, as the smallest person on the trip. Mama sat next to me. We’re driving through Mikumi national park. And, sadly I was exhausted, and I was falling asleep, missing all the wildlife all around me. My head kept going backward, as I struggled to stay awake. Mama Allen, someone I had known for just a few hours, pulled me over so I could sleep on her shoulder. In that small act of love from a stranger, I felt the grace and love of God. That’s what the love of God, working through Mama, felt like. It was a moment where I felt that love and grace of God that is bigger than what I could imagine, that grace that crosses the boundaries of country or nationality, of culture, etc.
For me, beyond the good news that God’s grace is abundant, overflowing, and for all, I find more good news in this passage. Yes, the disciples, Jesus’ mother, and the servants know what happened, and see this sign. For them, it does reveal who Jesus is. Joanna Harader puts it this way, “In the free-flowing wine that others take for granted, they see the glory of God.” And that is indeed a gift. But even more so, I see good news in that the rest of the party is unaware of what had happened, and yet they experience the abundance of the grace of God through Christ, without even knowing it. Today, in Christ, we can proclaim a Christ who is at work, giving the gifts of God’s grace and love abundantly and to all, even when we can’t see it or name it. God’s work in the world isn’t dependent on us seeing it or feeling it, but in Christ, the gifts of love and grace are still given, and they still bring life abundant to all.
Karoline Lewis, "Commentary on John 2:1-11." Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1556.
Joanna Harader, "A Strange First Clue: John 2:1-11." Christian Century. https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/sundays-coming/strange-first-clue-john-21-11