John’s Gospel is anything but a free-flowing journal or documentary. It is, rather, a carefully constructed, even poetic, statement of faith, beginning “in the beginning”–back before time even began–”In the beginning was the Word”–and ending–or rather, trailing off–into eternity–”But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
John’s Jesus is cosmic, totally in control, intentional, and, frankly, a little obtuse in some of his discourses. So, when we come fairly early on to the story of the wedding at Cana, we might be tempted to think, “Oh, ok, Jesus and his friends did do normal things like attend weddings.” And wouldn’t it be funny, if as some have suggested, that Jesus and his buddies were such partyers, such big wine-drinkers, that they are, in fact, the reason why the wine ran out early?
It might be tempting to think that, but we’d be missing John’s point. “On the third day,”John begins the story. The third day after what? Jesus has just finished calling his first disciples–the third day after that? Or is it like, “On the third day after Jesus was crucified…” More likely that. We should keep our eyes open for resurrection life here.
“On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee…” The setting is a celebration of love. Marriage and weddings are over and over used in the Bible as symbols of the love between God and humanity, full-bodied, sensual, energetic. The Song of Songs is an erotic love poem tucked in the middle of our Bible, devoted to just this kind of love. This wedding at Cana is the setting for the first of Jesus’ signs, John tells us, a sign telling us about the nature of Love. It is to be celebrated. As one commentator writes, “God does not want our religion to be too holy to be happy in.” (Robert Brearley, cited by Kate Matthews Huey in Weekly Seeds, 1/20/13)
We read that “the mother of Jesus was there.” She is not named, and we have not met her before, as John’s gospel has no infancy narrative. If we’re looking for an insight into their family dynamics, neither of them comes off particularly well–Mary is a little nagging, maybe even the stereotypical Jewish mother–”They have no wine”–and Jesus’ response seems a little short and even disrespectful–”Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” As one commentator suggested, “If I said that to my mother, I’d be in need of a healing after that.” Like a People Magazine article, we may be hoping for some insight into the mother-son relationship, but John is not interested in that. In fact, this is the first of just two appearances of the mother of Jesus (she is never named) in this gospel–here, at the first of the signs that Jesus did–and at the cross, the final sign, when Jesus commends her to John’s care and she to his, creating the new community, literally with his blood. She is present at both times when, as John says, “Jesus revealed his glory.”
So, here in the story of the wedding at Cana, Mary (we can name her) moves the story along, rather than being fleshed out as a real person. “They have no wine,” she tells her son. “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” From a Positive Psychology standpoint, we might say that Mary is focusing on the negative, on the lack. Jesus deflects her concern, and then moves to reveal the positive, the abundance that is hidden within this situation.
We are talking about a lot of water being changed into wine here–something like 150 gallons. This is in-your-face abundance and excellence, not just a slight improvement. It’s a miracle, of course, but Jesus is the one so open to the energy and power of God that he could channel it in all sorts of ways. He was an infinitely clear vessel for that channeling, but we know that all of us and all of nature are vibrating with the same energy. “Cleave the wood and I am there,” Jesus teaches in the Gospel of Thomas. God is in the wood– and beyond the wood, of course–but all the miracles of Jesus reveal an interrelationship–a luminous web, as Barbara Brown Taylor calls it–between everyone and everything. And so the water is transformed into wine, and good wine at that. “In turning water into wine,” Dan Clendenin writes, “Jesus offers us excess for our emptiness.” (Journey with Jesus, 1/20/13) Then of course there’s Soren Kierkegaard’s cryptic observation back in the 19th c.–”Christ turned water into wine, but the church has succeeded in doing something even more difficult: it has turned wine into water.” Ah yes, “too holy to be happy…”
“Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk, ” the steward says to the bridegroom, who had been perilously close to being shamed for not having enough wine, “but you have kept the good wine until now.” The first wine served, perhaps like love at its beginning, is savored and enjoyed. But as time goes on, it’s easy to have our senses dulled, to become numb to the beauty and rich flavor that love can bring to our lives. “The thrill is gone,” as the song goes. And not just from love, but, for so many people, the thrill is gone from life. There is a lot of pain–even trauma–present in our society, and we have become a culture of self-medicators. This past week’s drug raid revealed not only a surprising number of sellers and possessors of drugs in our community, but, as the hospital’s emergency room displayed, a large number of users whose supply had suddenly been dammed up. And that’s just the illegal drug users. That doesn’t begin to address the number of legal abusers of alcohol. We are a society full of pain, seeking to numb it by any number of means.
“You have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus reveals, in this first of his signs, that not only is love abundant, it is to be savored, paid attention to, nurtured, not taken for granted. And it takes work. Imagine those workers lugging the water up and down the ladders to fill the stone jars, the “drably dutiful,” as one commentator wrote (Robert Brearley, op cit.) They were involved in a miracle of abundance, and they had no idea. When we’re washing the dishes or wiping the tables after Sunday Supper, are we aware that we’re involved in a miracle of abundance, as hungry people are fed and welcomed?
“They have no wine,” the mother of Jesus tells him. “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” Jesus seems reluctant to act at first, and indeed, Carol Lakey Hess points out the “scandal of divine reluctance–God’s seeming absence or inaction in the face of human suffering and need in any age or place….In a world where for so many there is not clean water–let alone fine wine–where is the extravagance of God? In a world where children play in bomb craters the size of thirty-gallon wine jugs, why the divine reluctance? Like Mary,[she suggests] perhaps we have a role in the story, if we truly believe in God’s goodness and generosity, for we can ‘nudge God with our observation; they have no wine.’” (cited by Kate Huey, op cit.) Perhaps like Mary as well, we can lift our observation to God and at the same time, prepare for God to act–”Do whatever he tells you,” she tells the servants.
“When human resources are at an end,” (Alyce McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, Patheos, 1/13/13) Jesus’ “signs” show us, God is able to pour wine into our water jars and life into our lifeless forms. Four years ago, the United States was filled with more hope about its future than I have experienced in my lifetime. Millions of people gathered into Washington DC to witness the inauguration of Barack Obama without a single incidence of violence. The hope seemed to infuse even the criminals. Four years later, the level of hope is considerably lower. As one African American preacher said, to a great extent,”promises remain unfulfilled, hopes have been dashed, dreams shattered.” (Rev. Dr. Alvin O’Neal Jackson, Odyssey Network, “A Vision for America,” 1/20/13) “We have not quite run out of money yet, [he says] but we are running low on courage, vision and leadership.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of the Beloved Community is not yet realized.
Like the mother of Jesus, we can acknowledge the situation. There are too many without the basic necessities of life–food, shelter, health care, education–let alone the less tangible necessities–hope, dignity, justice. The jars are empty for too many of our neighbors, for many of us as well. But we must not just focus on the lack. Jug by jugful, even spoonful by spoonful, we can begin to fill the jars with the full expectation that God can transform our labors and our longings into abundance beyond our imagination.
Is it “our hour” as a church, as we come to our Annual Meeting, to be transformed into something truly remarkable, something that can save our neighbors and loved ones from shame, offering life that is not just existence but even flourishing and thriving? “Now there are varieties of gifts,” Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” We are blessed with an abundance of gifts. How can we share or reveal our abundance with the world and with future generations, even to the 7th generation, as Ernie commended to us last week? Henry David Thoreau said, “It’s not what you look at that matters. It’s what you see.” Do we see water or wine? Deficit or abundance? Decline or possibility?
“You have kept the good wine until now. Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory.” May God’s glory be revealed in us. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark