In our gospel reading from John, Jesus turns water into wine. It’s an intereting miracle that is not found in any of the other gospel accounts. By all measures it might be a tad extravagent. Certainly we may struggle to understand the relevance of this miracle and how this passage works in our own lives.
Scripture: John 2: 1-11
John’s gospel is different from the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. We know that from the first note. We don’t get the stale first paragraph that Luke has, where he writes to his patron Theophilus that this account will teach about Jesus. Nor do we get the interesting, yet coma inducing genealogy of Jesus that Matthew starts with. Mark at least begins with a message of good news, but then promptly starts talking about John the Baptist instead of Jesus.
No, John’s gospel is different. It’s opening sections are poetic, they take us back to the beginning. The beginning as we find it in Genesis, the beginning of all things and there we find the Word. It should be no surprise then that John’s gospel has different stories and encounters than the three synoptic gospels. It also shouldn’t surprise us that the first miracle that John reports on takes place at a wedding and it has to do with turning water into wine. Not healing someone, not allowing the blind to see, raising the dead, or feeding the hungry. Turning water into wine at a wedding.
Now, I’ve been to my fair share of weddings. I spend twenty years working in hospitality at a banquet hall and worked a wedding most Saturday nights of the year. I’ve seen my fair share of wedding feasts. As a minister I’ve also seen my fair share of wedding ceremonies. But this story doesn’t focus on the ceremony, but rather the celebration, the feast.
The miracle that occurs here is extravagant. Jesus turns between 120-180 gallons of water into wine. That is a lot of wine, probably between 500-1000 bottles of wine by today’s standards. Think on that. Now John doesn’t tell us that the all the new wine was completely consumed, only that the water was turned into wine. Still, this is a strange miracle story, and we need to wonder what the point of it all is. As ever, the question is: what is this passage trying to tell us about God, Jesus or the good news?
Taken on a purely superficial level there doesn’t not seem to be any need for this miracle. Jesus even disagrees with his mother about the need for it. Other than the shame of the hosts for running out of wine, or the gluttony of the guests for drinking what was provided so quickly, this miracle story does not seem to have any pressing need attached to it.
Jesus seems disinclined to do anything because he knows that his hour has not come, as he tells Mary. The hour that Jesus refers to is the event of his death, resurrection, and ascension. The question we might as is what did Jesus’ mother, John doesn’t name her, know that Jesus didn’t? What did she see that Jesus couldn’t?
The wedding as an image is used often in scripture. Within the context of scripture a wedding is about more than two persons coming together or two families uniting. A wedding is often used as an image for the restoration of Israel. Elisabeth Johnson writes, “Amos speaks of the day when “the mountains shall drip sweet wine. and all the hills shall flow with it,” for example (Amos 9:13). Isaiah speaks of the feast that God will prepare for all peoples, “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines … of well-aged wines strained clear” (Isaiah 25:6). The abundance of fine wine is a symbol of the abundance of joy that awaits not only Israel, but all peoples on the day of God’s salvation.” (Elisabeth Johnson) If a wedding is about the restoration of Israel then wine is a symbol of joy and celebration for that renewal.
The jars themselves that held the water are significant. It’s an important detail that we might gloss over because we aren’t well versed in Jewish rites of purification. Chelsey Harmon writes, “The very large jars that Jesus uses in the miracle were ones used by attendees to wash and cleanse their hands according to purification practices (in other words, religious rules/practices). In using them, Jesus turns a tool for meeting an obligation under purity law into a gift of blessing and celebration.” (Chelsey Harmon) Jesus provides blessing in abundance! He turns on its head, as he often does, the staleness of ritual law and obligation and demonstrates abundance in God.
This is what I believe Mary saw. The opportunity to demonstrate life in abundance with God. Something that she herself has experienced. The act of turning water into wine is a physical manifestation and reminder of life abundant in God.
Abundance in life is more than just existence or daily living. It does not reflect the material items or consumer society that we live in. When we speak of life in abundance, it is reflective of our understanding of God, to know God and be known by God. To have a relationship with God, our Creator, who time after time choses to give grace upon grace for us. That is what the transformation of the water into wine in this passage reflects. A turning away from the old, empty ways and realizing that in God we find the abundance and life that we need.
Over the past two years it has been difficult to enjoy life abundant in the ways we once did. There is a cloud of fear and anxiety over what were once normal daily activities. However, that does not mean that the joy of living has left us. Though challenging, God is with us. God wants life in abundance for us. This doesn’t mean life is easy, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t sorrow or suffering. It doesn’t mean that life will always give you good things or the things you want. Life abundant is about our relationship with God, of finding harmony there. A relationship so rich that even death cannot end it.
There is another interesting bit to ponder and again the detail is lost to us. The disciples are present at the wedding, they too were invited. We tend to forget that as the focus shifts to Mary and Jesus, and then to the water and the wine. But the disciples are present, that is an important detail. They too witness this change, this demonstration of life abundant.
The last verse of the passage is as follows, Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. Nothing earth shattering there, but we are reading an English translation. Dale Bruner in his commentary points out that the literal translation of this is that the disciples believed into Jesus. Not that the believed in him, but into him. This wording used throughout John’s gospel, but we usually read it as believed in Jesus.
However, believing into Jesus signifies embodiment. That we would abide with Jesus and therefore experience life abundant. Amen.
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St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.
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