Friday, January 19, 2018

“Water into Wine” - January 21, 2018

Text: John 2:1-11

There are those times when things go wrong at church.  Well, things go wrong everywhere, to be sure, but when things go wrong in worship, the seriousness and solemnity of the occasion magnifies everything.  We try so hard to do things decently and in order, and when things go awry, it really stands out.   

Exhibit A for things that go wrong at church would have to be weddings.  Stuff just seems to happen at weddings. 

I had a groomsman, the younger brother of the groom, lock his knees and eventually pass out.  He was OK, but that does tend to get people’s attention.

Years ago, I was a groomsman in a wedding where the bride and groom were trying to light the unity candle and the bride dropped her candle on the open Bible on the table.  A Bible going up in flames is not the image you want to begin your marriage.

There was a wedding rehearsal where I was off in a side room with the groom and groomsmen, waiting to enter the sanctuary when the organist began the processional.  There was a woman at this rehearsal who seemed to be semi- in charge of things, but she was not one of the mothers.  So I asked who the woman in the orange dress was, and one of the groomsman let out an expletive to describe this woman.  That’s when I remembered my microphone was on.  We were all pretty scared for a moment there, but fortunately, nobody was paying attention to much of anything at this rehearsal, and no one heard or noticed what this guy said.

And then there was the wedding where the bride and groom were to come down the aisle to recorded music.  The song was by Luther Vandross, “Here and Now.”  “Here and now, I promise to love faithfully.”  It’s not what Susan and I had at our wedding, but it’s a nice song and an appropriate sentiment for a wedding.

Unfortunately, things did not go as planned.  The usher who was to unroll the aisle runner, an uncle of the bride, was nowhere to be found.  We waited and waited, but this guy was out taking a smoke or something.  Finally, the maid of honor looked at the best man and said, “Eddie’s gone.  We need to do the aisle runner.”  The best man said “I’m not doing it,” so the maid of honor muttered a couple of choice words and said that she was going to do it, and she did.  She pulled the runner all the way down the aisle, unrolling it.

The problem was that by the time that was done and the maid of honor was back in her place and the bride and her father were ready to enter the sanctuary, the song was over.  The cassette – this was back in the olden days – went on to the next song.  The next song was, “Love the One You’re With.” 

Things can go wrong at weddings.  But this is definitely not a recent phenomenon. 

Our text this morning is from John chapter two.  In the first chapter of John’s gospel, we have the prologue, which speaks of Jesus as the Word become flesh; then Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist.  After that, he begins to call his disciples, Andrew and Simon and Philip and Nathaniel, which we looked at last week.

Then we come to our text for today.  After these sort of preliminary stories, the first thing we see Jesus doing is attending a wedding.  Jesus’ mother was there, and then we are told that Jesus and his disciples were also invited.  The wedding is in Cana, not far from Nazareth.  While at this wedding, something goes badly wrong.

Now we need to step back for a second to understand what weddings were like.  It was not simply a ceremony and a reception.  A wedding was like having a massive open house that could go on for as long as a week - days of eating and drinking and dancing and celebrating.  The wedding was all about joyous celebration with family and friends.

The poor, which included most of the population, had cheese and bread and olive oil for their basic diet, with water to drink for most of their meals.  The water was often of poor quality, but that is what they had.  Wine was a cash crop and while many worked in the production of wine, the poor had little wine to drink, just as they had little meat to eat.

It is still that way in a lot of places.  Those who work in the harvest don’t necessarily share in the harvest.  I was in Costa Rica in November.  Costa Rica is known for its coffee.  People there tend to drink coffee with warmed milk and often sugar.  The reason is that for many years, all of the really good coffee was exported.  You could be living in an area that produced wonderful coffee, but all you could get yourself was the B or C grade stuff.  The coffee they drank wasn’t very good, so everybody put milk and sugar in it.

For much of the population in Israel, when they had wine, it was wine of a poor quality.  But a wedding was different.  A wedding was a time for extravagance.  A family would scrimp and save for some time in order to do it right.  Sheep and calves and every delicacy would be served, and there would be wine in profusion.

Somewhere through the course of this wedding, long before the celebration is over, the wine runs out.  Mary, who seems to be a close friend of the bride’s family, gets wind of this and reports it to Jesus.

For the wine to run out in mid-party would be a great embarrassment.  People would talk about it for years to come.  “Remember the Cohen wedding, when the wine ran out?  What a disaster.”

For the family, this would have been a social faux pas, a great embarrassment.  But Jesus does not seem especially concerned.  His response to his mother seems rather harsh.  “Woman, what concerns is this of ours?  My time has not yet come.”  It’s not our problem, and besides, this is not the time for me to act. 

But Mary seems to have no doubts about it.  “Do whatever he tells you,” she says to the servants.  This seems to indicate that Mary was close to the family, an insider.  

Mary knew her son.  Despite whatever misgivings he may have had, Jesus does something.  There were six very large stone jars used to hold water for Jewish rites of purification.  Jesus told the servants to fill them, all the way to the brim, and then draw some out and give it to the chief steward – basically the head waiter.      
They did what Jesus asked – and the water had become wine.  Not just any wine, but fine wine, far better than what had been served up until that point.  The steward was amazed.  Everybody serves the good stuff first, and then when people’s sense are perhaps dulled a bit they bring out the cheap stuff, the 3-buck Chuck.  But the chief steward says to the bridegroom, “You have saved the good wine until now!”  Of course, the groom had no idea what he was talking about, but he wasn’t arguing.

Now, one of the details that is easy to miss is the amount of wine we are talking about here.  There were 6 large stone jars that held water for rites of purification.  These would typically hold 20 to 30 gallons each.  So we are talking about a huge quantity of wine.  We are given this detail about the jars in order to point out the extravagant way that Jesus responds.  When Jesus supplies a need, he really supplies a need. 

Like most of what goes on in John, there is meaning at two levels in this story.  First, there is the very practical level.  Wine is running out and the party is going to fall flat on its face.  This will be an embarrassment for this family, and so Jesus acts.

It wouldn’t take much reflection here to question Jesus’ action.  Sure, it might be embarrassing to not provide the proper hospitality at a wedding, but did it call for a miracle?  Really?

In fact, maybe it would have been better to do nothing.  Maybe having the wine run out would teach them a good lesson about the need to plan wisely.  How else would they learn?  A bailout was not going to help them learn responsibility.  It was their own fault, and they did not deserve a miracle.  Not acting could have been an act of tough love. 

And even if Jesus were so inclined as to help out here, why would he do something so trivial as turning water into wine?  In the big picture of things, wasn’t this a small matter?

Well, perhaps.  It wasn’t a life or death circumstance, but it mattered to someone.  And that is important.  One of the things we learn here, right at the outset, right at the beginning of the gospel of John, is that if it matters to someone, then it matters to Jesus.  If it matters to you, it matters to Jesus. 

It is interesting that Jesus’ first miracle - or sign, as John calls it - is not some big, splashy, pyrotechnic kind of event.  He is not raising someone from the dead.  It is not a public healing.  He is not feeding the multitudes or walking on water.  And in fact, hardly anyone even knows about it.  Mary and the servants and Jesus’ disciples are the only ones in on it.  The bride and groom don’t know, the guests don’t know, the chief steward who discovers that the good wine has been saved for later does not know.  The miracle is not for public consumption.  Jesus simply sees a need and responds.  Or more accurately, a need is pointed out to him and he responds.

I think that is significant.  Miracles are not just show-offy sensational events that are witnessed by the masses.  Now, to be sure, sometimes they are.  If you were watching the Vikings game last week, as I was, you saw a show-offy miracle that was indeed witnessed by the masses.  But it’s not always like that.

Miracles are not just for those extraordinary moments.  Miracles are not just for the holiest persons among us.  And perhaps, each day is filled with miracles if only we will look and listen.  How many times a day are we blessed in ways we don’t even realize?  How many miracles are there around us of which we are unaware? 

Albert Einstein once commented, “There are two ways to live your life.  One is as though nothing is a miracle.  The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Perhaps there are miracles all around us, miracles in abundance.  And it is important for us to know that even those matters which are not life and death are important to Jesus.  If it matters to us, it matters to Jesus.

This is one level, the obvious, up-front level of meaning.  But John always seems to have more than one thing going on at a time.  It is helpful to know the symbolic importance of wine in Israel.  Our call to worship, from Psalm 104, kind of summarizes the Hebrew understanding of wine when it says that “wine to gladden the human heart” is a gift of God.

Wine was so vital to the culture and economy of Israel, that it took on important theological significance.  Wine was used throughout the Scriptures as a symbol of holy joy.  Wine was not just something to drink, but it was a powerful metaphor that everyone understood.

And what does Jesus do?  He provides wine in great abundance, extravagantly providing far more than was needed.  This is not just about a beverage for a wedding; it is about God’s grace.  It is about God’s love and care and welcome that is poured out for everyone – for the whole community.  It is about grace that God pours out to us when we are feeling empty, when our spirits are depleted, when the well is running dry.  Jesus is the connection to a deep and boundless spring of God’s grace.

Now, one more thing: it is interesting the way that Jesus responds to Mary’s request.  He says. “My hour has not yet come.”  There are two kinds of time.  There is chronos – the time on your watch.  But Jesus is talking about kairos – God’s time, big-picture time.  It was not the right time.  It was not his intention to perform his first sign.  But he does anyway. 

Basically, Jesus had a Plan A, but circumstances intervened.  Life intervened.  Jesus was flexible enough to make up Plan B on the fly.

That’s life, right?  We may have a Plan A, but we often have to go to Plan B, and maybe Plan C or D.  The Good News is that God provides new wine in the midst of the losses and disappointments and general disruption of life.  God is there when Plan A doesn’t work out.  And I have seen it – I have seen this happen right in our midst, right in this place, right among you.

Some of you have known tragedies that could make you sour or angry or completely defeated, but you are not.

Some of you have been so bruised by life that you could become cynical and hardened, but you have not.

Some of you have achieved great success and could easily feel pretty self-important, but you continue to demonstrate a deep humility.

Some of you have honestly faced challenges and new realities and with God’s help, you have been open to new possibilities, new approaches, new people, new ways of living.

Turning water into wine was not on Jesus’ calendar, but he gave up Plan A and embraced a new possibility.  And for all the times that things do not go the way we had planned, Jesus is there.  The well never runs dry, and in whatever circumstance, Jesus pours out grace upon grace.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.  

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