Saturday, January 22, 2022

“When the Wine Runs Out” - January 9, 2022

Text: John 2:1-11


Everybody wants to have a picture-perfect wedding where the church or venue is beautiful, the ceremony goes off without a hitch, and everyone has a wonderful time.  But because people can have such highs hopes and expectation, when things go wrong it can be magnified.  And the way life works is, stuff happens.

When I was in college, I was a groomsman in some friends’ wedding in Cincinnati.  Sally and Ron were trying to light the unity candle and Sally dropped her candle on the open Bible on the table.  A Bible going up in flames is not the image you really want to begin your marriage.

There was a wedding rehearsal in Illinois 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.  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 pretty scared for a moment, but fortunately, nobody was paying attention to anything at this rehearsal, and no one 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, I promise to love faithfully.”  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.  He was out taking a smoke or something.  

We waited and waited until finally, the maid of honor said, “I’ll do it, and she pulled the runner all the way down the aisle, unrolling it, and then came back to take her place.

The problem was that by the time 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 no recent phenomenon.   

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 preliminary stories, on the third day – apparently 3 days later - Jesus attends a wedding.  Jesus’ mother was there, and then we are told that Jesus and his disciples were also invited.  Which is interesting, since Jesus had just met his disciples 3 days before.  But generally, the whole community was invited to such an occasion.  The wedding is in Cana, near Nazareth.  

A wedding in that culture was like having a massive open house that could go on for days - eating and drinking and dancing.  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 a few years ago.  People there tend to drink coffee with warmed milk and 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 some of the best coffee anywhere, 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 in order to do it right.  There would be plenty of food and there would be good wine.

Somewhere through the course of this wedding, long before the celebration is over, the wine runs out.  Mary seems to be an insider here – perhaps a close friend of the bride’s family, or maybe she is related.  She 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?  Oy! 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.”  In the first place, it seems just tacky and disrespectful to call your mother “woman.”  In English, it just wouldn’t happen.  It is not so harsh in Greek, but still, it is rather impersonal.

Jesus seems to be saying, “It’s not our problem, and besides, this is not the time for me to act.”  Mary seems to have some insight into what Jesus is capable of.  Jesus is saying, either, “It’s not time for me to go public,” as though he has a strategy for that, or he is saying “To publicly display my power is going to set things into motion that I am not ready for.”  My hour is not yet come.

But Mary seems to have no doubts about it.  “Do whatever he tells you,” she says to the servants.  Again, she seems to know the servants.

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 senses are perhaps dulled a bit they bring out the cheap stuff.  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 – 120 to 180 gallons.  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.

This was not a life or death circumstance, but it mattered to someone.  It mattered to this family.  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.  

Jesus’ first miracle - or sign, as John calls it - is not some big, splashy, pyrotechnic event.  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.  John calls it a sign but the irony is that hardly anyone sees it.

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?  

Perhaps there are miracles all around us, miracles in abundance.  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 that Jesus said, “My hour has not yet come,” but he acted anyway.  It was not his intention to perform his first sign.  But he does.  

Basically, Jesus had a Plan A, but 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.    God is there when life takes an unexpected turn.  God is there when the wine runs out.
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 are not.

The last couple of years have been very hard for a lot of people.  The pandemic could have just sapped our spirits – but it hasn’t.  

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.  Jesus is there when the wine runs out.

For all the times that things do not go the way we had planned, for all the ties that the wine runs out, 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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