(Quite a bit of credit for this goes to The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter, who’s a priest currently serving in South Africa.)
Sarah spoke last Sunday about baptism by the spirit, but mostly about baptism by fire. This Sunday’s Gospel is more like baptism by “let’s get to it.”
Why start with this water-into-wine miracle? Is it a biggie? Let’s see.
It’s Superbowl Sunday. The score is 21 to 21 late in the third quarter and the guys have run out of beer. There are still lots of chips and dip and pretzels, but no more beer. And no one wants to miss any of the game in order to run to the store for more. So – one of the guys opens a couple of big bottles of orange soda and miraculously turns it into beer. It might be a miracle, but it surely isn’t a significant one. True, a couple of liters is insignificant compared to umpty-ump gallons of wine, but still. . . . So why does John start with the water into wine story?
In John’s Gospel, the first of Jesus’ signs – what the other Gospels call miracles – is the turning of water into wine. Jesus’ first sign that inspires his disciples to believe in him is not healing a sick person, not bringing someone back from the dead, not forgiving sins, nor is it exorcizing a demon. It’s making gallons and gallons of excellent wine, one hundred fifty gallons or more, allowing a party to last longer. Does this make Jesus seem like a more sophisticated savior, someone we would be less embarrassed about introducing to our friends than, say, Jesus the exorcist or Jesus who touches lepers? Isn’t Jesus’ first miracle a little trivial?
Maybe it’s not about Jesus loving a good party, although by all accounts, he did. His opponents called him a glutton and a drunkard, and he often got in trouble for sharing table fellowship with the wrong kind of people.
But maybe this isn’t trivial. Otherwise why would the evangelist John have used one of his big words – sign – to name it. The other things that Jesus did that John calls “signs” include healing the sick, raising people form the dead, feeding a multitude on five loaves and two fish, and appearing, resurrected from the dead, among his amazed disciples. So “signs” are big, important, meaningful, reality-shifting events.
But how is making a ridiculous amount of wine at a small-town wedding reception on par with raising the dead, feeding the hungry, walking through locked doors to show the scars on his hands and feet and side and proclaiming that death has been defeated? As a “sign,” what does turning water into wine point to? What makes this wine so important?
A wedding or another big family celebration then, as for many of us now, was a time for good wine, a time to spend scarce money on the rarer things of life --- a time to share food and drink that was special, not everyday. And because good wine was something connected with special times and celebrations, it was a great sign in the Bible of the heavenly banquet, what’s called the last times, the eschatological times, the heavenly feast at the end of time as we know it.
For example, listen to the prophet Isaiah’s description of the age to come, the promised fulfillment of God’s plans and dreams for the end of time as we know it. (This is from the 25th chapter of Isaiah.)
“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with [mer] marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, ‘Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” (Isaiah 25:6-9)
This is Isaiah’s image for the end of time, when all is brought to its fulfillment: an end to tears, a clear manifestation of our God, and a great feast for all peoples, a feast of really good meat, rich, fatty food, and wine better than the best you’ve ever tasted. (I know – fatty food might not appeal to all of you, though from the time I was a kid I’ve like the fat on a roast or ham or steak – though we certainly didn’t have steak in those early lean times. I still don’t cut the fat off a serving of meat on my plate. I savor it. At least I don’t beg it off other people’s plates like I remember doing 70 years ago.
Furthermore, as we heard in our first lesson, a symbol of God’s joy over God’s people, of God’s deep love for his people, is a bride and a bridegroom and the delight and rejoicing they share at a marriage celebration.
So, when Jesus makes gallons and gallons of wine at a wedding reception, it is a sign, pointing to the scriptural promises that God will bring all people to God’s own self, that God will pour down his love and the abundance of his joy on all people. It is a sign that the perfection that lies in God’s great future is real. But more – that the future abundance and grace and joy has begun in Jesus Christ. The future is now; the glory and grace and love of God are available now.
That’s why turning water into wine is the first of the many signs Jesus does. This first sign is saying, Look! God’s future is breaking in now; it has begun in Jesus. What else does God’s future look like? It looks like hungry people being fed, sick people being healed, dead people being raised from death, death itself being defeated.
God’s future is available now. In the present. It this life. We don’t have to wait to experience hope. And we can trust that God will keep his promises for the end of time, because Jesus already brought the possibility of joy and hope and new life now, even into the world. Perfection is not yet fully present; perfect wholeness still lies ahead. But trust Jesus. God will keep his promises. His future has already broken into the present in Jesus.
A couple of Sundays ago I was walking through the Safeway parking lot, and I saw window decal that refuted all those “shit happens” bumper stickers. It proclaimed simply “Grace happens.” Yeah! Because Jesus has already brought the possibility of joy and hope and new life into the world, even now.
So how do we participate in this new, grace-filled life, in God’s perfect, joy-filled future available now?
Mary gives the answer: do whatever he tells you. Seek life at its source. Seek joy at its source. Seek to know what Jesus Christ asks of you. This is the essence of discipleship. This is the key for joining Jesus in his new way of being in the world. This is the key to the Jesus Movement: do whatever he tells you.
Notice that the people who realize where the water turned into wine has come from, the people who grasp it firsthand, who see with their own eyes the amazing thing happening in their midst, are the servants. They are the ones who do what Jesus tells them to do. While everyone else around them is caught up in whatever’s going on at the party, whether watching the third quarter or celebrating with the bridegroom and the bride and their families, it’s the servants who get to witness a miracle.
And they get to participate in it. They get to have a hand in Jesus’ first sign. They just do what Jesus tells them to do.
“Fill the jars with water.” And they do.
No arguing that “We need wine, not water.”
“Now draw some out.” And they do.
No complaining – “What’s that going to achieve?”
“And take it.” So they take it.
No “Hey Jesus, I’ve got a better idea.”
They just do the simple, straightforward things Jesus tells them to do, and they get to participate in a miracle.
Do whatever Jesus tells you. Water becomes the finest wine. The mundane becomes miraculous.
‘Jesus tells us all some very simple, straightforward things to do. There are lots of verbs in the gospels – commands, instructions that really aren’t even that hard to understand when it comes right down to it. They’re about simple obedience. Jesus tells us to do things: love, share, give, serve, listen, learn, worship, pray.
God even gives us particulars, contexts and jobs and families, a community, and a church family in which to be obedient. Love him. Love her. Love them. Share your money, your time, your particular gift, your ability with that child, with that elder, with that family. Worship with this parish family. Pray at your desk, at your bedside, at the copy machine, at red lights; with and for your teenager, your spouse, your partner, your siblings, your parents – for this world. Listen for what Jesus tells you to do. Then do it.
You just may participate in a miracle; you may get an epiphany, a glimpse -- a sign -- of God’s perfect future, a sign of God’s heavenly feast, even right here, even right now.