Albuquerque, New Mexico
Sunday January 17, 2010
Preacher: Fr. Christopher McLaren
Text: John 2: 1-11 The Wedding Feast at Cana
Drink Deep the Life and Love of God’s New Wine
The Wedding Feast at Cana is one of the three primary stories of the Epiphany season alongside the Visit of the Magi and Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. It is one of the first stories of Jesus in action and how wonderful that it is at a wedding, no rather a wedding party that Jesus begins to reveal the Glory of God. From the very beginning we learn that God is one who shows up where we are. Our artificial separation of the sacred from the secular is broken down as Jesus begins his ministry at a party of all places.
Strangely it is a quiet almost reluctant tale. Jesus and his disciples are at a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee with his mother. The simple phrase, “When the wine gave out,” introduces the crisis of the story. Perhaps Jesus and his disciples were unexpected guests and somewhat responsible the wine running out, we are not told. We are only told that Jesus’ mother alerts him to the problem facing the newly married couple.
“When the wine gave out” is an evocative phrase. The party has come to a dessicated halt. The wine jugs are bone dry. The rejoicing of those at this feast is about to end. The maidens will soon cease their dancing. The merriment of old and young alike is about to be interrupted. I wonder if this phrase can be heard by us in a more personal way. Could this wedding feast be our lives? How like our lives at times is this phrase, “When the wine gave out.” Do you know what it is to be bone dry? Have you ever felt like the feast that is your life is running on empty? Are you tired, spent, weary, exhausted, drained, at a loss for inspiration? Perhaps the story of the wedding feast is about something deeper and more contemporary than a young couple in a little known village in Galilee long ago? Perhaps the crisis of this story is closer to us than we imagined.
Jesus’ response to his mother is hardly gallant. He sounds a bit punchy and disrespectful in this vignette. More than one parent has probably wondered why we read this passage in church? Jesus says, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” In the Greek Jesus sounds odd, distant toward his mother, strangely like a sullen teenager, hardly acceptable. What is at work in this passage? The time is not right for his manifestation, his epiphany. John, the gospel writer is careful in his narrative to build up to the disclosure of Jesus’ glory in its proper time. Jesus must do what the Father has given him to do. The final epiphany is reserved for the lifting up of Jesus from the earth. John wants us to understand Jesus’ glory but not too soon it seems.
Jesus’ mother is not deterred for a moment from her purpose. Immediately she instructs the servants to “Do whatever he tells you.” Ponder this phrase for a moment. “Do whatever he tells you.” Is this a practical instruction given at a country wedding? As John frames it, in all of its odd simplicity, from the mouth of Mary comes a command for the ages, “Do whatever he tells you.” This is an invitation to seek life at its source, for in this gospel Jesus is the source of new life, “whoever hears my word and believes has eternal life (John 3:36, 5:24).” In the midst of this troubled wedding feast is a bold call to discipleship, for those who would be Jesus’ servants. Put plainly doing “whatever Jesus tells you to do” is the essence of discipleship. If we were to stop here we could capture the story by saying simply- “When the wine of your life gives out, do whatever Jesus says.”
And then comes the mystery and wonder. Jesus uses what is at hand, six stone jars for purification rites. They are not wine vessels but rather stone vessels used to hold water to wash the feet and hands of dusty travelers. It is no small task to fill these containers. It would have required a great deal of water hauling. A hundred and fifty gallons would have provided a large amount of “good wine” for a party already in progress. But I guess I don’t know what parties are like at your house. Whatever Jesus is doing it is not a small thing.
His instructions are simple “Fill the jars with water.” We are told they filled them to the brim and did as Jesus instructed drawing some out and taking it to the chief steward. All of this of course makes perfect sense in the flow of the story, but this is not a Perrier commercial. Only when we are told that the steward tasted the water that had become wine do we understand that something miraculous taken place. Time begins to swirl, when did it become wine? Did the servants know? Where has this good wine come from? Minds are stretched, who is this one who makes new wine? Life is renewed, the party continues, and best is saved for last. The stone jars holding water for the ancient rites are used to deliver the new wine of a new time and a new relationship.
In this simple disarming story of Jesus saving a young couples’ beginning from public embarrassment and shame, we are given much to ponder. Who is this master of the revels who gives new life to the nuptial celebration? Who is this wonder-worker who reverses the order of things, providing the best vintage after the party is in full-swing?
No one speaks ill of water in the deserts of the Middle East, or New Mexico for that matter. Living in dry country we know the blessing of water and the deep symbolism of thirst and its refreshment, of rivers and streams making glad a landscape, of rain blessing the earth. Its preciousness is defining, its abundance rare. Similarly, wine was not something that everyone had and drank freely. Wine was a cash crop. The poor drank little wine, ate less meat and quenched their thirst with water. But at a wedding or other large family celebration it was different. Families would save and sacrifice to do it up right. Family and friends passed harsh judgments on those who could not host a wedding in style and abundance. No expense was to be spared. Meat of all kinds was served in abundance and wine flowed freely. It our story it is not that water is looked down upon, but rather that wine is most fitting for the occasion.
As Frederick Buechner writes, “Wine is booze, which means it is dangerous and drunk-making. It makes the timid brave and the reserved amorous. It loosens the tongue and breaks the ice especially when served in a loving cup. It kills germs. As symbols go, it is a rather splendid one (Wishful Thinking, p. 96).”
Water turning into wine is powerfully symbolic. Some rabbinic writings set the water of this age against the wine of the future. And often, eschatological writings envision the hoped-for age-to-come as flowing with an abundance of wine. Listen to the words 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 marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. .. and he will swallow up death forever. (Isaiah 25:6)
The wedding feast at Cana is a story of a new age. In the person of Jesus God is doing something new, but it is hidden to all but a few at this telling. The miracle of water into wine is kept from the crowd. They continue to celebrate clueless of the strange and wonderful work done behind the scenes. The event is faith-producing in the small circle of Jesus’ mother and his disciples for others it was simply the best wedding feast in recent memory. The story quickly shifts away from the drama of the abundant and superior wine to the mundane of everyday life as the disciples return to Capernaum and stay there a few days.
What is this story telling us? In a wonderfully disarming way I believe this story tells us that Jesus is the life of the party. When your wine has run out, it is God who comes near, it is God who presides over the refilling of our lives, it is God who can once again gladden our hearts and bring us back into life. To be sure we must respond and “do whatever we hear Jesus ask of us”: love your enemy, forgive one another from the heart, show compassion, do justice, pray without ceasing, live simply, be generous, be vulnerable, seek peace, in the midst of these you will discover the new wine of life, the best wine, which must be enjoyed in the midst of ordinary life. To know Jesus, to walk in his ways, is to experience the intoxicating love of God, is to be transformed, to be made new.
Listen to the poetry of Isaiah as he shamelessly tells Israel of God’s love for her and God’s desire to marry himself to his people,
You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the LORD delights in you,
and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.
This is poetry that describes a passionate and sensual God who desires to know and be among his people. God erotically risks, desires union with humanity. So God comes close enough to be not only God for us, but also God with us. This is our story, that a most amazing overture of love is revealed anew at this wedding feast. The God who was from the first so joyously creative extends that divine creativity to become Incarnate. Through a young woman’s yes God smuggles himself into our world for a miraculous move on humanity, bringing newness and abundance to us in himself.
As I ponder this deeply mystical story of the Wedding at Cana, I wonder who’s wedding feast this is? I believe this story is inviting you to your own wedding feast, the wedding feast of your soul. It seems Christ is the lover come to celebrate your union with God. I wonder what it will take for you to join the feast in progress? Do you sense any newness around you? Can you feel the Spirit urging you on? Are you willing to fill up the jars that have been standing dark and hollow in the corner of your life? I wonder, do you believe that water can become wine, the intoxicating wine of God’s newness in our life? What will it take? Has the wine given out? Are you ready to do what ever God tells you?
In a few minutes the invitation to the wedding feast will be given, as you reach into heaven to receive the bread and wine of this marriage feast of your soul, as you guide the chalice of new life to your lips, taking Christ into your very core, know that newness is in that cup, newness is hidden in your very midst. Drink deep, the love and life of God. Do whatever he tells you and find life everlasting and then smuggle, drag and wrestle it back into the world with you.
Hear this ancient prayer and know that it is speaking to us. It is speaking to you.
Today the Bridegroom claims his bride, the church, since Christ has washed her sins away in Jordan’s waters; the Magi hasten with their gifts to the royal wedding; and the wedding guests rejoice, for Christ has changed water into wine, alleluia.