HE KEEPS THE PARTY GOING
Second Sunday After the Epiphany (C) - John 2:1-11
The Wedding at Cana traditionally thought of as the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. It comes right at the beginning of John’s Gospel, though he’s the only one who tells the story, and John even calls it, “The first of [Jesus’] signs.” As far as signs, go, though, it’s a rather strange one. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus performs all kinds of miracles. He heals lepers, and helps a blind man see. He ceases the flow of blood for a hemorrhaging woman, and raises a little girl from the dead. He calms a storm that threatens to drown his disciples, and multiplies bread for a crowd of hungry people. He helps people. He heals people. But here, as Jesus’ ministry is just getting started, what does he do to reveal his glory? Jesus is at a party, and when they run out of wine, he makes more. He keeps the party going. Exactly what kind of a miracle is that?
The truth is, there are lots of layers of meaning here. John isn’t as good a storyteller as Mark is, for example, but he is a master craftsman when it comes to meaning and symbols. To understand what John is trying to tell us, we need to dig down into the details of this story to hear everything it can tell us about who Jesus is. Let’s start with the conversation between Jesus and his mother.
When Jesus’ mother tells him about the problem with the wine, he says to her, “My hour has not yet come.” This raises a few questions. What hour? And when does it come? The idea of Jesus’ hour is a thread that runs through the whole Gospel of John. By the end, it becomes very clear what Jesus is talking about. Jesus’ hour does come when he is lifted up on the cross. In our version of what Jesus is up to, we usually see the cross as the moment of suffering, and the resurrection as the moment of Jesus’ glory. For John, though, it’s the crucifixion, not the resurrection, that holds the fullness of Jesus’ glory. This is the moment when it is revealed who Jesus is and what he has come to do. Everything in John’s Gospel points to this.
There’s a wonderful detail in the crucifixion that resonates here with the wedding at Cana. In John’s Gospel, when the soldier pierces Jesus’ side with a spear, water comes out of the wound along with the blood. And here in Jesus’ miracle at Cana, we have water and wine, wine that we know becomes Jesus’ blood in Holy Communion. Right here in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the miracle that he performs is pointing forward to the crucifixion. As Jesus begins his work, he already knows how it’s going to end. That’s Jesus’ purpose; his every movement serves to bring him closer to the “hour” that is to come. Already here, we see his glory in the cross.
And that’s a good thing to take away from this story. But I don’t think it’s the real point.
Let’s look now at the end of the story. The wine is brought to the chief steward, who tastes it and declares it the best wine served so far. In fact, he tells the bridegroom about it, praising him for his decision to save the good wine for last. Of course we all know that the bridegroom had nothing to do with it. Jesus performed this miracle. He’s the one who should be receiving the praise. In fact, in a way, Jesus takes the place of the bridegroom in this passage. The wedding couple is never named; they’re not important. Jesus is who matters.
Throughout the Old Testament, there are stories and prophecies and poetry about the bride and the bridegroom. Hosea prophesies about Israel’s infidelity to God by using the image of a faithful husband and his faithless wife. Jeremiah and Isaiah both use this imagery to talk about the relationship between God and his people. The entire book called the Song of Solomon is poetry telling of the relationship between a bride and groom. Our story in John clearly identifies Jesus as the groom, the husband to God’s people. Jesus is not yet revealed in this passage in his fullness, but we already can see his glory because he serves in the role of bridegroom here.
And that’s a good thing to take away from this story. But I don’t think it’s the real point either.
Let’s look instead at the wine itself. It is the best wine at the party. When Jesus does these things, he goes all in. He doesn’t just produce Boone’s Farm, or Arbor Mist Sangria-flavored Zinfandel. He doesn’t even really want to do this miracle, and he still produces the best merlot around for miles. And then there are the jars. There are six of them, large stone jars, each of which holds about twenty-five gallons. That’s one hundred fifty gallons of wine. Think of that for a moment! That is not a small amount of wine. That’s about 757 bottles. To be fair, a wedding party in the ancient world usually lasted about seven days. But that’s still more than 100 bottles to go through each day. I think you’d be a little hard pressed to do that. God’s grace is like that; it comes in enormous, overflowing quantities.
And they’re purification jars, used in Jewish rituals. We don’t know a whole lot about the Jewish religious system in the late second temple period, and the jars that John describes don’t fit into a nice category for what we do know. But there are lots of different kinds of purification rituals specified in the Old Testament. Water is what’s usually used to cleanse things, and so it’s interesting that Jesus turns the water into wine. The purification that took place before through water is now taken care of by his blood.
And then there’s that transformation. We who are filled up with the Holy Spirit in our Baptism with water are transformed into something new. We become the body and blood of Christ here in the world. We are transformed by Jesus, the bread and the wine, into his own self, active in the world around us.
And maybe we even become the means through which the world is purified, sanctified, made holy and new, as we perform God’s work in our own community.
And those are all great things to take away from this story. All of them are true. All of them are meaningful. All of them make deep, meaningful, powerful religious and spiritual sentiments that can help us understand our place in God’s world and our relationship with our Creator. They are worth meditating on, worth dwelling in, worth living a whole life through each one. And they are still not where I think the real point is.
I’ve been re-reading the Chronicles of Narnia lately, those wonderful children’s books written by C.S. Lewis some sixty-five years ago. There’s a wonderful passage in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Lucy has found herself in the home of a magician, searching through his spell book for something. As she pages through it, she comes upon a spell “for the refreshment of the spirit.” Instead of a magic spell, it turns out to be a story, one that goes on for three pages. Arriving at its end, she exclaims, “That is the loveliest story I’ve ever read or ever shall read in my whole life. Oh, I wish I could have gone on reading it for ten years.” Later on, when she meets Aslan, the figure of God in these novels, she begs him to tell the story to her again. And he says, “Indeed, yes, I will tell it to you for years and years.”
And that’s just how this beautiful story of the wedding at Cana—and frankly, all of scripture—goes. We could, and perhaps will, delve into the details of this story for years and years, for an eternity, and still never quite plumb the depths of it. Here, reflected in it, in this simple little narrative about the party that takes place after a marriage, is the story of our lives, the story of how much God loves us, so much that there is literally no end to the grace and love that God pours out on us. The waters of Baptism overflow. The bread is always present and the wine is always poured out. The people who love us are always many, and the forgiveness God has to offer is always at hand.
It is as if we have been invited to a party, and we’re having the time of our lives. And just when it looks like the party is coming to an end, like the supplies have dried up, Jesus points to the stone jars tucked in the corner and says, “Look, there’s another hundred and fifty gallons.” Maybe it really is simply that Jesus just keeps the party going after all. Amen.