Water into Wine

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Epiphany, Year C 2015

We are in the season of Epiphany in the church calendar. It’s not as well-known as Christmas or Advent or Lent or Easter. Epiphany is the season that commemorates the revealing of Jesus to mankind. Epiphany has long been associated with three key events from the Gospels: the visitation of the Magi, Jesus’ Baptism and the wedding at Cana. These are the first episodes in the Gospel that begin to reveal Jesus to the world and reveal him as the Messiah. In year C of the lectionary—our current year—we get to follow this ancient pattern of Magi, baptism, and the wedding at Cana on successive Sundays. It is to this third story that we turn our attention this morning. Please join me in the second chapter of the Gospel of John.

On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.

(John 2:1-11 ESV)

Collect of the day:[1]

         Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Our Gospel opens with the phrase, “On the third day.” The third day of what? If we read through chapter one, it is third day since Jesus starting calling disciples. According to John, Jesus has 4 disciples by this point—at least he names four of them—Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip, and Nathanael. Jesus is just at the very beginning of his public ministry.

They are at a wedding and Jesus’ mother notices that something is amiss. They are running out of wine. She points that out to her son, and he has an interesting reply. “My hour has not yet come.” This phrase is used in several other places in the Gospels. In both John 7:30 and 8:20 it is use to explain why those who sought to arrest or kill Jesus where unable to. It was not his time.

We can compare these scenes with Jesus praying in the Garden where he says, “The hour has come.” (17:1) In other words, now it’s time. Apparently, at this wedding, it’s not time yet. Maybe Jesus was just foreshadowing Paul Masson?[2]  “We will sell no wine before it’s time?” (I didn’t really expect anybody to get a reference to a wine commercial from 1979.)

Anyway…. Jesus is the creator of time. He is not limited by time and schedules as you and I are. What does he mean, “My hour has not yet come?” It reveals that he seeks to do all things in a fitting and sequential manner. He knows that we, as imperfect and fallen people, need time to process things. We need time to draw connections and come to conclusions. If Jesus had been arrested and crucified immediately after his baptism would anyone have understood what was going on or its significance? It seems highly doubtful.

“My hour has not yet come,” I have just gathered these disciples. I have barely had time to teach them anything. I’m not sure they are quite ready to see a miracle happen yet. I plan to call a few more. I don’t want them to get the wrong idea that I’m just some sort of genie that goes around granting wishes. The requirement for time is ours, not God’s. In part, because of these considerations, we see Jesus perform a low-key miracle. Let us observe as events unfold.

“Do whatever he tells you.” Mary presumably knew that Jesus’ reluctance came not from lack of power but from humility. Her word to the servants at the wedding feast is her word to us sitting here in chapel today.

My son Jesus is here. Do whatever he tells you.

We’ll return to that thought in a few minutes.

“Six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification.” This is not some trivial detail, but is actually a key point in this narrative for several reasons. First, it is given to us. The Gospel writers, generally speaking, aren’t big on detail, are they? There are hundreds, if not thousands of details we can find ourselves wondering about as we read these pages. What did Jesus wear? Did he and his disciples look like they do in our movies? Which movie? Did Jesus make white wine or red? The list goes on and on. So when we get a detail like this given to us, 6 stone jars, of the type used for the rites of purification, each holding 20-30 gallons, we had better pay attention. There is some reason for its inclusion.

What was the normal purpose of these jars? To have water on hand to be able to perform the ritual cleansings that were part of the law given to Moses. Remember, there was no running water in those days. These jars held the water necessary to have on hand to keep the Old Testament law. This detail lets us know something else—these jars never contained anything but water. You had to use pure water for purification. Therefore, John is letting us know what happened was actually a miraculous transformation, not merely the servants cutting what wine was left with water and somehow passing it off.

But I get ahead of myself.

Jesus tells the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. These servants modeled to the disciples, and for us, perfect obedience. They took no half-steps. They fulfilled the Lord’s command to the uttermost, filling the jars to the brim. Perfect, unquestioning, obedience.

They took Mary’s advice and did whatever he told them to do. They didn’t quibble on the meaning of “full” or complain about having to haul between 120 and 180 gallons of water from the nearest well to complete this task. Think about how much you like carrying two gallons of milk from the commissary to your car and multiply that 60 to 90 times. That’s up to three-quarters of a ton of water. This was not some trivial obedience of giving someone a cup of water. But they don’t shirk or skimp.

To the brim. Oh that we would so willingly and utterly obey our Lord.

Having completed this task in obedience, Jesus now tests the faith of the servants. “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” Faith is required to exercise this obedience—more faith than just refilling the jars with water. The servants aren’t going to get yelled at for filling water jars with water. But taking water to the master of the feast and trying to pass it off as wine, that’s a different story.

We need to understand the role of the master of the feast. In contemporary terms we might think of him as the wedding coordinator, or the manager of the banquet facility. It was his job to assure everything went well, that the food and drink was of sufficient quality and served at the right time. He was not a fellow partier, this was his job. His assessment of the wine is not one of a partially inebriated guest.

The master of the feast tastes their offering and says nothing to the servants. He calls the groom over. Why? Because, according to tradition at this point in history, it was the groom’s responsibility to supply wine for the wedding banquet. So, if there was any issue with the wine, ultimately it was the groom’s problem.

This is the moment of faith being tested for the servants. They gave the fluid previously known to be water to the master of the feast and his response is, “get the groom.” I can imagine their stomachs may have jumped into their throats. They don’t know how this is going to turn out yet. They just know that this woman Mary told them to do whatever her son said to do. They did, and now here they are wondering if they are going to be in trouble after hauling all that water from the well.

The groom comes to the master of the feast. The groom is possibly already a bit nervous himself, if he has also noticed that the wine supply is running dry and the party isn’t over. “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when the people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” You did it wrong. You got the cases in the wrong order.

This may have been a great relief to the groom—hey, at least we’re not out. It was a great relief—and source of wonder—to the servants. Jesus did it. They don’t know how, but this Jesus did something. They put water in those jars and now they are full of wine. Good wine. Good enough that there is no question that it is better than everything they have served at this reception up to this point.

It was Jesus’ first miracle to his disciples. As their dry glasses were now refilled, they probably looked in wonder at Jesus. How did he do that? He never got up from his seat. Hey, this is good wine….

This was the first of his signs, and manifested his glory. It may have taken a bit for the disciples to fully process the significance of what happened. As they would go on to see blind men healed, demons dramatically cast out, and the dead raised, they would also think back to this wedding and the miraculous wine. It at least made enough of an impression upon John that he recorded it in his Gospel.

Cool story. So what?

I think there are a few points we can draw from this episode that have relevance to us today. There is some significant symbolism going on here that we should be attuned to.

First, Jesus cares about the details of our life. They are running out of wine at a wedding reception. This isn’t world hunger. This is at most a social embarrassment. We do well to remember that our small things are big to God’s love, and our big things are small to his power. If it matters to us, God cares.

Second, Jesus is fulfilling the role of the bridegroom. Whoever this man was whose wedding they were attending, he had failed to supply enough wine. Jesus steps in and shows himself to be a better groom. Jesus, of course, we are told later in the New Testament, is the groom and we—the church—are his bride[3]. Our baptism is our ceremonial cleansing before the wedding (remember those 6 stone jars?) and the Eucharist is the foreshadowing of the wedding feast we will celebrate upon his return for us.[4]

Third, Jesus made wine. I know that this upsets some people. But if the language of scripture means anything at all, we can’t argue this point. He took stone jars for fulfilling the law given through Moses. Moses, whom God used to give the Israelites water in the desert during the Exodus. Water sustains life, it is important. Wine, on the other hand brings joy.[5] It is a symbol of moving from surviving to thriving.

God did not give the best first, but waited to send us his Son. God spent thousands of years watching and working through Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua and on and on. But he did not send his Son until it was time. God is patient that we might receive blessings in fullness. God works slowly that we—the slow ones—might understand what he is doing. Jesus comes to give us not just life, but life abundantly.[6]

Wine lasts, and the best wines get better with age. Water gets tepid and if not perfectly pure, can grow things. There were no Brita pitchers or reverse-osmosis systems back then. More theologically, Jesus takes the water—the sign of our baptism, our repentance, our beginning in obedience, and transforms it into wine—the symbol of his blood. His blood shed for us for the forgiveness of our sins. His blood, through which he entered into glory. His blood, through which we are promised new and everlasting life. His blood, symbolized in the wine of the Eucharist.[7] The wine we will share at the wedding supper of the Lamb.

Finally, Jesus manifests himself through servants. From the point of view of most everyone at that wedding, Jesus did nothing. He didn’t get up, he never touched the jars or the water. The servants, responded in obedience, and then faith. They saw the blessing that Jesus bestowed. Through the obedience of the servants, everyone was blessed.

God has always worked that way. Hey Noah, build me an Ark. Through faith, he obeys and is blessed. Hey Moses, go tell pharaoh to let my people go. Through faith, he obeys and blesses all of Israel. Hey Gideon, lead my army. Hey Isaiah, go prophesy to my people. Hey Peter, follow me. Hey Paul, stop persecuting Christians and preach to Gentiles.

Faith that culminates in obedience leads to God’s blessing. Not just for the one responding in obedience, but for others. We’re blessed by Noah. If he hadn’t obeyed, we probably wouldn’t be here. If the disciples hadn’t obeyed, there would be no church and we would know nothing of Jesus. Even Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah, was obedient in faith and brought blessing to us.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

(Philippians 2:5-11 ESV)

Jesus became obedient, therefore God blessed him by exalting him. What is God calling you to do? If you have no idea, just start reading through the Gospels. Jesus tells us all sorts of things to do. Love God. Love your neighbor. Be humble. The list goes on and on.

What is God calling you to do? Now listen to Mary. “Do whatever he tells you.” Follow the example of the servants. Carry the water. Step out in faith. Risk being blessed through faithful obedience.

Let us pray.

Grant us obedient hearts, O God.

Let the servant’s immediate and whole-hearted response be a source of encouragement and challenge to us.

Like them, may we listen to your call to venture into unknown and grace-filled experience.

May our trust grow to such a depth, that we respond in wholehearted fashion, knowing that your ways are beyond our understanding and your compassion broader than we can imagine.

With obedient hearts, may we play a role, however small, in the great plan of your salvation,  that same plan that through the obedience of the servants at the wedding, was revealed to the world.

In the name of your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, Amen.[8]

Benediction:

May you be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.[9] Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly that all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations.[10] In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] Collect for the Second Sunday of Epiphany, 1979 Book of Common Prayer

[2] Orson Wells did a series of popular commercials for this wine brand in the late 70’s and the tag line was always, “Paul Masson, we will sell no wine before its time.” Of course, you can find them on YouTube.

[3] Revelation 21:9

[4] Luke 22:18

[5] Zechariah 10:7, Psalm 104:15

[6] John 10:10

[7] See Matthew 26:26-29 and parallels. Make no mistake, they were celebrating the Passover, which involves several cups of wine.

[8] Adapted from http://go.sadlier.com/prayer-for-an-obedient-heart-prayer-card

[9] 1 Corinthians 15:58

[10] Ephesians 3:20-21

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