Narrative Lectionary Reflection
January 14, 2018
Epiphany is the season in the church where we talk about the manifestation of Christ in the world. In the gospel of John, what are called miracles in the other gospels, are called signs here; an act that points to Jesus.
So if Epiphany is about Christ made manifest and John says miracles are signs of who he is, then why is the first miracle/sign taking place at a wedding party?
The Wedding at Cana is one of the most odd stories in the gospels. It’s not raising someone from the dead or healing someone with leprosy, it’s not even the feeding of the five thousand. This even takes place at something incredibly ordinary event: a wedding.
But if you look between the line, there is a lot going on here. What matters is not where God is revealed by who God is revealed to.
Let’s look at the Wedding at Cana.
Engaging the Text
This was the first miraculous sign that Jesus did in Cana of Galilee. He revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.
Before we get into the Scripture, we should talk about the environment that Jesus lived in. The producing of wine by supernatural means was a common story in the Mediterranean world. Indeed, my name, Dennis, translates to Dionysus in Greek which was the god of wine. The Roman name for Dionysus is Bacchus, which is where we get the word bacchanal. While this story seems odd to our modern ears, when this story was first told/read in ancient times it made perfect sense.
Jesus is at a wedding with his mother and the disciples in the town of Cana in Galilee. Cana is not heard anywhere else in the gospels. But the writer of John needs to tell his audience that this is taking place in Cana and in Galilee. In this case, the location was important. It was in Galilee where Jesus was welcomed, which is different from Judea, the more cosmopolitan Judea where he was rejected. Galilee is also the place where Jews and Gentiles lived together . Having his first miracle take place here shows that God in Jesus loves both Jew and Gentile and they have equal standing in the new community that Jesus is creating
The wedding Jesus was at was not like modern weddings. In the ancient world a wedding could last days. Someone did not plan to have enough wine for the wedding, and the wine ran out before the party. Today, someone would run down the local liquor store around the corner. Wine had a special place in that society. Wine was a sign of God’s abundance, of hospitality. So, when the wine runs short, it means that abundance is limited. This was a major social faux pas.
John and his mother have an interesting argument about the issue. (the mother of Jesus name, Mary, is never mentioned in John.) She tells Jesus that the party is out of wine. Jesus responds that this is not his concern, his time to be revealed has not come. Mary seems to ignore his complaint as she tells the stewards to do whatever he tells them to do. For Jesus his time meant that he would be the one that would determine when he would reveal himself. But his mother believed that he could provide wine.
It is important to note how his mother brackets Jesus’ ministry. Here, he says “Woman, what does that have to do with me?” When he is on the cross, he sees his mother and tells her,“Woman, here is your son,” meaning John would take care of her from now on.
Jesus relented and asked the stewards to fill six stone jars with water. The jars were used in Jewish religious rituals. Jesus asked that a servant draw out a sample of the water and give to the head steward. This was the person that made sure the wedding guests had food and wine so not having wine mean that blame rested with him. The steward never saw the stone jars being filled with water. The steward was confused when he tasted that water that was now wine. Where did it come from? He was probably also puzzled about why the groom (who was the host) decided to give such good wine at this point in the wedding. Indeed, he goes to the groom and tells him the following:
The headwaiter called the groom 10 and said, “Everyone serves the good wine first. They bring out the second-rate wine only when the guests are drinking freely. You kept the good wine until now.” 1
This is a long way of saying that the groom was viewed as breaking a major hospitality protocol. It was more common to offer the good wine at first and then bring out the cheap wine when the guests are so drunk they won’t tell the difference. But Jesus offered the good wine on the third day.
What is the signifigance of this story? Why is Jesus’ first miracle changing water into wine? What does it say about God?
Remember that John doesn’t call what took place a miracle but a sign. A sign points beyond the act itself to show God. Jesus creates a huge amount of wine and it is not just any old wine, but very good wine, which is not what you would serve to guests three days in of a wedding feast. What we see here is a God that gives abundant grace and love. Notice that it was the servants and not the steward that saw the sign taking place. Another example of grace. Like the feeding of the 5,000 this event shows a God that gives an abundance of love to all of us. It is a love that has no limit.
In the Old Testament, wine is an example of deliverance from the exile. This is what Amos 9:13-14 says:
The days are surely coming, says the Lord,
when the one who plows
will overtake the one who gathers,
when the one who crushes grapes
will overtake the one who sows the seed.
The mountains will drip wine,
and all the hills will flow with it.
14 I will improve the circumstances of my people Israel;
they will rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them.
They will plant vineyards and drink their wine;
and they will make gardens and eat their fruit.
So Jesus turning water into wine is a sign of God coming in the form of Jesus to bring salvation and delieverance.
Sociologist and pastor Tony Campolo once shared a story about giving a birthday party for a prostitute named Agnes. He comes to a restaurant and meets Agnes and learns she never had birthday party and her birthday was the next day. This was her reaction.
Three‐thirty in the morning, in come Agnes and her friends. I’ve got everybody set, everybody ready. As they come through the door, we all yell, “Happy birthday Agnes!” In addition, we start cheering like mad. I’ve never seen anybody so stunned. Her knees buckled. They steadied her and sat her down on the stool. We all started singing, “Happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday to you!”
When they brought out the cake, she lost it and started to cry. Harry just stood there with the cake and said, “All right, knock it off, Agnes. Blow out the candles. Come on, blow out the candles.” She tried, but she couldn’t, so he blew out the candles, gave her the knife, and said, “Cut the cake, Agnes.”
She sat there for a long moment and then she said to me, “Mister, is it okay if I don’t cut the cake? What I’d like to do, mister, is take the cake home and show it to my mother. Could I do that?”
I said, “It’s your cake.” She stood up, and I said, “Do you have to do it now?”
She said, “I live two doors down. Let me take the cake home and show it to my mother. I promise you I’ll bring it right back.” And she moved toward the door carrying the cake as though it was the Holy Grail. As she pushed through the crowd and out the door, the door swung slowly shut and there was stunned silence. You talk about an awkward moment. Everyone was motionless. Everyone was still I didn’t know what to say.
The story ends with the owner of the diner chatting with Campolo and wondering who he really is:
Harry leaned over the counter and said, “Campolo, you told me you were a sociologist. You’re no sociologist, you’re a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?”
In one of those moments when you come up with just the right words, I said, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for whores at three‐thirty in the morning.”
I’ll never forget his response. He looked back at me. “No you don’t, no you don’t. I would join a church like that!”
We worship a God that can turn water into wine and throw birthday parties for a hooker at three in the morning. Are we ready to see God shower people with God’s grace?
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.