June 7, 2015 First Sunday After Trinity
The Water Blushed
St. John 2:1-11
As is the case with so many Bible stories, the account of our Lord’s turning water into wine in the second chapter of the Gospel of John has an interesting history.
Ephrem the Syrian was born in the first decade of the fourth century in a place near the modern border of Turkey and Syria. He was a prolific writer of sermons, hymns – more than 400 of which are still around today -- and theologies.
In his writing he revels in the Mesopotamian/Persian tradition of mystery symbolism and, like many others of his time, in searching for hidden meanings in biblical texts. In the story before us, he decided, the six large stone water pots represent the womb of the virgin through which the Christ entered the world.
If only the apostle John were around so we could test that idea today.
Others once claimed that the story was a Christianized adaptation of the Dionysus myth. Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, purveyed the surfeit of mirth and joy – of abundant life – that comes with intoxication.
The church, it was said, purloined that myth and recast it as the water-into-wine story. Few, if any, push that particular brand of malarkey today.
Yet many still refuse to accept the biblical accounts of our Lord’s miracles. The Enlightenment and subsequent idolizing of science have made us more rationalistic than our ancestors, not less so. Simply stated, if we can’t understand a thing, it can’t be true.
This crowd must have a hard time indeed with John’s gospel, and in particular with chapters 2-11, which have been called the “book of signs.” The balance of the gospel is termed the “book of glory.”
Chapters 2-4 form a sub-unit that focuses on the end of the old and the beginning of the new. The old purifying baths of water give way to the new wine of the kingdom of God. The old temple yields to the new temple that is the resurrected Christ.
We find a dialogue that reveals the new birth as the symbol of the new creation. We observe the difference between the water from Jacob’s well and the living water from Christ.
And we note the contrast between the worship of the Jews on Mount Zion and the Samaritans on Mount Gerizim on the one hand and worship “in spirit and truth” on the other.
Our text for today portrays the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry . . . and it needs no allegorizing or embellishment to yield many nuggets of theological gold.
For openers, we see that Jesus is no hermit. Those expecting an ascetic Messiah who would cloister Himself in a place such as Qumran would have been scandalized to find Him at a party in the first place and contributing to the tipsiness in the second.
The new wine of the new birth gladdens the hearts of those who imbibe it. God does not endorse drunkenness but neither does he condemn alcohol. And for the record, those who insist the word here translated “wine” refers to non-alcoholic grape juice have not consulted Ephesians 5(:18): “And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.”
No warning is needed where no danger exists. When God provides for us in abundance, whether of food or drink or any manner of things, it is up to us to exercise temperance in our use of that provision and allot the excess for the benefit of others in need rather than glut ourselves.
Jesus’ mother and His disciples are also present, and so we conclude that a relative or close friend of the family is marrying. Mary may have been involved in arrangements. She would not have been responsible for providing wine but she exhibits a desire to avoid embarrassment that might fall on the groom.
A wedding celebration typically lasted a week and the groom was responsible for underwriting its cost. Running out of wine would have been a grievous social sin – and might have exposed him to legal action by the bride’s family.
Mary’s intercession raises a question: Did she expect a miracle? Probably not; there was no precedent. This was Jesus’ first. In all likelihood, Mary was a widow by this time. Joseph disappeared from the narrative after the incident at the temple when Jesus was 12 years old.
Jesus is referred to as both the carpenter’s son and the carpenter. Mary would have relied heavily on her eldest son and had no doubt learned to trust in His resourcefulness. God must have been a handy Guy to have around.
We have before us the first of what have traditionally been seen as His seven signs in the Fourth Gospel. John does not report as many miracles as Matthew, Mark and Luke. Instead he selects a few and weaves around them narrative to demonstrate that Jesus of Nazareth – less than 10 miles from Cana, where this wedding is set – is the Christ.
In the original, the evangelist ignores words translated “miracles” and “wonders” and sticks to semeion, or “sign.” He is determined that we understand that Jesus’ mighty works are not naked displays of power, magic tricks done to wow the masses.
No, the Lord is offering these evidences of His wonder-working power to point to deeper realities behind them . . . for those who look on them with the eyes of faith. Yet considered from another point of view, the signs are spectacular, even by the standard of miracles. Jesus doesn’t merely turn water into wine; He turns it into superior wine.
We will follow as He not only heals the royal official’s son but does so from afar; not only restores the use of his legs to a lame man but one who had been crippled for 38 years; not only gives sight to a blind man but one who had been blind from birth; not only raises Lazarus from the grave but waits until he has been four days dead, beyond the time a man’s spirit has left his body according to Jewish teaching.
Why up the ante? Why overrule nature in such jaw-dropping ways? So magnificent are these signs that those who see them and continue to refuse to believe in Him are without excuse. They condemn themselves.
His signs reveal His glory. John concludes the passage by referring us back to the prologue: “the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14). Jesus would display His greatest glory in His resurrection and ascension but – be not deceived – He manifested that glory in His every step upon this earthly coil.
Did all who beheld His works admire His glory? Only those with the eyes of faith. At the wedding, the servants saw but did not understand; the disciples saw and believed. We will no doubt recall this first miracle when we arrive at the author’s purpose statement in chapter 20:
“And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (vv. 30-31).
I get a chill when I read those words.
Much has been made of Mary’s request and Jesus’ enigmatic answer, and in particular His form of address: “Woman.” In the context it is not discourteous but neither is it an endearment, the way of speech to be expected of a loving son addressing his mother. It’s on the sharp side.
What has Mary done? She has treated her son as has been her custom in his youth and early adulthood. Now that He has embarked on His public ministry she must approach Him according to a new paradigm.
With Peter and others of the Lord’s intimates, even Mary must understand that she is approaching the God of all creation and Savior of the world. She has presumed on the blood tie. His reply -- literally, “What to Me and to you?” – amounts to a mild rebuke.
Yes, she bore Him and nursed Him, clothed Him and fed Him, yet not here only but throughout He keeps a measure of distance between Himself and His mother. In one exchange, a woman in a crowd cries out:
"Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts which nursed You!" Jesus responds, "More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:27b-28)
How trying must this be for a mother; how excruciating for this mother.
On the cross, He will provide for her future, assigning this same apostle John as her guardian, but make no mistake, His first allegiance is to His heavenly Father, to whom He will soon return. Blessed are you among women, Mary . . . but you are not divine.
John Calvin wrote, “How necessary this warning became in consequence of the enormous and abominable superstitions which followed is known well enough. For Mary has been made Queen of Heaven, the Hope, the Life and Salvation of the world; and in fact, some went so far that they just about stripped Christ naked and adorned Mary with his spoils . . .
“As if she had not all the honor that belongs to her without being made a goddess! As if it were honoring her to adorn her with sacrilegious titles and put her in Christ’s place!”
Mary is thinking pragmatically and Jesus theologically. The Old Testament prophets foretold that when Messiah was come the wine would flow abundantly. Yes, Messiah is come, but He has not yet been exalted, and only then will the new covenant age be inaugurated.
Jesus, meanwhile, is correcting the shortcomings of the anonymous bridegroom in our passage. He will ascend and return to His Father as the perfect messianic bridegroom. He will preside over the eternal wedding banquet that is the age of eternity yet to come.
Well, Mary is not divine but she is an exemplar of human faith. She does not answer Him back; instead she tells the servants, “Whatever He says to you, do it.” She puts her uncompromising faith in Him – not in her son but in the Son. Rebuked for approaching Him too casually, she responds by trusting Him perfectly.
In this exchange we see the prototype of a pattern that will run through the Fourth Gospel. The Lord initially turns down a request, then appears to relent and provide the assistance requested as He deems fitting, often after a demonstration of the petitioner’s faith.
At Jesus’ first miracle, the spotlight must remain on Him and His glory, not Mary’s. We must see the disciples’ faith, including Mary’s.
And perhaps we are meant to see something less obvious. When we ask something of our Lord in prayer, as we await His answer, we should ask something of ourselves: Have we put our trust – all of our trust – in Him?
We often ask the Lord for something on the assumption that He is obligated to supply our need rather than putting the request before Him and believing implicitly that He in His omniscience will do what is best.
In our Office of Morning Prayer we pray the words of St. Chrysostom: “Fulfil now, O Lord, the desires and petitions of thy servants, as may be most expedient for them . . .” Or, in the words of Christ: “Not My will but Thine be done.”
Just as faith without works is dead, petition without obedience is empty.
The vessels containing water for ceremonial washings are costly items of stone, which is less likely to admit ceremonial impurity than earthenware pots. The Talmud, the Jewish commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures, lists 1,001 regulations for ritual washings, more than in any other category.
These six stone pots would have accommodated a total of 150 gallons. When Jesus turns the water into wine He signals a seismic shift from law to grace, from life to life more abundantly. Filling them “to the brim” leaves no room for the old things and the old ways. To borrow a verse from Paul:
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
A former inmate named Harold Morris reacted to that verse in this way: “The promise of 2 Corinthians 5:17 is that a person in Christ becomes a new creature. That included Convict 62345. Old habits and attitudes were replaced as the Spirit of God worked in my life.
“The vengeance that I had nourished for five years and the rebellious spirit that had been a driving force in my life relaxed their grip when Christ took control. Little by little he replaced my hatred by his love.
“Sometimes I lay in the prison yard looking at the sky and relishing the joy and peace that I’d found in Christ. The bars and fences were still there, as were the guards with their high-powered rifles. But I had an inner strength I’d never known before – the very presence of Christ.”
It is left to the “master of the feast” – we might call him the “chief steward” – to reveal that this new wine is far better than what the guests had already consumed. The point is not that those guests are too drunk to notice the higher quality.
The point is that Jesus has reversed the order of things; what is to come is superior to what it will replace.
This is “the beginning of signs Jesus did,” perhaps referring us back to 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word . . .” and the new creation theme. As the first sign, it presages those that will follow by introducing the dispensation of grace the Christ has come to establish. As we saw in the prologue, the law of Moses must give way to the grace of Christ.
The God who was in the beginning in Genesis, who was before all things, who created all things, has power over all He has made. The God of creation is the God of re-creation. In the felicitous phrase of William Temple, who was archbishop of Canterbury, “The modest water saw its God and blushed.”
Does this event, this sign, seem remote to you? It did not to St. Augustine. He wrote:
“He who made the wine at this wedding does the same thing every year in the vines. As the water which the servants put into the water-pots was turned into wine by the Lord, so that which the clouds pour down is turned into wine by the same Lord.” Amen.