Right in the middle of our Christmas day celebrations this past year the water main burst in our front yard. We discovered the issue in the middle of the afternoon, just as we were getting ready to put all the food on the table. As you can imagine, it quickly became priority numero uno. The soil between our sidewalk and the water meter (yes, it was “our problem”) was rising fast as if it were a large, wet, bubble of grass. Water was beginning to spill into the street and onto our sidewalk. We had no idea how much damage the leak was doing or how much it was costing us by the minute. We had a house full of company and they were beginning to research hotel options for the night in case we lost all water. And as far as the celebration at hand was concerned, we couldn’t finish cooking, we couldn’t wash dishes—heaven help us, we couldn’t even make coffee!—we couldn’t, quite honestly, focus on Christmas until we find someone who could solve the problem. But who? I didn’t know where to begin. And on Christmas day, of all days? You don’t have to be a genius to know that Christmas day isn’t the ideal time to have a major outdoor water problem.
As it turns out, some plumbers do work on Christmas day…for a pretty penny. After calling around a bit, I finally found our savior of the day: a guy named Steve who had just started working for one of the local plumbing companies. For about three hours he labored with pipes and an acetylene torch in our cold, dark, wet front yard getting the water to flow again, and—need I say it?—saving Christmas.
Jesus finds himself at a wedding in Cana that hits a similar snafu, except, believe it or not, the emergency is even more severe. They’ve had a wine bust; that is, there wasn’t any more. At a first-century wedding, if the wine runs out, things start to wind down pretty quickly. The party is essentially over, and people start to research hotel options, if you know what I mean. It is difficult for our twenty-first century minds to comprehend what a major deal this was, but like our broken water main, it is an issue that must be addressed immediately.
Weddings in those days were pretty much the biggest celebrations anyone was ever a part of. Regardless of the size or wealth or status of the families whose offspring were being united in marriage, all weddings involved enormous parties. They typically lasted for a week or more. The wedding hosts, the bridegroom and his family, were responsible for lining up all the food and drink that would be consumed. In a small village like Cana, that would mean enlisting all your friends and connections, calling in all your favors, and asking them to deliver, ahead of time, jugs of wine. So, if you ran out of wine, especially only two or three days into the occasion, it didn’t just mean that your guests would leave. It basically announced to everyone that you didn’t have a whole lot of friends, that you hadn’t provided people a lot of favors in the past. It did a number on your honor, an embarrassing situation that your family might never recover from.
|Jan Cornelisz "The Marriage at Cana" c. 1530|
John tells us that this is the first of Jesus’ signs, which is his word for miracles. John calls them signs because, in his mind, they don’t just display Jesus’ power; like a sign, they symbolize or say something in particular about who Jesus is or what he does. For John, they communicate something specific about the nature of Jesus’ life and how his life interacts with ours. God is revealing God’s glory through Jesus incrementally—shining the light on him from a different angle each time—and when we read them the way John unpacks them we can better understand how precious Jesus really is.
You see, for the guests at that wedding party, the members of that village and those families who were gathered there, the amazing thing that happened was that the water turned to wine. For the bridegroom, the astonishing, marvelous occurrence was the rebirth of his party. For the steward, the miracle was that the generosity of the bridegroom: he had saved the best wine for last.
But we know that the real miracle, the real sign, was the guest who made this transformation happen. His presence, his love, his grace has the ability to take what is a bleak and dire situation and make it new and hopeful again. His death on the cross—the hour of his ultimate glory, the hour he really came for—will transform the bleakest of situations, the deadest and most macabre of parties into an experience of everlasting life and renewal for us. In other words, Jesus is God’s glorious new wine that is poured out for everyone at just the right moment. It is being poured out now. Any time sins are forgiven, relationships are rebuilt, hope is restored, or pain is shared…there is Jesus bringing new life to an urgent situation.
There are a lot of characters in this story all running around...Mary, Jesus, of course, but also the disciples, the steward, the bridegroom, dozens of guests. What if the church were to see itself in this story as those stone jars? What if the church, the body of Christ, were to serve in the world as the vessels through which the world can taste the life-giving wine of Christ? In fact, that becomes the basis of my prayer for the church today, especially during this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: that we can learn to understand ourselves not so much as people who are trying to keep an institution afloat or an organization up and running, but instead as a vessel, a trough, that presents to everyone the transformation that is Jesus’ love. My hope is that we can learn on an ever deeper level that we do not exist for ourselves and our own self-betterment but that we are offered up in the glory of Christ to be present in the midst of a suffering world.
There has been so much talk in wider church lately, and even in the Virginia Synod about our mission and our relevance (whatever that means) to the world and society around us. In my mind, Jesus will always be relevant to a dying world, just as good wine will always be relevant—and life-giving—to a dying party. The question then becomes not who will save our party but how will we present his wine? How will we be active in faith and love for the community around us, to the friends and strangers we know and meet on an individual basis?
Times have changed, my friends. People, by and large, don’t just look for congregations to join. They’re looking for something that tastes good. They need to know that life can be transformed, that the ordinary can really become extraordinary. And everyone here this morning is one of these vessels. Together, we are one big vessel that can present gallons upon gallons of faith to the world. In what ways are you being ladled up? How is the urgency of this moment calling us into action? Do we stand there like stone jars that think they can only be used for washing “because that’s all they’ve ever been used for?” Or do we hand ourselves over to the One who transforms, the One who gives us signs of the glory yet to come, so that the world will know what we know: “Hey, there’s a party going on here. Don’t go looking for a hotel just yet! Now is the time. And the best wine has just started flowing.”
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.