For me, the most powerful words of our scripture reading this morning are the last ones that we read: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
The story of the wedding in Cana is a passage often included in the liturgy of marriage ceremonies – in fact, it’s held up as supporting the institution of marriage as a Christian celebration, saying that Christ adorned and beautified the union of marriage by his very presence there. On that basis, I’ve had many couples over the years who have chosen it as a reading for their own weddings, not to mention because of the fact that it’s also about a miracle, and as one young groom said to me a few years back, “What is love and marriage if not a miracle?” So it’s very popular piece of scripture for weddings, and that’s fine! But I find this very interesting, because here’s the thing, friends – it actually has very little to do with weddings or marriage at all!
The Gospel according to John, you see, is not as much about what Jesus did as it is about who Jesus is. This is not to say that in John Jesus’ life and ministry is of lesser importance, because his story and teachings are presented there as eloquently as anywhere in the gospels – it’s simply that just like in peeling away the layers of an onion, you find another stronger and more pungent piece of onion, when you begin to read John’s gospel, you find that all the stories and the teachings point to some deeper truth about Jesus. It is no coincidence that when John talks about Jesus performing a miracle, it’s usually accompanied by a revelation about Jesus himself; that’s why miracles in John are often referred to as “signs,” because simply put, the signs point the way!
A few years ago now, a big change came to the lake where our camp is in Maine: our roads – every one of them – got street signs. This, of course, was for public safety reasons; to allow police and firefighters easier access, and it made good sense – but it was a big shift, because prior to that whenever you gave directions to get to your camp it usually came down to telling people to take a left where “Flo’s New Moon Lunch” used to be before she died …twenty years ago!
So, suddenly, all these anonymous roadways got names. Some were obvious: the Walker Settlement Road has always been the Walker Settlement Road as long as anybody can remember; and there’s an “Iron Bridge Road” named for, well, an Iron bridge at the foot of the hill. But then there were the camp roads, most of which are named for specific families who live somewhere on that road, which immediately begs the question, why that family? Have they lived there the longest? Do they have the nicest camp? Did they have an “in” with the highway department? Or was it the luck of the draw? All I know is that during that time of “naming the roads,” things sometimes got …complicated!
On our camp road, for instance, which is named “Rand Road” for Bev Rand who’s lived there forever (a very fitting tribute, I might add), there’s another road that branches off, which is called “Sandtrap Road,” which is named for what used to be 8th hole of the local golf course! But apparently, the campowners down on Sandtrap didn’t like to think of themselves as merely a branch road, much less a golfing hazard; so soon after the roads were named, someone went to the mouth of the main road and switched the signs, thus making Rand Road the branch road! Now, as you can imagine, this much concerned the folks on our road, several of whom were living with the possibility of needing an ambulance, and so they spoke up about it to the town, who switched the signs back – but that only prompted the Sandtrap people to change the signs yet again, this time under the cover of darkness!
It was all a little crazy, to be sure; but the whole thing got settled eventually (suffice to say that Rand Road is now and will be forevermore the branch road…). But the point is that whether the sign switching began as a practical joke or some kind of lakeside rivalry, ultimately it wasn’t the sign that was the issue, because signs, by their very nature, point to something else and give direction – and that’s the thing we have to pay attention to. This is what John speaks of in his gospel: for those with eyes to see, signs testify to something that is greater than the sign itself; and it is that greater reality that we are meant to see, to visit, to grasp and understand. So it was with the wedding in Cana.
As John tells the story, Jesus is at a wedding celebration, together with some of his disciples and also his mother – and during this celebration, the unthinkable happens: the host runs out of wine to serve all of his wedding guests. Understand, this was no mere faux pas; in a culture where hospitality meant everything, it was literally humiliating for a family to run short of wine – indeed, this was the kind of mistake that would tarnish their reputation for years to come. So, upon the request of his mother, and even though in his own mind it was a bit early to “go public,” that his “hour has not yet come,” Jesus changed six stone water jars, each one holding some 20 to 30 gallons of water, into wine for the celebration; and not just wine, but good wine, the kind of wine that any right-thinking host would have brought out for his guests early on in the evening.
This was Jesus’ first recorded miracle, and on the face of it, changing water into wine seems to be a great act of hospitality and celebration (have you heard the story about the little boy who heard this story in Sunday School, and afterward when his mother asked him what he’d learned that day, the little boy replied, “I learned that if you’re going to have a party, make sure you invite Jesus!”).
There’s more going on here than this, however; look again at this story, and you find that this miracle is in fact a signpost pointing directly to Jesus’ power and his glory; proclaiming his ability to transform something tired, worn out and empty (like, old jars of water) into that which is rich, fragrant and ripe with the fullness of joy (as is new wine for a wedding feast). Here we see the power of God manifest in abundance where once was scarcity; celebration where uncertainty had once prevailed; the salvation of God’s own people symbolized by new, good wine.
What’s interesting to note about this story is that those six 30-gallon jugs of water Jesus sent them to fill were containers used by devout Jews to fulfill the law as regards ceremonial washing – even and especially at a wedding feast, there were rituals of cleansing that needed to be followed. So these six jars were not simply filled with buckets of well water, but with the purified and undefiled water of the Pharisees; this is what served as the “vessel,” so to speak, of Jesus’ miracle – and in doing so, Jesus transformed these symbols of an older time and older way into a harbinger for the future – new wine represents a new era, a new and “glorious” future for God’s people.
You see? It’s not about water becoming wine per se, any more than it’s about a harried father of the bride saving face at the reception – this miracle here is a sign which points to how Jesus takes the old and makes it new; how a seemingly dead end of living becomes a new life filled with purpose now and eternally.
But this is what Jesus always does – he comes to change hopeless situations into hopeful opportunities; he changes directionless lives into pilgrimages of faith. Jesus comes to fill up the emptiness of our lives – taking whatever we can bring to him, no matter how little or how much, and remaking it, giving it a taste and purpose far more abundant than the best that we ourselves are capable of providing. Make no mistake, whenever Jesus shows up, there’s going to be change – sometimes that change will break with tradition; and often it’ll feel risky to us, as it leads us in directions we’re not at all sure we’re ready or even the least bit willing to go. But when he comes to make those changes in our lives, it’ll be there that we will behold his glory; and that, dear friends, is the true miracle.
As I said before, the most powerful part of this story of the wedding at Cana is that by this miracle, Jesus’ disciples came to believe in him – that in that moment of wonder, they were able to get a small taste of the new life Jesus was offering. It was a sign of glory, and their lives were changed forever because of it; and truly, friends, if only all of us could know as much.
The great Reinhold Niebuhr said this a generation ago when he wrote that “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” There’s a lot of truth in this, especially as it applies to our lives as Christians, and even as the church as a whole. It’s often said that there is nothing constant in this life except change, and yet how many of us, in so many ways, prefer to cling to old and frankly, occasionally outmoded ways of thinking and being, all because we’re a bit afraid to move forward; easier to just stay where we are, even if it’s God himself who’s calling us out. But it’s into that kind of world that Christ comes, bringing us his new wine and challenging us to taste and see that it is good.
It’s as simple as this: Christ has come into the world not to leave that world as it is. Christ has not come to us so that you and I can live lives that are static and unchanging; yes, he loves us as we are, but he loves us too much to let us stand still and to become inflexible and unyielding. As our Lord calls us to follow him where he leads, we would not want to become so hard of heart, so spiritually empty as to be like those empty clay jars; but that rather let our eyes and our hearts behold the many signs – in amidst both the joys and sorrows – in which the power and presence of Jesus can be seen and felt. You’ll be amazed just how often these signs will point right to him; and how it will be in Jesus, and Jesus alone, that we’ll find glory – in our worship, in our work, in our prayer and service, and in life unfolding. Indeed, as those wedding guests discovered in Cana, the best was indeed yet to come.
Thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry