By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
Let’s consider what it means that, according to John, the ministry of Jesus gets off to such a strange start. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Through most of this year, our Gospel readings are from Luke. But today we take a detour, and we hear from John. What we hear is the first act of ministry that Jesus performs in that Gospel. And it is a strange one.
Remember how the other gospels start out. In Matthew, the first act of ministry performed by Jesus is the Sermon on the Mount. In Mark, it is an exorcism. In Luke, it is a sermon in the synagogue. But in John, the first act of ministry performed by Jesus is that he turns water into wine.
This miracle looks strange even in the context of John’s Gospel. There it launches a series of signs that Jesus performs. The series includes:
–Healing a paralyzed person,
–Feeding a crowd of five thousand,
–Walking across water,
–Healing a blind man,
–Raising Lazarus from the dead, and
–Washing the disciples’ feet.
Among these, it’s the first one, turning water into wine, that sticks out as odd. Why does Jesus start out his ministry supplying wine for a party?
Why not do something, well, a little more significant?
Take into account the situation, though. We have here a first-century Jewish wedding in a village named Cana, just down the road from Nazareth. Weddings there were an even bigger deal than they are now.
For one thing, they had little competition. These folks did not have sports teams, television, movie theaters, or computer games. They did have weddings, which were the best things going for entertainment. “Party hardy!” was the slogan at these weddings.
And a wedding didn’t last for a few hours. It went on for seven days––seven days!––and the entire community was invited. Wine was essential to these weddings. It’s not that people got drunk. They drank wine mixed with water, and they drank it in a social context. Drinking was very rarely a problem. Instead, it was a lot of fun.
So this young couple, just married, ran out of wine in the middle of their wedding feast. What a disappointment! What a disaster! Everybody will be talking about it! Fifty years from now, when they totter in to celebrate their golden anniversary, some gray-haired smart-aleck will whisper, “I remember their wedding. They ran out of wine!”
Among the guests is Mary. It appears she’s a widow now, and certainly no longer the young girl in the Nativity story. There with her are Jesus and a group of his followers.
A sharp one, that Mary. She notices when the last wine jug is emptied and wants to forestall a social disaster, a blot on the future of this fine young couple. She brings the matter to Jesus’ attention. (If a parish has a guild that arranges wedding banquets, perhaps this guild should go under the name of Our Lady of Cana.)
Jesus seems to shrug off the matter. But Mary tells the wait staff to do whatever Jesus tells them to do. (An odd thing, perhaps, for a guest to say, but this woman has talked with an archangel and accepted baby gifts given by exotic visitors from the East.)
The moment is fast approaching when this joyous wedding celebration is about to crash into the brick wall of social disaster. So Jesus acts. He tells the wait staff to fill with water a half dozen big stone jars and drag them over to the banquet manager.
Perhaps the wait staff are anxious over the sudden shortage of wine and willing to welcome a strange suggestion. Perhaps they think a big tip from this guy’s mom will soon be theirs. In any case, they fill up those jars––the size of small barrels––and roll them over to the banquet manager, who by this time is sweating bullets and wondering what new career he should pursue.
Curious about what’s in the jars, he takes a sip. It’s wine! Really good wine! Not the sort that comes with a screw top, but the wine that appears on fancy menus at an outrageous price, and most of us wonder who buys the stuff! This Cana vintage, only a few minutes old, is really good wine, and there’s enough to float a boat, the equivalent of some 750 bottles.
The banquet manager orders the wait staff to decant this wine and start filling glasses as though their lives depend on it. Breathing a deep sigh of relief, he bends over and speaks in the groom’s ear a remark about how it’s strange that he’s saved the best wine until so late in the game. The groom barely hears him. The room is ringing with the sound of silverware tapping against glasses as the guests demand that he give the bride yet another kiss.
Again, it’s an odd way to launch a ministry. Or is it? First, what Jesus does is an act of compassion, meeting the needs of people where they are.
Also, it says something about the significance of marriage in the eyes of God. As the Book of Common Prayer marriage service tells us, “The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding at Cana in Galilee.” [ The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), p. 423.]
But something more is going on here, something that concerns everybody, not just the married among us or those in need of immediate help.
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John’s Gospel speaks of this episode as a sign, one in a series of signs about Jesus found in that Gospel. When we look at the wedding episode or any of the other signs in John, what stands out is: some people understand their significance, and some people don’t.
Assess the cast of characters at the wedding celebration. Mary and the disciples and the wait staff apparently catch on to the wonder of water changed into wine. On the other hand, the banquet manager, the groom and his bride, and most of their guests apparently don’t have a clue about what’s going on. Yet the wine is there for them as well as for the others.
This story reveals a secret about life. Miracles happen. Signs of Jesus at work appear all around us. They happen whether or not we acknowledge them. They benefit us whether or not we notice them. Yet it’s a joy to see these signs for what they are and believe in the one to whom they point.
What we think of as miracles are not weird exceptions to the orderly laws of the universe. They have the same origin as those laws. Indeed, they teach us the context of those laws.
Consider what George Macdonald says in this regard:
“The miracles of Jesus were the ordinary works of his father,
wrought small and swift that we might take them in.”
Or consider some words of St. Augustine about this morning’s Gospel:
“He who made the wine that day at the marriage feast
does this every year in vines.
But we do not wonder at the latter because it happens every year;
it has lost its marvel by its constant occurrence.”
To grow in grace means to become increasingly aware that everything in life is a miracle, a sign pointing to Christ. As St. Basil says:
“All the objects in the world are an invitation to faith,
Perhaps the Cana story appears first in the Gospel of John because in reality the world is a wedding celebration. Here Jesus transforms the water of ordinariness into the wine of miracles. All benefit from these transformations, though some know the cause of them, and others do not. To share our faith means this: letting others know that signs are abundant, and Christ is the one to whom they point.
So Cana continues. It continues not simply at this table, this feast of grace, but also when we leave here to encounter Christ active throughout the wide world. Not only here, but there as well he changes the ordinariness that wearies us into the wonder that renews us and makes us glad.
So then, look eagerly, look intently, and you will find the signs of Christ everywhere in the world. He has saved the best wine until now.
I have spoken to you in the name of the One who is never without witness in any place: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Copyright for this sermon 2007, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).