I love weddings.
I love the coming together of family and friends from far and near, everybody who cares about and is connected with the couple gathered together in a room like this one. I love the intersection of joy and wistful sorrow, the way that we look at the betrothed in their tuxedos and fancy dresses as they walk down the aisle and tears run down our cheeks and we say, “I’m just so happy.” I love the wild almost misguided hope contained in the promises that the couple utter to one another – ‘Til death do us part – who would dare to utter such words? I love the party afterwards, the people eating and telling stories and making embarrassing speeches and dancing.
And I love the way that people are transformed at weddings. Seeing the love between a couple publicly announced, publicly blessed – well, in a way that we can’t name, that somehow empowers and emboldens and deepens the joy and the possibility in all of us. And the couple themselves, as they make those impossibly big promises in front of God and everyone, somehow they become bigger. At a wedding, one and one add up to more than two.
Because I love weddings, I love the idea that Jesus’ ministry begins at one.
Scholars tell us that, in Jesus’s time, weddings were multi-day affairs, sometimes lasting as long as a week. So the scene that we are witness today in the Gospel of John didn’t begin a three or four hours ago when the bride and the groom arrived in a stretch limo after having their photos taken down by the beach. It began three or four days ago with the first blessing and the first song and the first dance and the first meal. Since then, there have been a lot of meals cooked, a lot of wine poured. This is a seriously festive occasion, full of seriously festive people – the sort of people who are willing to take more than a week off of work to mark a marriage.
It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that the wine has worn out.
As different as this wedding is from the kind that you and I know, there remain plenty of elements that we will immediately recognise. Here is John, the Son of Zebedee, talking to a young woman, the two of them laughing and telling stories and whispering. John can’t help but dream, can’t help but wonder if the next wedding might be theirs. Here is Mary Magdalene, gathered with her friends and playing guitar. Here is Peter sitting in a corner, feeling self-conscious and awkward. There are a lot of people he doesn’t know and Peter just isn’t all that good at small talk with strangers. And here on the dance floor is Jesus. Dancing with the joy and abandon and the wild, prayerful energy that he brings to everything.
And because it’s a wedding, here are the transformations that just keep happening. Let’s see if we can count them.
The wine runs out. Mary spots the alarm on the face of the maître d’, watches as she whispers to the bride and groom, watches as the alarm spreads to their faces too. They are out of wine. There are two or three days left in the wedding and it is way too early for food and drink to be running low. It will be centuries before the first 7-11 will open, so this is a big logistical problem. No one can just run to the liquor store and get more wine.
Mary can’t stand to see anyone embarrassed, least of all a couple on their wedding day. And so she calls a couple of waiters to follow her and then wades out into the gyrating crowd on the dance floor to find her son. Jesus is swaying to the music, singing along with the band, his eyes closed, when his mother’s hand lands on his shoulder. Jesus is pulled out of his reverie, his eyes snapping open and fixing on his mother in irritation.
Mary shouts over the music, They have no wine!
Woman, Jesus shouts back. (It’s worth stopping here to note that scholars of Ancient Greek tell us that this form of address sounds a lot less harsh in the original language than it does in English – that it was pretty normal and actually pretty courteous. It remains incongruous and jarring, however, that Jesus chooses this form of address rather than calling Mary Mother.) Woman, Jesus shouts back, What does that have to do with you and me?
Jesus may be thirty years old. But when you are talking to your Mom, it is easy to drift back into the petulant habits of an earlier time in your life.
Mary doesn’t let this brush-off slow her down. Instead, like countless parents across time, she challenges Jesus to get bigger. She challenges him to become a little more generous, a little less selfish, to become a little more the person whom she has known he is capable is being for years. She challenges Jesus to accept the transformationthat the one whom he calls Father offers to him.
She turns to the waiters and says, Do whatever he tells you.
Jesus’ mouth hangs open for a minute, staring at him Mom.
And then Jesus tells the waiters what to do.
The six jars are huge, made of stone, twenty or thirty gallons a piece. So the waiters roll rather than carry them into place. Their purpose is to be used in the Jewish Rites of Purification in which the Bride and Groom and Mary and Jesus and everyone participate, their purpose is to wash you and make you ready to participate in a wedding or another instance of holiness.
Now, there is a long and unfortunate history of interpretation that says that Jesus’ first miracle involves these jars in order to tell us that, now that Jesus is here, we don’t need the water that they contain anymore. Jewish practice used to matter, Jewish purification rites used to matter, in other words, but now we have something better. But I don’t think that is what Jesus is getting at with this action, I don’t think it is what John is getting at by telling this story to us. I think that what this story proclaims is that everything that Jesus will in the coming years will take placewithin the context, within the vessels, if you like, of his Jewish heritage.
In these jars, Jesus is modeling a vibrant relationship with faith – a relationship that you and I at our best emulate. He is taking the tradition that he has inherited and wrestling with it and questioning it and complaining about it and celebrating it, even as he transforms it, even as the tradition transforms him.
Notice that, if you were to break down wine into its component parts, if you were to generate a list of ingredients,the number one ingredient by a country mile would still be water. What was there previously, in other words,remains – Jesus is not doing a magic trick in which a deck of cards is replaced by a rabbit, in which there is a full on disconnect with between what goes into the jars and what comes out. No. What Jesus does today, and what he will do throughout his time on earth, is to work in continuity with what already exists. He is not creating abundance out of nothing or holiness out of nothing. He is deepening the abundance and the holiness that is already there. He is taking the gallons and gallons of wonderful, quenching water and giving us gallons and gallons of wonderful wine.
And that leads us to:
So, here’s the punch line of the story. The maître d‘ hasn’t seen what Jesus has been up to – only the waiters are there for the miracle. The maître d‘, in other words, is still seriously worried that this party is going down in flames, that she will never be hired to cater a wedding again. She is full of anxiety when the waiters call her over and say: Boss, you’ve got to taste this! When the maître d‘ does, her eyes light up and she starts to laugh. That’s because the jars aren’t just filled with wine. They are filled with the best wine ever. And so she goes over to the bridegroom and says:
That was a good one. Most people serve the good stuff first and then bring out the plonk later when everyone is hammered. But you! You started the party with the plonk. And now you brought out the good stuff.
And then the maître d‘ laughs some more. And the groom has no idea – no idea – what the joke is. He’s just glad to find out that the wine hasn’t run out.
Later on in his ministry, Jesus will perform miracles for people in serious crisis: people possessed by demons, people with radical and debilitating illnesses, people who are desperate for food, people who are ostracised from community, people who are about to be stoned by angry crowds, even people who have died. Fascinatingly, in this first miracle of all, there is no crisis other than a social crisis: if the wine runs out, the worst-case scenario is that the bride and groom and the maître d‘ will be embarrassed and will incur the expense of trying to find wine on short notice. No one is going to die.
And yet Jesus is there anyway. God is there anyway.
Sometimes someone will sit in my office and tell me about a problem in their lives – something that is weighing on their hearts, something that is making life harder than they wish it were. And after telling me about their problem, the person will apologise and say sheepishly, I realsze that this problem isn’t a big deal compared with the problems that some people have. And what I will often say to that person then is a line that I learned from my friend, Jenny:
This isn’t the suffering Olympics.
Yes, probability insists that there are people in the world who have bigger problems than you. But that doesn’t mean that your problems don’t matter. And it certainly doesn’t mean that they don’t matter to God. God is there with you in the big stuff: when you get sick, when you are lonely, when you are treated unfairly, when you are born and when you die. And God is there with you when you hold a party and the wine runs out.
God is always there with you. This is the last transformation. The transformation in you and me, when we realise that there is nothing in our lives, or anyone else’s lives, that is too small for God to care about.
Three transformations at Cana. A transformation in Jesus as his ministry begins. A mutual transformation between Jesus and the tradition which he has inherited. And a transformation in you and in me.
Mary watches from the shadows as the waiters bring the new, abundant wine around to the tables, as the party keeps going. And she says to herself,
I love weddings.