A sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts,
on 20 January 2019 [Epiphany 2]:
Isaiah 62:1-5; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11
Water and Wine

I have been the father of the bride twice, and with all affection and charity, that‘s enough.  Our daughters’ weddings were lovely affairs, planned, executed, and celebrated with great thought, faithfulness, and joy.  In both cases, the weddings were wonderful, filled with celebration, hope, and no small amount of tearful gratitude and joy.

As most of you know, there is a certain social expectation, a certain protocol that comes with a wedding.  Among the most prominent of these conventions is the wedding reception, that gathering time which is the first public appearance of the new couple.  By tradition, it is the parents of the bride who host this party.

Recently, while at the gym, I overheard a man, who is a bit younger than I am, talking with another man about his grown kids and weddings. My ears perked up when he said: “I have given my three kids a choice: Either a wedding or a down-payment on a house.”  I mention this to you only to indicate how expensive wedding receptions can be and even are expected to be.

Our daughters kindly and graciously understood the limits that Bev and I could provide for a wedding and reception, and because of this honest awareness cost was never a counter-productive issue among us.  However, one decision at the first wedding contained some bumps.  It concerned the reception bar.  After the meal and its wine accompaniment, we all decided that drinks would be from a cash bar.

There are many fond and important memories from the wedding of our first child, but with respect to the reception two stand out.

One is that Clare and Walker’s wedding and reception occurred in Virginia in the middle of July.  To say that it was hot and humid underestimates the reality.  But the occasion was so wonderful that no one really thought too much about the oceans of sweat that poured from each of our bodies that afternoon.

The other memory is of my father-in-law proudly bellying up to the cash bar to order his drink after the meal.  When the barkeep told him the price of the drink, my father-in-law glanced at me sharply, and then announced to the thirsting throng in unmistakable tones that they bar was now an “open” issue.  He would pay.

Needless to say, the eighty-year-old grandpa could have been elected mayor of any of the towns from which our guests hailed.  And at eleven o’clock that night, after hours of dancing, and chatting and laughing and imbibing, the lovely woman who ran the inn that hosted our reception sheepishly sidled up to me and informed me that the wedding guests had drained her bar’s supply completely.  Should she, she hesitantly whispered, go and buy some more?

A bit astonished at the situation and actually wondering where in rural Virginia she might find more refreshment in the middle of the night, I wisely realized that the reception was nearing its festive conclusion, and that the unofficial, off-site post-party needed to start elsewhere.

While Bev and I did not face the social humiliation that Mary’s Galilean friends almost did when their wine ran out, that gospel situation was clearly serious enough for Mary to feel some responsibility to get her hosting friends off the hook.  So, she went to Jesus.

It is my understanding that in Jesus’ culture and time, a wedding feast could last three days – or more.  The details of the wedding reception that the Evangelist John tells us about today in our gospel lesson are lost to history; but it is a certainty that the honor of the entire wedding family was at risk, when – unthinkably – the wine ran out.  John uses this potential crisis to convey several things to us about Jesus and his presence among us.

First, it was the third day of the wedding celebration.  (Phew!  Wonder what the wedding videos were like!)  More to the point, something else of significance occurred in Jesus’ life on the third day.  Second, the location was the village of Cana, in Galilee, which was about eight miles away from Nazareth.  The proximity between Cana and Nazareth most likely explains the reason Mary is a guest.  (No mention of Joseph.)  Mary must have been a friend of the groom’s or bride’s family; and by association Jesus and his disciples were invited, as well.  Mary must have been particularly close to one or both of the wedding mothers; or perhaps Mary was simply extremely compassionate over the predicament of this imminent social gaff.  In any event, when the wine ran out, Mary went to Jesus for help.  Undoubtedly with the troubled voice and anticipatory look that only a mother can give to her grown son, Mary conveyed the horrifying news: “They have no wine!”

Jesus’ response to his mother strikes some ears as incongruently sassy: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?”[1]  A less formal translation of this interchange between Mary and Jesus puts the side-bar exchange this way: “Is that any of our business, Mother – yours and mine?  This isn’t my time.  Don’t push me.”[2]

Perhaps it was a good thing that Joseph was no longer on the scene.  For had my father heard me speak that way to my mother … … but we do not need to concern ourselves with such speculation about Jesus and Mary.  It is not the point the gospel is interested in making.  Rather, the gospel writer, John, centers on an emerging tension concerning who Jesus is and what his presence among us means.  And Mary’s direction to the reception workers gives us the clue as to what to look for, as well as what we need to do.  Mary says: “Do whatever he tells you.”[3]

To underscore this, John the Evangelist gives us an intriguing, behind-the-scenes story of how Jesus changes about 150 gallons of “holy” water into wine.  That this is done and publicly presented gains testimony from the chief steward of the reception, who remarks solicitously to the groom on the unusual practice of offering the vintage wine after the box wine has been exhausted: that is, the best for last.  And just in case we who listen to the story over the ages might miss the gospel’s point, John the Evangelist makes clear that this was the first of the signs Jesus provided that indicate who he is and what he is about.

A  bit of theological vocabulary might help to keep us focused on the essence of this gospel lesson and, in particular, what, week after week in the season of Epiphany, we will see of Jesus in these gospel readings.  Particularly in the Fourth gospel, John conveys seven stories about Jesus and his work and calls what Jesus does “signs”.  Changing the water into wine is, as we have heard in today’s lesson, the first of Jesus’ “signs”.  What I want to suggest to you is that one way to encounter both Jesus’ identity and significance among us is to recognize what a sign is and, in distinction, what a symbol is.

A sign’s value, as you know, lies in what it points to.  On the Mass Pike, when you read the sign that says that Boston is 100 miles ahead, that information helps locate us as travelers.  Or if I point my finger to the bright moon in order to share its wondrous beauty with you, my finger is the pointer, not the focus.  So it is that when Jesus changes the water into wine, it is a sign that points beyond what is admittedly the mind-boggling transformation of one substance into another to what lies behind the sign.

The significance of what we call a “miracle” (and who among us does not need a miracle from time to time?) reflects what it indicates, what it points to: namely, life on God’s terms.  The abundant reality of the God-life and its appearance among us can appear to be too much for our puny and pinched perspectives, pressing even to the point of disbelief.  Yet, there it is: Jesus providing the sign to point to the reality of life with God in our midst.

(I hasten to add that the historical reason Jesus comes to the popular attention of the people of his time stems largely from his healings.  They are not fairytales.)

Yet, the gospel proclamation is that Jesus is not simply providing a sign of the God-life.  Jesus is what he points to.  He is the embodied symbol of God: Emmanuel.  This is to say that Jesus is the very thing that all the signs have point to: God with us.

For now, at this early Epiphany stage, I encourage all of us to keep our eyes on the prize so that we may be able to receive life on God’s terms and, thereby, to be delivered from the confines of our confusion, fear, and implicit worship of death.

Let me say one more thing, and that is:  What we call Jesus’ “miracles” need to be taken seriously.  One thing the “miracles” point to is how large the God-life is and how fearfully small the confines of our own perspectives are.  “Did it really happen?” is a question all of us have asked, at least to ourselves; and I think that part of the meaning of asking that question with a skeptical or even cynical tone lies in the fact that we all need miracles.  What I mean is that we all need life that is rooted in a reality that is larger than we can provide for ourselves.  When we ask if Jesus’ miracles can be trusted, what we are actually asking is: Is this all there is?  Am I left with a life that I manage to make for myself; or is there “God-life” for me, for this world?

Stay tuned as we live more deeply into the “yes” of those questions.  Amen.

[1] John 2:4: NRSV
[2] John 2:4: The Message
[3] John 2:5b