From Water to Wine (1/18/04)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
The great saints from the Christian tradition share something in common. They were all about something bigger than themselves. Those who have shaped the Christian faith were able to keep their egos in check, and to surrender themselves to God.
Of course, when we think of a person being completely surrendered to God, we think of Jesus. By all accounts, Jesus did not have a selfish bone in his body. It is hard to say exactly how and when this surrender came about. Having been children ourselves, and having spent lots of time around children, it’s hard to imagine that Jesus was at all moments in his life unselfish and obedient to God. Surely Jesus went through some version of the terrible twos.
But we won’t find out by reading the gospels. Mark’s gospel doesn’t begin the story of Jesus until his baptism in the Jordan River as a full-grown adult. Matthew and Luke have those wonderful stories of Jesus’ birth, although, for the most part, they skip over his childhood. The exception, of course, is Luke’s story about the twelve year old Jesus disappearing from the group with which his parent’s are traveling. That sounds like something a kid would do, but in the case of Jesus, it turns out he was “in his Father’s house”—the Jerusalem Temple—talking with and learning from the religious teachers. And the Gospel of John places the Eternal Christ—the Word of God—with God before the process of creation, but begins his story of Jesus of Nazareth much like Mark—with Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist.
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For most of us, the notion of surrendering ourselves to God is a conscious decision. It doesn’t happen naturally. It is something we struggle with; something we would rather not do, because our ideas of what’s best for us are sometimes in conflict with what we imagine are God’s ideas about what’s best for the world. When we open ourselves to God, especially in prayer, we often discover that our priorities are not quite in line with God’s priorities.
We can argue about whether or not Jesus was born obedient, and lived his every breath in accordance with God’s will; or whether he, like us, faced a time of decision. But the text we heard read from the lectern this morning—that wonderful passage from John’s gospel about Jesus’ first great miracle—the turning of water into wine at the wedding in Cana—that passage at least implies that Jesus had some reservations about being completely surrendered to God.
In fact, his surrender to God may have started with his surrender to his mother. What is it about mothers? They maintain a special hold over their children, and it doesn’t matter what a child accomplishes or how old a child gets. A sixty year old President of the United States still craves the approval of his eighty year old mother. Really! Never mind that he’s just brought peace to the Middle East, or negotiated an arms reduction treaty, or initiated policies that will feed the world’s hungry children. If his mother doesn’t approve of his neck tie, he’s having a bad day. That’s just the way it is.
So when Jesus is at this big wedding party in Cana, and they run out of wine, the last thing he wants to hear is his mother asking him to miraculously make more wine. You see, in John’s gospel, Jesus knows that this life of obedience to God—this life of unconditional surrender to God—will end at the cross. And while he has made a commitment to make that journey toward the cross, he doesn’t seem quite willing to start that trip just yet. Once he performs such a public miracle as changing water into wine, people will understand who he is. His journey will have begun, and there will be no turning back.
His mother looks at him and says, “They have no wine.” And his response has always baffled me. He says, “Woman, what concern is that to you and me? My hour has not yet come.” When I first read those words as a young person, I was shocked. I guess I was unable to put myself in that first century context. I pictured myself talking to my own mother in that manner. I envisioned her saying to me, “Gary, the trash needs to go out to the curb.” And then I pictured myself saying to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and me?” I then envisioned myself waking up in the middle of next week with a severely bruised bottom.
Of course, as I grew older and spent more time studying this passage, I came to realize that Jesus was showing no disrespect. In fact, it’s almost like he’s saying, “Mom, knock it off, will ya? What are trying to do? Get me killed?”
But notice, his mother doesn’t argue with him. She neither orders him to get about the miracle, nor debates the pros and cons of what such a miracle would involve. She just turns straight away to the servants at the wedding and says, “Do whatever he tells you.” And that pretty much sets things in motion. Jesus is compelled to perform the miracle, he saves the day, he saves the wedding, he begins the process of saving humanity; and finally surrendered, he begins his long walk to the cross.
There are so many layers in all those stories we find in the Gospel of John, which is why it is my favorite of the gospel accounts. The story of the wedding in Cana really speaks to me, because I often hear the voice of God calling me off in some direction I don’t really want to go, and I say to myself, “It’s not my time. My hour has not yet come. What has this voice I hear echoing around in my heart have to do with me?”
John never wastes words. He never throws in some detail unless it has great significance; unless it points to some hidden truth that can be plumbed only by the careful reader. John begins this story of the wedding at Cana with the words, “On the third day there was a wedding in Cana.” John has masterfully set the mood. The third day! The third day is a very significant idea in Christianity. When we hear those words we are reminded that the resurrection of Jesus occurred on the third day after his crucifixion. John is hinting right from the start that this story is going to convey some great truth, some deep meaning that points far beyond the surface of the story, something that only a person who understands the whole truth about Jesus will be able to understand.
And consider the water. The six stone jars into which the water is poured are not just everyday jars. They are the jars for the Jewish rites of purification. The Jews of that day—people like Jesus and his followers—followed specific rituals to become pure in the eyes of God, including ritual bathing, and ritual hand-washing before meals. By using those jars—that water—for the miracle, John lets us know that things are about to change. This is the first of the signs, as John calls them, that Jesus is the Christ—the Messiah. Acceptance in the eyes of God will no longer be a result of ritual, but rather of God’s work through Jesus. Just as Jesus changed the water into wine, the impure will be transformed into blameless people not through the ritual use of water, but because of God’s work in Jesus.
We also see in this passage a foreboding of the Garden of Gethsemane. In this passage, Jesus, with his seemingly harsh words to his mother, tries to forestall his walk toward the cross. But ultimately he surrenders to God’s will. In the Garden of Gethsemane, on the last night of his life, Jesus will fall to his knees and ask God—one last time—to let this cup pass. Remember the amazing moment! The King James Version of the Bible says it beautifully: “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done.” That was his final surrender. In that respect, the ministry of Jesus begins and ends with the thought of turning away from God’s will, and then surrendering to it.
Beyond those subtle nuances in John’s story, there is surely something significant in the fact that Jesus performs his first miracle at a wedding. Why is this the first of Jesus’ miracles—the first of his signs? Think about it. Jesus heals the sick and casts out demons, even feeds thousands with a few loaves of bread. Now those are some important and impressive miracles. But look at this miracle. He changes water into wine so a bunch of drunk people can drink even more!
Remember—the steward tastes the wine and expresses surprise that they’ve brought out the good stuff after everybody’s drunk. Make no mistake—these people are toasted. What is it about weddings? Some things haven’t changed much over the centuries, and the tendency to imbibe in large quantities of adult beverages at weddings has long been a tradition.
What are we to make of this? Historians of the first century tell us that wedding celebrations often lasted three days. They also tell us that to run out of wine at such a celebration was considered a social disgrace. But surely there is something more going on in this story. It seems to me that there are a couple of things about weddings that would make Jesus perform his first miracle—his first sign—at a wedding celebration. First, they are celebrations. They are happy, joyful occasions. We often forget that the unmistakable sign of a Christian is joy. Jesus tells us elsewhere in John’s gospel that the whole purpose of his life in this world is that we may have life, and have it abundantly. And abundant life is a life filled with joy, and the wedding celebration is a symbol of that joy.
The other thing that makes a wedding so unique is that it is the most transformative moment in a person’s life. Things change when a person gets married. Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus quotes the second chapter of Genesis, saying that when two people are married they become one flesh. They are permanently changed. And a marriage does not happen unless a person surrenders to the idea—the institution—of marriage.
But then something amazing happens. Because if two people are truly surrendered to a marriage, forsaking what came before and giving themselves wholly to the marriage, the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. It really does. The two who are joined together become something much greater. One plus one equals a whole lot more than two.
In a good marriage people complete each other. Maybe that’s why opposites attract. I know couples where the husband is right brained and the wife is left brained, and together they form this amazingly complete package. My own wife and I agree on almost everything, which makes marriage much easier, but we are quite different people. Her feet are firmly planted on the ground and my head tends to be lost among the clouds. But it works.
Maybe that is why the first miracle of Jesus takes place at a wedding. A wedding is the perfect symbol of transformative power. It is the perfect example of surrendering to an idea in order to grow into something bigger and better. It is an example we can all understand in which a person surrenders himself or herself in order to become a part of something bigger than the self. And isn’t that what the Christian faith is all about? Getting beyond our little selves to become a part of something bigger, something greater?
And we all bring something to the table. We are each and every one of us an important part of the Christian whole. This idea is probably best expressed in 1st Corinthians. Listen to this amazing passage. This passage tells us that we human beings are not simply autonomous creations of God, entities in and of ourselves. In fact, it tells us that comprise the Body of Christ. We are part of God. We are manifestations of the Spirit of God. We are part of the one body. If we want to see God, we need only look in one another’s eyes, and we will see the Spirit of God looking back at us. Listen to Paul in 1st Corinthians!
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the work of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
We’re a part of something much bigger than ourselves. That’s the heart of the Christian message. But it is not easy to surrender to that idea. It is not in our nature. And we can give an intellectual assent to the idea of surrendering to God…as long as we don’t have to actually do it. Maybe tomorrow we’ll surrender to God. We know how Jesus felt at that wedding feast, when he told his mother that his hour had not yet come. We understand what John Milton was saying in Paradise Lost when he wrote, “It is better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven.”
We like our autonomy. We like to pretend that we belong to ourselves and ourselves alone. But it’s just not true. We’re a part of something bigger. We carry the Spirit of God within these miraculous towers of dust.
But God is not a cosmic dictator, and we are not mindless puppets. We choose our own paths, and we can follow Jesus, or we can follow Milton. And we have to ask ourselves, “Is it better to rule in hell, or to serve in heaven? Is it better to have all the water, or to share the wine?”
That is a question with which we all must wrestle. And there is a great deal riding on the outcome of that wrestling match. Because the gospel message claims that we win the struggle with ourselves when we surrender to God. It is only then that transformation can occur. But when it does…when it does, it is much more than just you or me who is transformed. When we allow ourselves to become a part of the whole—when we accept that it is better to share the wine than to horde the water—that it is indeed better to serve in heaven than to rule in hell—then everything changes. The water of our lives becomes wine. The emptiness of existence becomes the fullness of creation. And our fleeting, time-bound lives enter into—become part of, love—and life—everlasting.