The Abundant Community (Isa. 62:1-5; 1 Cor. 12:1-11; Jn. 2:1-11)
On the Sunday after Christmas I took some time to unpack that wonderful passage in John 1 about the Word becoming flesh, and suggested to you that, in this act, God decided to be enfleshed, and embedded in the world, joined to it, if you will, in a deep, self-conscious, and spiritual way. On the next Sunday, Mark Stahlhut preached on the same John 1 text and talked about God’s fullness that dwelled in Jesus, from which we have all received. Between that prologue and our Gospel Lesson today, there is material that transitions the focus from God’s work in the world, to the work of the Word that was with God and was God. John gives him a name, Jesus, fully human and involved in his world in the ways humans are. But, in all that, as well as in all that follows, we shouldn’t lose sight of that divine decision to come into the world in a mysterious, wondrous way that’s embedded in its DNA, so to speak. John’s Jesus works away at clarifying the kind of God is so involved.
As I started to say, before our story there are a couple of transitional scenes in which Jesus interacts with John the Baptist and gathers four disciples into a group: Andrew, Simon (or Peter), Philip and Nathaniel (who is probably the same as Bartholomew in the other Gospels). And Nathaniel (we learn much later) was from a little nowhere place called Cana in Galilee just a few miles from Nazareth, Jesus’ home town. Did you say Cana? Well, it’s funny you should mention it, because, one day there was a wedding feast in Cana. And, thereby begins our story for today, three days after John called Jesus the Messiah.
In ancient Israel marriages were about property and family honour, not love, and, because peasant life in Jesus’ time was miserable for the most part, weddings were celebrated by letting out all the stops and feasting and drinking until the food and drink were gone. After that, everyone had to go back to the drudgery of normal life. Even today, in the rural Mediterranean world, marriages are sometimes arranged for the good of family, not because two people are in love. And weddings are times of abundance and joy.
Although today’s Gospel lesson is about the joy and abundance of weddings rather than the business of marriage, our Old Testament lesson reminds us that marriage did have a socially protective role in the ancient world. Families were safer together than they were apart. That reminder about marriage really becomes a metaphor for a protective promise that is put in God’s mouth. God is speaking to a community that has spent a long time feeling abandoned, alone, and cut-off from communion with one another and with God. They are a community trying to form itself, and a community in turmoil. God, first, promises a positive outcome with two negatives. God will neither keep silent nor rest. And, then comes the little word that’s the most important one in the poem in some ways, “until…”
It’s God’s intention not to quit or be silent until those who are in distress find justice and wholeness, and, further, until this justice and wholeness is visible to all, like dawn breaking in the darkness and like a torch burning in the night. Israel’s vindication will be an epiphany to the nations. Of course, all this is in God’s hands, and it’s frustrating, when one is struggling, not to have the power to fix it. Nonetheless, God’s promise here is for abundance of protection and joy for the people of God.
So our Gospel story begins at this country wedding feast at which Jesus’ mother was present. We’re not told why, but it’s possible she was part of the family of the bride or groom. Jesus may have gotten invited because his mother was, and his disciples came along, maybe because Nathaniel was, himself, a local from Cana. The wine ran out, Jesus mysteriously and miraculously transformed water to lots of excellent wine. Now John calls what Jesus did here by his favourite word for miracle, which is the word “sign.” Signs point to something else, and Jesus’ sign pointed to his glory, and his glory pointed to God’s. And God’s glory here is abundance in both quantity and quality.
John’s Gospel tells the story of seven of these signs each of which points, or so I think, to God’s abundance. Here in the first sign, Jesus publicly displayed God’s ability to bring an abundance of wine(and with it the joy of a rural Jewish wedding). In his second sign he publicly displayed God’s power over distance as he, from afar, healed the nobleman’s son, bringing an abundance of health (chapter 4). Jesus showed God’s power over time and custom when he healed a man on the Sabbath (chapter 5), bringing abundance of strength to this man’s powerless legs. In chapter 6 Jesus showed God’s power over quantity when he fed a great multitude, bringing such an abundance of food that twelve basketsful of fragments are gathered. Later in the same chapter Jesus showed God’s power over nature as he walked on water, bringing an abundance of comfort to those who were afraid. He showed God’s power over misfortune as he healed a man blind from the day of his birth (chapter 9), bringing an abundance of light in the darkness. Finally, Jesus showed God’s power over death as he raised Lazarus from the tomb, bringing, literally abundant life where there had only been death (chapter 11). When things get in short supply in this world, whether it’s justice, health, hope, bread or sight or even life itself, Jesus gives us access to God’s abundance. The sign points to the truth that, in God there is power, abundance and generosity, where, in normal life there was only scarcity and weakness. The God to which Jesus’ signs point is the generous God of abundant life.
Now we need to remember that this story was told by John over a half-century after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and one of the things that shaped John’s story here is that the abundant joy of the wedding feast is a metaphor for God’s public act to enfold people in the loving community of God where they can be loved and cared for in God’s generosity and abundance. In Jesus’ life, teachings, death and resurrection, God’s time for the public gathering of needy people into community has fully come.
So far, this is a kind of normal reading of this story, which is that Jesus brought an abundance of wine to a marriage feast as a miraculous sign of the abundant life that God intends, and his disciples believed that he was God’s son because he did it. The major characters in the story, on this reading, are Jesus and the disciples, and the lesson is “believe in the abundance that God brings in Jesus.” I want to suggest going beyond this and consider just how Jesus effected this sign that points to the handiwork of God in the world, and think how Jesus still turns water to wine in our communities and in dozens, hundreds, and thousands like ours across the world every day.
If we actually read this story slowly and carefully, we’ll discover that, although Jesus is the major character, as he appears in 6 of the 11 verses, the disciples really aren’t. They’re mentioned at the beginning and not again until the end. That’s twice as frequently as the crowd of anonymous guests milling about at the wedding, but the same as the bridegroom and the wine steward, both of whom do very little in the story.
The characters who appear more frequently are Jesus’ mother and another anonymous group, the household servants. Jesus’ mother engaged her son in the story at the beginning by hauling him off to the wedding, and then by telling him that the host had run out of wine. What Jesus replied was, “Woman, what has that to do with you and me? My hour has not yet come.” In English that comes off at least a little curt, but it means, “That’s not my role, and I won’t do anything until I think the time is right.” I should explain that in Jesus’ culture it would have been virtually required for him to decline to take over the duties of the host, which would be seen to put shame upon that family. He refused to do that, and, furthermore, he refused to let anyone (even his mother) set his agenda (something for which sons had been in trouble with their mothers long before Jesus’ day, and long after). Nonetheless, Jesus’ mother “got it” and went to those servants, and said, “Do whatever he says.” And they did. Jesus told them to put a lot of water in the jars used for purification rites (and this is a bunch – 120-180 gallons). And, as we have said, somehow the water became lots of wonderful, rich, mellow wine.
A point worth thinking about this morning is that, while there’s no doubt that it’s Jesus that turned the water into wine, then, and who still does so today by giving joy where there was none, the way in which Jesus does so is through those people (like his mother, and those anonymous servants) who make it all happen. Perhaps the most telling line in the story is the line that is almost always put in parentheses as a throwaway line: “…the servants who drew the water knew…” The wine steward hadn’t a clue where this wine came from, the bridegroom was equally clueless, and so were the guests. The servants, who by their own work of drawing the water behind the scenes where no one could see, “knew.” The disciples, at last, did get to a place of committing their direction of life to Jesus’ and to his way (a better translation than simply “they believed”), but the servants, who by their work behind the scenes had drawn the water, knew.
If you’re like I am, you’ve read the story before and have, pretty much, ignored these servants. We usually do in our own stories, too. We’d rather concentrate on the people with “up front” abilities and gifts. But, I would suggest to you that, if communities of Jesus today are mediators of God’s abundant life in Jesus, it’s because there are plain ordinary folk who don’t get attention who do the heavy lifting.
I think that this is one of the points that John wanted his community to think about in his day. It isn’t just the big names and flashy folk who get the work of Jesus done. It’s the ones who do the little things behind the scenes, who draw the water. I also think that’s what Paul was driving at in 1 Corinthians 12. The church of God in Corinth was very sure of itself and loved spectacle and super-spirituality. They loved to honour the big-wigs and mucky-mucks. Paul emphasizes that God distributes grace to each that shows up in gifts and abilities of all sorts – some “up front,” some “not so much.” They all are the gifts of the one God’s gracious generosity, they are for the unity of the people of God, they are all for the common good.
Once again, it is still Jesus who turns water into wine, but he still does it, as he did it in the first century, through the many folks working in the background, praying, giving, attending, working, serving. One of us is not better than the other, one is not more honoured in God’s sight than the other. We are all in this together. And of that we can be sure.
In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.