Lectionary blog for Jan. 20, 2013
The Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10;
1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11
Some years ago I heard a story about an Italian trying to start a vineyard in northeast Georgia, near the town of Helen. The county commissioners were a group of good southern evangelical Christians, and at that time, the county was “dry” like most of the rest of rural Georgia, and the leaders were none too keen on granting a permit for a wine-making business.
The man was very confused by their attitude. Most of all, he could not understand how making wine could be considered un-Christian. “After all,” he said, “did not our Lord turn water into wine at the wedding at Cana in Galilee?”
Well, that remark sure got them stirred up. Every good southern evangelical was very clear on the reality that though Jesus may have turned the water into what they called wine, it was not wine as we know it; it was grape juice, unfermented, non-alcoholic; the recipe for which was lost from biblical times until the 1800s when a dentist and Methodist communion steward named Welch rediscovered it.
(That’s a little bit true. Welch’s grape juice was originally created as non-alcoholic communion wine. The whole jams and jellies thing came later.)
Anyway, the Italian Catholic vintner stood there in amazement as the folks argued among themselves until the chair used his gavel and called for order and said, “Well, I have researched this thing and I have to say there was no such thing as unfermented grape juice in Bible times. They didn’t have the technology for it. Jesus really did turn the water into wine — and I have to say that I’ve always been a little disappointed in the Lord for that!”
The story of turning water into wine at a wedding is very well-known, and it has been used for a number of purposes. It is cited in the Lutheran wedding service, for example, as a way, I suppose, of saying that Jesus endorses marriage or perhaps that Jesus endorses drinking a bit and partying after a wedding. Along those lines, I’ve heard it cited on both sides of the drink/don’t-drink argument.
As a miracle, well, a sign as John prefers to say, it’s not like a healing, or a Transfiguration, or a raising from the dead, or a feeding of the 5,000, or even a stilling of the storm or a walking on the water. It doesn’t come with any easily discernible, easily preachable, easily applicable meaning. It’s just this extraordinary thing that Jesus did. It makes one feel more like saying, “Party on, Dude;” than “Amen Brother!”
So, knowing that John included this story in his Gospel for a reason, we must ask the question — “What are we expected to learn from this story?” If the fact that Jesus could turn water into wine is not the real point, then what is?
John is a writer whose work is full of symbolism. Unlike the other Gospel writers — Matthew, Mark and Luke — he makes no pretence that his is a straight-forward, historical narrative of the life and ministry of Jesus. John’s intent is to reveal to us spiritual truth through the use of human stories.
Reading John is something like watching the TV show “Lost.” Things are always different from how they seem, and this means it’s generally a bit tricky to figure out what John is getting at.
A prevailing theme throughout John’s Gospel is the dawning of a new age. To John, the coming of Jesus as the Messiah has changed the world from what it used to be into something totally new and different.
This is why John prefers to use the word “signs” instead of the word “miracles.” These things that Jesus did, like turning water into wine, were signs to the faithful that the new age of God’s dealing with the world had come.
So — what Jesus did was not about an obedient son reluctantly doing what his mother asked, nor was it about Jesus making sure the host of the wedding was not embarrassed by the wine running out, nor was it about making sure those attending the party were able to keep drinking.
What is really significant in this story is that the water is special water. It is water that has been set aside for the Jewish purification rites. It is there for the people to wash up in. This washing was not about being sanitary or comfortable. This washing was a religious ceremony; it was a ritual cleansing in order to go before the Lord during the wedding feast. In this sign, Jesus takes the old — the ritual bath water — and turns it into the new — fresh wine.
It is important to realize that Jesus did not take the bad and turn it into the good! He did not take the useless and turn it into the useful. He took good things from the past and transformed them, changed them, into other good things for the future.
A good question for us today is: What does this text say to us today, in this place, in the year 2013. What is our water that Jesus has come to turn into wine?
The new age brought by Jesus the Christ is an ongoing age of transformation and growth. We are not the people we once were; nor are we the people we will someday become. We are in a state of fluidity; we are water being changed into wine.
We have choices, as individuals and as communities of faith. We can face the future’s changes with fear and resistance or we can embrace them with faith and excitement. Either way, change is going to happen, the new age is upon us, the water is beginning to change, and God is smack dab in the middle of it.
Amen and amen.
- What have you learned from the story about the wedding at Cana?
- Can you think of a time when God transformed something old into something new?
Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.