Rev. Richard Hogue Jr.
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego
A wedding feels like an impossibility right now, doesn’t it? Omicron is surging, and we are experiencing it at St. Paul’s through the lens of caution and care for our people, even though we know the sting of disconnection lingers with each event we pull away from in-person activity. Uncertainty looms over so much of what we do these days, and one thinks back to around this time two years ago, the anxiety is of it all is only piqued further. None of us knows how this ends, and yet we still yearn to a return to what we called normal, so that we can be part of weddings and other fun times again.
I don’t know about you, but I got a little jealous of Jesus, his mother, and the disciples as I reread this passage from John for the how many ever-eth time I’ve come across this story. I wasn’t jealous of Jesus’ ability to turn water into wine, though that would be quite the party trick. It was the mere fact of gathering with many people that left me wanting. There are deep pains that come from missing out, and FOMO, the fear of missing out, is something all of us experience. I want to acknowledge the pain of that for those of you sitting alone watching this, and our pain at sitting in this empty but beautiful building right now. Much like the stone water jars in the gospel passage this morning, I have faith and trust that this empty stone room will be filled to the brim again, but that doesn’t stop the pain of this moment from touching us all. Yet we know that disconnection and death are not the end, and this story reminds us of that.
Jesus’ first miracle in John’s gospel is one nearly devoid of detail. Presumably three days following Jesus’ encounter with John the Baptizer at the River Jordan, Jesus arrives at this wedding. We don’t know who or how he has been invited, though the gospeler is sure to tell us they all have been invited, and we have no idea how Jesus’ mother, never named in John’s gospel, got there first. These details aren’t important to the author, the action therein is. That action really starts “when the wine gave out…” We have no idea how many hours or days this wedding feast has been going on, but the party is coming to a grinding halt, and Mary isn’t having it. She knows there’s a solution, and typical of Mary, she’s not one to simply let things slide by. She carried the Messiah in her womb on behalf of God and the world, and now it’s time for her to have some fun. I can’t blame her.
In my mind’s eye, I see the flicker of righteous trouble making in her eyes as she points them directly to her son’s face and calmly but overtly mentions: ‘They have no wine.’ Whether Jesus’ ever even noticed is also not an important detail to the writer, but Jesus’ response nonetheless begins to reveal the entire purpose in life and ministry: ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ That’s not how anyone would guess the Creator of the cosmos might speak to their mother, but there you have it. But I do want to pause on the words of Jesus: My hour has not yet come. The savvy reader and listener will begin to put some pieces together. It’s been three days since Jesus’ was spotted and heralded as the lamb of God by John the Baptizer at the River Jordan. Now Jesus is saying it is not his hour, so the larger picture is just beginning to come into view for the Gospel of John’s narrative arc. While this is the first sign of Jesus’ power, it inevitably points to the most enduring miracle of God’s love and sacrifice overcoming death itself. But that hour, the last hour, has not yet come.
Dauntless, like she always is, the mother of God presses on, telling the servants present to follow her son’s directions. I tend to imagine her saying that line with a roll of the eyes, and what probably sounded like sarcasm in Aramaic. For the first time, we get a modicum of detail about the venue, which has six large stone jars purportedly for purification rites. Jesus tells them straightaway to fill them. The gospel skips directly to the end where they are filled, but we should stop for a second to think of how long it took how many servants to walk to the local well and draw and carry one hundred twenty gallons of water. I’ve carried water in buckets before, it’s not fun or easy, so let’s give those servants some credit for following a wedding guests and his mother’s orders for no apparent reason.
This grueling task notwithstanding, Jesus tells them to draw some back out after they’ve gotten the stone jars brimming and take it to the chief steward of the feast. This steward, caring not where the wine came from nor how it got there, calls the bridegroom to praise him for having an abundance of the good stuff left. What might be most bizarre about this first miracle is that no one asks where it came from, the servants never mention it, and the person who supplied it, Jesus, disappears entirely without a word to anyone. There is only one slightly incongruous part of this story, and that’s the last line: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” Towards the end of chapter one of John’s gospel, at least a few of the disciples already believe he is the Messiah. Nevertheless, John’s writer wants us to know that this is the beginning of the revelation, and it started with Jesus’ mother prodding him. But Jesus, though he loved his mother so, is not moved by her words to do the deed. That leads me to wonder, what did?
Commentaries often point to Jesus in John’s gospel as being wholly dedicated to one thing and one thing alone: the will of God the Father. Was it the person of the Creator that moves Jesus to give this muted but jubilant sign? Is it a sign if only Jesus’ followers recognize what he has done? Who is the sign for, really? Jesus’ mother knows something of his purpose and power, thus her prompt. The disciples are already following him hither and thither. No one new has the revelation, and the servants who witness the miracle don’t even mention it to the chief steward or bridegroom. The sign, it seems is still a revelation, but it is one of showing intention rather than power. Out of seeming emptiness, Jesus shows more abundance. There is no scarcity in God’s economy, and there’s where Jesus’ ministry begins to define itself in its mission. The divine feast, the marriage of all things seen and unseen in Jesus, is brimming with finest fidelity of God’s love, poured out for all things. This sign, then, is for everyone, even those who may not be able to witness it, because the wine is served to everyone, not just those who Jesus is.
This vision of abundant joy and peace is one that inspired all of God’s prophets. From Moses to Martin Luther King Jr., where we create barriers and limits God wells up the power of the Spirit to overcome those barriers, flooding stone hearts with compassion and bravery. If our hearts can be reshaped by this mercy and joy, how much more so can whole societies be reshaped by this same source? That’s why this sign is as dangerous as the words of prophets, and perhaps why Jesus simply moves on from it, it will challenge the order of things as they are now, threatening to shake the foundations that enable the powerful to maintain their position.
That’s why the truth of this sign is quiet but immutable. The lack of detail in this passage of the Gospel may be the very point after all. Everyone can experience God’s love, regardless of who invited them or how they got there. But it does take hard work and something of a miracle. Are we the servants who fetch the water for Jesus? Are we Jesus’ mother waiting to witness and willing God to be at work? Are we the disciples, in awe at seeing what we didn’t know was possible? Are we the guests who continue to enjoy the feast, simply happy that it need not yet end? The lack of details allows us to be who we are now in the image of this feast, so that we can adapt it as we need to in our own time. Wherever or whoever we all are in this story, God is pouring out love for us, we need only participate. Jesus will show us the way!