Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Jesus turning the water into wine is the first sign and inaugural event in Jesus’ ministry, and it’s not insignificant that this takes place at a wedding. Nor is it insignificant that Jesus is there with the disciples he has just gathered around him. It is not insignificant that he is there with his mother.
She will not appear again in this gospel until the crucifixion, standing at the foot of the cross with the Beloved Disciple, just three days before the world-changing event that will transpire on that first Easter Sunday morning.
A wedding is a time of celebration, and Jesus’ inaugural sign takes place at an event of great celebration. Jesus’ ministry, though fraught with tragedy and opposition, will signify celebration, will signify nothing less than the wedding, the marriage, the joining, the uniting, the coming together of God and God’s people.
Jesus’ mother, through whom Jesus, the Word of God, entered the world, is present at this wedding at which Jesus makes himself known to his disciples. Yes, much is signified in this story. But where is this sign of water-turned-to-wine pointing? How is it being signified, this new beginning, God in Christ being wed to the church that will carry the Good News into history?
To answer these questions, we have to look back to what came before. What came before is signified by those stone water jars, those immense vessels meant for the waters of ceremonial purification.
The religion of the day held that the faithful, through contact with utensils and people in the course of day-to-day life, became, in a religious sense, unclean. They were cleansed – again, ritually speaking – by pouring water over their hands.
These immense jars of stone were meant to hold water used for that purpose. That they are made of stone, rather than clay or wood, indicated, according to the thinking of the day, that they themselves could not be ceremonially defiled by day-to-day contact.
These jars were meant to hold waters of purification, waters of religious ritual, waters of ceremony and symbol. Now, they stand empty, waiting to be filled: empty, perhaps, of their former, purely symbolic significance.
And Jesus, this rabbi just emerging on the scene from the little town of Nazareth, is the one who, at the behest of his mother, stands ready to fill them. With what does he tell the servants to fill them? Water ... yes, but water of purification? Perhaps.
But what transpires is a purification that exceeds the wildest expectation. What transpires is a purification that is only now beginning. What transpires will be a purification that will change the face of religion, and give new purpose and momentum to the whole meaning of “purification,” ritual, and religion.
Jesus orders these immense stone jars, holding 20 or 30 gallons each, to be filled to the brim with water. And then ... something happens! The waters that fill these jars, waters expected to be waters of purification, become ... something else.
We are at a wedding, a time of great celebration. A wedding is not a time to worry about purity and purification; leave that for day-to-day life. This is perhaps a week-long party, a time to celebrate!
The wine has given out. Virtually any commentary on this passage tells us that running out of food or drink at a major community event like this would be a social disaster for host and hostess. “They have no wine,” Jesus’ mother tells him (John 2:3). And Jesus is moved, but by what? Is he moved by the entreaty of his mother?
Is he moved by the expectation of his newly-gathered disciples, looking with curiosity at him, wondering what he will do? Moved, perhaps, by compassion for a host and hostess about to be the focal point of a social outrage, by a bride and groom about to suffer an embarrassment that will taint the memory of this joyous celebration for years, perhaps decades?
Perhaps Jesus is moved by all of this. But what happens next is, above all, a sign pointing the way to a new day. With the presence of Jesus, water is turned into wine. In Jesus’ presence, the most mundane substance of everyday use, water, becomes something greater than itself.
In Jesus’ presence, the water of purification, the water of ritual, the water of religion, the water that bathes us and purifies us and quenches our thirst in our everyday life, becomes the substance of celebration. That which is set aside for everyday use becomes that which, when used responsibly, of course (!), becomes the life of the party.
Those stone water jars, meant for the waters of ceremonial purification, for religion, for ceremonial washing, stand empty, waiting to be filled. Jesus’ presence fills them, and transforms both them and what fills them into something gloriously, extravagantly new.
The old vessels, filled to the brim with the substance of ceremony and ritual, are suddenly changed to wine of the purest vintage.
“Most folks bring out the good stuff first,” says the master of ceremonies. “Then when the guests are beyond the point of telling the difference, they bring out the cheap stuff. But you ...,” the MC says, thinking he’s addressing the groom, but really addressing Jesus, “you have kept the good wine until now” (John 2:10).
In Jesus Christ, God has kept the good wine until now.
Where once stood jars filled with ceremony and ritual, there now stand jars filled to the brim with new wine, new life.
The waters of ceremony and ritual — waters for washing away the defilements of everyday life — with the presence of Jesus have been changed to “wine,” signifying a party, the celebration of a new union, the union of God and the people of God.
With the coming of Jesus, purifying ourselves over and over again is no longer necessary. Ceremonial washing has been handled for us, once and for all. Ritual and religion, vital as they are to a full life, are no longer needed to make us right with God. In Jesus Christ, God has made us right with God, and all we need do is celebrate that.
In this, “the first of his signs,” at this wedding in Cana of Galilee, Jesus’ first disciples see his power and glory, and they believe (John 2:11). May we, too, beginning now, see and believe! We need not purify ourselves with ritual and religion to make ourselves pleasing to God.
In Jesus Christ, we are able to stand before God as already pure; this wedding miracle demonstrates that with the coming of Christ, God comes to us and renders us fit and ready, ceremonially clean, clean inside and out.
And so the waters of purification are changed to the substance of celebration, because all we need do is celebrate the fact that in Jesus Christ, God purifies us and makes us clean and whole.
With the coming of God into the world in Jesus Christ, not to judge the world but to save it, religion, with its constant, anxious eye toward purifying over and over and over again in order to render God’s subjects worthy, is changed to a faith that has only to celebrate – to celebrate God’s presence always, in the midst of his people.
In Jesus Christ, purification has already been accomplished. In Christ, you are already clean and pure! May we always and forever be joined to Christ, before God, as a people made clean and whole, one in love and one in celebration. Amen.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus forever. Amen.