John 2:1 – 11: Why the Fuss When the Wine Ran Out?


A sermon preached on January 20, 2013 based upon John 2:1 – 11.  
Children's bell choir January 2013
There is a part of me that is inclined to criticize this story.   John has placed this story in a rather prominent place in his Gospel.  The story describes essentially the first thing Jesus does in his ministry.   In the other three Gospels the first thing Jesus does is preach and heal — you know, important stuff.  He relieves suffering.  Sick people are made well, lame people are made to walk, blind people are given their sight back.  People are getting some pretty serious problems solved.
But here in John’s Gospel the firs problem Jesus addresses is… the wine has run out at a wedding party?!  There’s a part of me that wants to say, “Oh come on!  This isn’t the sort of problem that Jesus Christ concerns himself with.  So, the wine has run out. Get over it!  There are children in this world who are starving and Jesus is supposed to be bothered with the wine running out at a wedding party? Why might as well portray him finding somebody a parking space!”
Initially, Jesus himself seems to have the same reaction when his mother comes to him in the midst of the wedding party at which he, his mom and his disciples are all guests. “They have no wine,” she tells him, with the implication that he should use his powers to do something to fix the problem.
I’ve got bigger things to concern myself with.
But in the end Jesus acts so that the party might go on; so that the celebration may continue.
It is, as John says, the first of the signs he did.  He’ll do six more before he’s done, all of which are more like the sort of things we expect Jesus’ miracles to be about.
John calls them “signs,” not miracles.   The point is that these miraculous things Jesus does are supposed to beyond themselves.  They reveal something – that’s why this story shows up in the season of Epiphany.   They reveal God’s glory.
CS Lewis pointed out that the specific miracle that occurs here at the beginning of John’s Gospel is one that happens routinely all the time.  In this instance, it is simply sped up to occur in one moment of time.  But water routinely turns to wine over a period of time as grapes grow in vineyards, followed by the juice fermenting into wine.  It’s awe-inspiring – miraculous in its own right, if we take the time to ponder it — but generally we’re blind to how glorious the whole thing is – a testimony to the glory of God that is infused in all creation.
John’s gospel begins with the great assertion that the Word which was present when all of creation was brought into being has become flesh.  That Jesus is the Word become flesh.  In Him, our eyes are opened to grace upon grace – the wonder of God’s abundant blessing that is knit into all creation. And in seeing this, we experience joy, the thing which wine symbolizes.
If we ask ourselves, What is the big challenge/problem of life?  The answer I tend to give, and perhaps you as well, is that the big problem in life is that it includes so much pain and suffering.   And it sure does.
But this story at the outset of Jesus’ministry invites us to see the big problem differently.  The problem isn’t so much the presence of pain as the absence of joy.
Life in this world is woven together with both pain and joy.  Life in the world to come will be undiminished joy, love, light.   But in this world pain and joy come side by side.  It is the experience of joy that sustains in the struggle that is life.  Joy is what makes the struggle worth it.   The great tragedy of life is missing the joy that is woven into ordinary life.
Our western culture is particularly prone to this tragedy.  We have succeeded to a remarkable extent in reducing the amount of pain that human beings endure.  We have reduced poverty and beaten back disease in a way that would have seemed unimaginable to people of other times and cultures.   Though the various products available to us that promise to bring us pleasure, our culture has strangely developed a Joy Deficit.
People who spend time in far more impoverished cultures without all our high-tech pleasure-inducers (as my daughter Kate did in Tanzania) testify that one of the things that struck them was that despite the hardships there, there was far more joy present.  People were less inclined to question that inherent value of life.
This weekend we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement.   Fifty years ago well-intentioned White people from the north would travel to the deep south to lend a hand to the movement.  They wanted to do what was necessary to alleviate suffering, but they would often get frustrated when they attended the long worship services that were so important to the people suffering under the oppression.  It was there in the singing and swaying and praying that the people got in touch with the joy that sustained them in what they knew better than the folks from the north would be a long hard struggle.
When heartbreak strikes, such as the house fire that took two lives in Rockaway this past Friday, or the massacre at Newtown, suddenly our eyes are opened to what we’ve been missing all along.  It is almost as if we need this kind of tragedy to open up our eyes and hearts to the extraordinary gifts every ordinary person is to us.   But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Sixty years ago Thomas Merton was a student at Columbia when his hunger for God lead him to flee this world and enter a Trappist monastery in Kentucky.   One day, a few years hence, Merton was making a rare trip outside the walls of the monastery to run an errand in downtown Louisville when suddenly he was overwhelmed by the God-light shining off the ordinary people he was passing on the street.  “There is not way of telling people they are walking around shining like the sun!”
Later in John’s Gospel Jesus declares that he has come that “my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.”  He has come to awaken within us our capacity for joy.  And so he appears at the “ordinary” event in order to reveal the extraordinary joy that is hidden within it. The wedding steward enjoys the delicious wine, but he does not perceive what the disciples glimpse:  the joy that infuses all of life. Although the other Gospels do not include this story, wedding celebrations appear frequently there as Jesus’ favorite image for the Kingdom of God.  So it is worth our while pondering what takes place at wedding parties.
There is, of course, the wine which is a metaphor for joy.   At Cana of Galilee there is a fabulous, extravagant amount of extraordinarily good tasting wine.   Why, we might wonder, aren’t we Christians more joyful?
To say the obvious, weddings are communal events.  Joy needs to be shared.  Joy and love go hand in hand.   When we are guests at a wedding, it’s not about us.   Even for the wedding couple – it is about the One who has called the two together.   If we ourselves were at the center of the event, the joy would be blocked.
There is good food to savor.  Joy involves our senses awakened to beauty.  There is dancing.  Joy involves our bodies.  We should dance more.  The Black folks in the civil rights movement knew this better than we do.
And there is music.  Music is more important than we know.  It gives voice to what is within us, which often times needs to be expressed because otherwise it gets clogged and gets in the way of the expression of joy.  And music also transports us into realms of delight allowing our spirits to soar.
And there is laughter.   Real laughter is a holy exercise.  It indicates we have been released from the unfortunate fate of taking ourselves too seriously.   It expresses a playful spirit like unto children.  Unless we turn and become like children we will never enter the joy of the Kingdom of God.   This is why our mission statement includes the line, “we reach out with laughter.”
When I was leading worship at the nursing home this past Thursday I told them the story of the wedding at Cana of Galilee.  As I described the interaction between Jesus and his mother, this beautiful old lady sitting there started to laugh heartily.  I realized that, yes, this is funny stuff!  It reads almost like a sitcom where the Jewish mother nags and the son rebuffs but then does what the mom says after all because, in fact, the mother knows best.   Humor doesn’t translate easily from language to language and culture to culture, so we miss the fact that there is a lot of humor in the Bible.  We assume it is all serious stuff requiring solemn faces.  It isn’t.   It’s about angels throwing wild parties in heaven when somebody comes home to God.
Jesus was simultaneously deeply compassionate and deeply joyful.  The two go together in a way we often miss.  If we close down your hearts to protect them from the pain of the world, we will also close them down to the joy that is woven into life.  And life without joy is a life that is not worth living.
So give yourself permission to experience joy.  Do so knowing that God wills for us to have joy.
This poem, entitled, “If I Had My Life to Live Over Again” by 85 year old Nadine Stair gives us some thoughts about what a more joyful life might look like:
I’d like to make more mistakes next time.
I’d relax.  I would limber up.  I would be sillier
than I have been this trip.  I would take fewer
things seriously.  I would take more chances. 
I would climb more mountains and swim more
rivers.  I would eat more ice cream and less beans.
I would perhaps have more actual troubles, but
I have fewer imaginary ones.
You see, I’m one of those people who live sensibly
and sanely hour after hour, day after day.  Oh,
I’ve had my moments, and if I had it to do over again,
I’d have more of them.  In fact, I’d try to have nothing else.  Just moments, one after another,
 instead of living so many years a head of each day. 
I’ve been one of those persons who
never goes anywhere without a thermometer,
a hot water bottle, a raincoat, and a parachute.
If I had to do it again, I would travel lighter than I have.
If I had my life to live over, I would start
barefoot earlier in the spring and stay that way
later in the fall.  I would go to more dances.  I
would ride more merry-go-rounds.  I would pick
more daisies.
There is this verse I have quoted before by Paul Simon that I want to finish with, taking it further than I usually do.
Have you ever experienced a period of grace
When your brain just takes a seat behind your face
And the world begins
The Elephant Dance
Everything’s funny
Everyone’s sunny.
When we can get ourselves out of the way, the joy becomes evident, and life seems like an Elephant Dance