A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 20, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  John 2:1-11 and Isaiah 62:1-5
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            I’m not sure how to verify this, but I’ve been told[1] that Years ago when Johnny Carson was the host of “The Tonight Show” he interviewed an eight year old boy.  Apparently, this kid was asked to appear because he had rescued two friends who had somehow gotten into trouble in a mine outside his hometown in West Virginia.  As Johnny interviewed the boy, it became apparent to him and the audience that the boy was a Christian.  So Johnny asked him if he attended Sunday school.   When the boy said he did Johnny inquired, “What are you learning in Sunday school?”

“Last week, our lesson was about when Jesus went to a wedding and turned water into wine.”  The audience roared – I wonder if the author of the gospel of John got a laugh when he first told the story.  Johnny tried to keep a straight face.

Then Johnny asked, “What did you learn from that story?

The boy squirmed in his chair.  It was apparent he hadn’t thought about this.  But then you could watch the insight come to him as his face lit up.  “If you’re going to have a wedding, make sure you invite Jesus!”

Of course, when you’re eight years old, you hear all stories very concretely.  Eight-year-olds hear our gospel lesson and they see the events unfolding in their imagination.  They see a feast, lots of guest, maybe lots of noise.  They see Jesus’ mother telling him they’ve run out of wine.  Perhaps they’ll hear their own mother saying something like, “The kitchen trash can is overflowing,” or “Your room is a mess.”  Perhaps they’ll smile when they hear Jesus talk back to his mother:  “So what?”

Then they will see Mary go to the servants and tell them to do whatever Jesus says.  Jesus tells the servants to fill the stone jars with water, which they do.  Then, at Jesus’ direction, they draw some water out and give it to the steward, the headwaiter, who tastes it and realizes it’s a fine vintage, the best that’s been served since the banquet began.  To an eight-year-old, the story is just about what happened.

I approach this miracle, or as John calls it this “sign,” like I approach most miracles – with a modern mind.  In other words, I’m skeptical about what supposedly happened.  Did Jesus really turn water into wine?  Sure, he does it all the time – but typically it takes a lot longer.  First the rains have to come so the grapes can grow.  Then the grapes have to be harvested and fermented.  It usually take a year or more.  This story?  He does it in minutes.

Can I tell you a secret?  I don’t think it matters if Jesus turned water into wine.  I find much more fruit in looking for metaphors in these stories than I do in looking for historicity.  And this story is rich.

In the gospel of John, most of the characters exhibiting faith and discipleship go unnamed.  I think this is more starkly noticeable in Mark’s gospel, but notice some unnamed memorable figures from John:  the Samaritan woman at the well, the man born blind, the so-called “beloved disciple.”  By their anonymity, the story allows them to be models for us, the readers and hearer of the gospel, inviting us into the story.

In this story, Mary isn’t called “Mary.”  She’s referred to simply as Jesus’ mother.  In fact, Jesus’ mother is never named in the gospel of John.  She is referred to as the wife of Joseph and the mother of Jesus, and if finally elevated to status of mother of disciples (19:27).

In this, Jesus’ first public action, she initiates a sequence of events that announce the dawning of the messianic age.  The setting is Cana in Galilee, an obscure town far from Jerusalem.   Jesus’ mother’s concern is that the wine has given out.  She remarks on this simply and declaratively.   Jesus’ response is strange.  It sounds a little like he’s talking back to me.  “What has this to do with you and me, woman?  My hour has not yet come.”

“My hour has not yet come.”  We’ll hear that phrase again in John’s gospel.  In chapter 7, when he escapes arrest, we’re told that it’s because his hour hadn’t come.  We hear the refrain, that the hour is coming, again and again.  Then, finally, just before his arrest while he is in prayer, Jesus says that the hour has come.  The moment of final confrontation with the principalities and powers and the final revelation of God’s glory comes.

His hour is introduced here amidst a wedding running short of wine.  “Alert readers will pay attention as the hours unfold.  At the well with the Samaritan woman in John 4, it is the sixth hour, halfway through the 12-hour day.  When the royal official’s son is healed at the end of chapter 4, it is the seventh hour.  Time is passing; night, when no one can work (9:4), is approaching.  When Jesus and the disciples reach the tomb of Lazarus, with death and murder in the air (chapter 11), Jesus insists that the 12 hours have not yet expired; there is still work to do.  But when the final passover arrives in chapter 13, the narrator tells us that ‘his hour had come.’ …  Here in Cana of Galilee, the hour has not come, but Jesus acts anyway, in what the narrator calls ‘the beginning of his signs.’”[2]

The text tells us that the jars Jesus orders to be filled with water were required by the purification rules of the Judeans.  These are big, heavy stone jars.  They hold 20 to 30 gallons.  I have no idea how they managed to get filled without the headwaiter noticing that something was going on.  But I also notice that they had to be filled.  Why were they empty?  Had all the water been used by the guests to purify themselves as the wedding celebrations began?  Had that ritual been abandoned by this family?

Regardless, Jesus seems to be repurposing them.  It’s as if the purification jars had run out of the power to cause celebration!  And I think it’s interesting that the headwaiter didn’t know the source of the extraordinary wine, but, the story tells us, the ‘servants’ knew.  Already, the lines are drawn between those who are prevented by their status from seeing the ‘source’ of Jesus’ power and those whose lowliness makes it easy to see the truth.

As a Christian, I see the stone jars and think of baptism.  Their purpose was to hold water for purification rituals.  We Christians have a water purification ritual – baptism.  And that got me thinking about the waters of baptism and the wine of communion.  What if the waters of baptism are changed into the wine of communion in us?  Then, the blood of Christ courses through our veins.

Transformation is the big theme in this story.  We hear it echoed in the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures.  Isaiah speaks about the transformation of Jerusalem and God’s people who are beset by misery and discouragement.  Israel and Jerusalem, it is anticipated, will exhibit glory with a new name and a new life.  The transformation is from “forsaken” and “desolate,” to “my delight is in her” and “married.”

“The poet uses the imagery of an abandoned woman who in ancient patriarchal society was an object of shame and contempt.  Jerusalem in exile was an object of contempt.  Now God, cast as husband, marries her and offers new life.”  The point is clear enough; the city is given new life by the transforming power of God.[3]

In the gospel lesson, the big transformation is the water into wine thing – except, of course, it’s not.

The story begins “On the third day …”  We know what happens on the third day.  This is a resurrection story.  This is a story about new life.  To be a disciple is to assume resurrection.   To be a disciple is to be open to the transforming power of God that brings new life.

“Knowing that Jesus has defeated death and its cohorts, evil and suffering, we can enter the struggle for life and kingdom ideals – justice, peace, love – without reservation and despite the fact that we may never see them fulfilled.  The resurrection theme enables us – indeed, compels us – to enter the struggle anyway, knowing that life has already won.”[4]  By participating in this new life, we are radically transformed.

The story takes place at a wedding, a communal celebration where two people choose to commit to one another.  Like marriage, discipleship is not a command, but a choice.  “Because we can say no, saying yes is a joyful occasion!  But be warned – a commitment to discipleship may seem as senseless and radical as believing in the resurrection, especially in a world that doesn’t think much of commitments, or have the time and patience for gospel ideals like welcoming the stranger and solidarity with the outcast.  Believing in such suspect ideas takes strength and seriousness, faith and fidelity.”[5]  By choosing to make this radical commitment, we are radically transformed.

This is Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, so this story about radical transformation seems especially appropriate.  Kings life was given in an attempt to radically transform our society.  He started with seeking to transform the scourge of racism.  Then he expanded his efforts to include the transformation of the scourge of poverty.  And finally, seeing the sins of racism, poverty, and militarism tied together, he sought to transform the scourge of war.

At his death in 1968, when he was calling with urgency for an end to poverty in our nation, there were 25.4 million poor Americans including 11 million poor children.  Our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was $4.13 trillion.

Today, child poverty is up 46%, general poverty is up 82%, while the GDP is up some 300%.  The gross domestic product is up three times, and still, somehow the number of poor people keeps rising.  Twenty million of our neighbors are living in extreme poverty including 7.3 million children.  Disgracefully children are the poorest age group in America and the younger they are the poorer they are.  One in four preschool children is poor.  More than one in three Black children and the same proportion of Latino children are poor.  Children have suffered most since the recession began.[6]

The radical transformation Jesus promises his disciples isn’t just so we can have a new life grounded in radical commitment.  We are promised radical transformation so we can be about the work of transforming the world.

God has already gifted us with water.  John invites us to become, at the hands of Christ, the finest wine.  Amen.


[1] From an email of sermon illustrations mailed by sermons.com (20 January 2013).  No author attribution given.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, “Radical Transformations,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_100149_CEpiphany2&week=C_Epiphany_2 (15 January 2013).

[4] Michaela Bruzzese, “Qualities of Discipleship,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_010149_CEpiphany2&week=C_Epiphany_2 (15 January 2013).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Marian Wright Edelman, “How We Can Truly Honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr,” Children’s Defense Fund, http://www.childrensdefense.org/newsroom/child-watch-columns/child-watch-documents/how-can-we-truly-honor-dr-king.html#comment (18 January 2013).