"Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee” (John 2:1-11). The first of his signs. There are other signs to come across the gospel of John. Healings of a royal official’s son, a paralyzed man, and the man born blind (chapters 4, 5, 9). Feeding the five thousand (6). Raising Lazarus from the dead (11). And, fully and finally revealing his glory, Jesus’ own death and resurrection (12-21).
In the gospel of John, a sign is much more than a token that superficially points to something else, like a handwritten tag, “Hello, my name is…,” stuck on the outside of my jacket. Nor is a sign an idol, holding a truth completely captive. Boxed up with bright lights and a bow, demanding that all our attention be paid to itself. A sign might best be thought of as an icon, embodying what it represents, truly, but never fully. Inviting us to look at it, but also to look through it and beyond it to that living reality the sign embodies and to which it directs our attention.
But why changing water into wine? It seems almost trivial alongside healing and feeding and raising from the dead. Deeper, we might ask, where in this story of the wedding in Cana of Galilee does the sign appear? For the changing of water into wine happens off-stage among the catering staff. No spotlights. No grand gestures or speeches by Jesus. It’s all so indirect, mediated and deflected through other characters in the story. As if it were a wedding at Downton Abbey and all the action took place downstairs in the kitchen with Daisy and Mrs. Patmore, not upstairs in the dining hall with Lord and Lady Grantham and their guests. What exactly is the icon we’re invited to look at this evening?
The sign becomes visible in and through Jesus’ mother. Mary notices that the wine has given out. She cares. She takes on the vulnerability and need of the bridegroom’s family as her own. “They have no wine,” she insists, despite Jesus’ words, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” (2:3-4) And Mary persists in believing that there is power in Jesus to enliven and enrich when other resources are depleted. Jesus claims, “My hour has not yet come” (4). Still Mary says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (5).
Those servants are an icon we might see through and beyond when they take Jesus’ words to heart and act upon them even though they sound ridiculous. “Now standing there were six stone water jars…each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water’” (6-7). What good is water, the servants might have countered, the wedding party needs wine. Nevertheless, “[T]hey filled them to the brim.” So much labor, a hundred twenty, a hundred fifty, a hundred eighty gallons of water schlepped by hand. Then, exhausted, to present to their boss water as if it were wine – jeopardizing their employment and apparent sanity. “Now draw some out,” Jesus says, “and take it to the chief steward” (8). At Jesus’ command, the servants discover they possess something of worth to offer to others.
And that chief steward, the head caterer – the wine snob in the story – is willing to taste “water that had become wine,” even though he “did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew)” . The steward sets aside his assumptions and receives the labor and care of others as sheer gift. He tastes the wine and finds it good. Very good. Does the steward then demand credit for saving the day? No, he pays the sign forward and praises the bridegroom: “Everyone serves the good wine first and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now” (10). A totally different way of throwing a party – offering other people the best, simply because it is the best, whether or not they know any better.
Jesus did this, the first of his signs, and revealed his glory. What sign? What icon? Mary’s care for others and persistent belief in Jesus. The risky labor of the servants in offering something of worth. The steward’s recognition of the very best and his willingness to serve it to others.
This changing of water into wine is an inaugural story, the story of a beginning – the first of Jesus’ signs. It is also framed as a resurrection story: “On the third day, there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee” (1). The story of a new beginning. The beginning of something new. I wonder what sign you see in this story? And I wonder how it might be for us an icon of resurrection? On the third day since my wife Debra rang the bell at Swedish Cancer Institute after her last radiation treatment. On the third day since some in our St. Paul’s community returned home from pilgrimage. On the third week since my Mom’s funeral. The third month since – ?what? – in your life. The third year since the inauguration of Donald Trump and the women’s marches. The twice third decade since the life and death of Martin Luther King, Jr. I invite your responses.