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Second Sunday after the Epiphany: January 16, 2021

The story in today’s gospel reading is perhaps one of Jesus’ more famous miracles. I’ll admit, though, that its familiarity does little to satisfy the questions this peculiar passage raises for me. For instance, how strange it is that a wedding in a small, rural town is the setting for Jesus’ first sign. And what exactly is happening between Jesus and his mother? And how, exactly, is Jesus’ glory revealed by turning water into wine, especially when so many of the beneficiaries of Jesus’ extravagant miracle were oblivious to the gift that Jesus had given to them? It helps to remember that in John’s account of the Gospel, nothing is only what it seems. Each of the “signs” (or miracles) that John selects to tell the story of God’s self-revelation in Christ are at once both a demonstration of divine power and a window into the nature of who Jesus is and the life that he offers.

In first-century Palestine, weddings were at minimum a week-long affair. The bridegroom was responsible for providing the wine for the entirety of the party, and his family and guests were obligated to contribute. Running out of wine was not simply a “party foul.” It would have had profound social implications including embarrassment, shame, and dishonor, and potentially even dire economic and legal consequences for the families being united through the marriage. Mary recognizes the lack and makes a simple, declarative statement to Jesus: “they have no wine.” In reply, Jesus utters words that have stumped scholars throughout the ages: “What concern is that to you and to me?” Is Jesus chastising his mother? Is he being dismissive? And, as though they were just talking past one another, Mary seems to selectively not hear Jesus’ resistance and instead turns to the servants and instructs them to do whatever Jesus tells them to do. Contrary to what his seemingly snide comment suggested, Jesus also turned to the servants and gave them instruction:

“See those six 20-30 gallon water jugs? Fill them with water… Okay, now that they are full to the brim, pull some and take it to the chief steward to be sampled.” Could you imagine being one of those servants? Jesus not only tends to the need named by his mother, but he does so in a frivolous show of extravagance. In our contemporary way of producing wine, that would be an additional 600-900 bottles of wine! Jesus doesn’t just cover the need; he provides far more than is necessary to address the lack. Already, we are getting the idea that frivolity, extravagance, and abundance are characteristics of the glory that Jesus reveals in this sign.

But what is behind or beyond this surface reading? Again, John utilizes these signs in his narrative to demonstrate the divine power that Jesus held; but they also function to point beyond themselves to something else, something more real, something deeper, something more than what lies on the surface. The two obvious images being recapitulated in this drama are weddings and wine. Two images that have great significance in their theological meaning: weddings and marriage are often used in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures as analogs for restoration, for union between God and God’s people. And wine is often symbolic of sustenance, vitality, prosperity, and abundance. So when Mary, in the middle of a wedding feast, declares to Jesus that the wine has run out, she is not simply commenting on the lack of party supplies. Instead, she is, in effect saying, there is something lacking in this restoration, in this union; something “more than” is needed to satisfy the thirst of God’s people. And that something “more than” is nothing less than total transformation, like water being transformed into wine. 

In the narrative, the only ones who are privy to Jesus’ actions are his mother, the servants, and presumably his disciples. The vast majority of the people who are in attendance are unaware that the problem of lack exists, and all of them will benefit from the sign that Jesus performs without actually knowing or recognizing what had happened. When the steward is given a taste, he recognizes the quality of the transformation and is dumbfounded as to why the host left the superior wine until now, when the palate of the guests is so shot that they likely won’t be able to recognize and appreciate the fine quality of the wine. And, even if they do, even if they (like the steward) can recognize and name the quality of transformation, they are none-the-wiser about its source. 

Very clearly, the “beyond” that this sign points to, is the abundant nature of God and God’s gift of grace. But what are we to do with this revelation in a world that is characterized so much by lack? We step outside the doors of the parish and, even if we look around us now, we are surrounded by examples of lack: They have no food. They have no water. They have no shelter. They have no security. And in the same declaration of lack today, Jesus stands ready to offer the life that is in him in abundance.

And, oftentimes, we want the dramatic signs. We want the angelic choirs in the sky announcing what new thing God is doing now. We want the spectacular in response to the drastic need. In his Tractate on the Gospel of John, Augustine says this:

“For even as that which the servants put into the water pots was turned into wine by the doing of the Lord, so in like manner is what the clouds pour forth changed into wine by the same Lord. But we do not wonder at the latter because it happens ever year; it has lost its marvelousness by its constant recurrence.”

Our passage in John today reveals to us that Jesus is the Source of all that is. The Word made flesh who came and made his dwelling among us; who came to his own and was not recognized, who came to the world he created but was not received. And yet, the transformation that Jesus affects, the transformation that Jesus offers, is offered to all, regardless of whether or not we recognize it.

So, I wonder this morning: where are we seeing signs of abundance around us? Or are we blinded by the hands that bring us the wine? Do we recognize God as the Source of all that is, do we recognize God as the giver of all abundance that we experience in our life? And how do we respond? 

Recognizing the abundance of transformation, the disciples recognize something in Jesus, recognized something life giving in Christ, and they believed. And this is our invitation today; not necessarily in response to spectacular signs and wonders, but to the daily, monthly, yearly, sustaining force that keeps us alive, that gives us joy, that brings us abundance.