It presents an interesting contrast to next week’s text from Luke. Both stories narrate the first acts of Jesus’ public ministry, which provide important clues to who Jesus is for the respective author. For Matthew, why the Sermon on the Mount? For Mark, why an exorcism? We bring the same question to Luke and John. For Luke next week, why a return to his hometown? And for John, why water into wine?
These two events back to back are more than appropriate for the second and third Sundays after Epiphany. What do they reveal about who Jesus is and what Jesus will do? We should remember that the miracles Jesus performs in the Fourth Gospel are never called miracles but signs. In other words, the miracle itself is not really what we are supposed to see, as miraculous as it is.
True, water into wine would be quite something, especially on a Sunday afternoon in Minnesota. Rather, the miracles point to a truer revelation about Jesus. This could be an important way to move through the season of Epiphany. Revelation for revelation’s sake is really not the point. What deeper reality is Jesus revealing? What are we supposed to see about Jesus?
An Epiphany of Abundance The word “grace” occurs only four times in the Fourth Gospel and only in the Prologue (1:1-18). Why? One could make the argument, as many scholars do, that John’s source for the Prologue was an extant hymn that John borrowed and inserted into his narrative. But, what if we take the incarnation seriously and suggest that once the Word becomes flesh, the rest of the Gospel shows you what grace tastes like, looks like, smells like, sounds like, feels like?
That is, Jesus’ signs show you, don’t tell you, what abundant grace is, “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (1:16). Turning water into wine is revealing of abundant grace in this season of Epiphany. And what does abundant grace taste like? Like the best wine when you are expecting the cheap stuff. It’s one thing to say, “Jesus is the source of grace.” It’s quite another to have an experience of it. So much of our preaching tends toward telling people about Jesus. What if in the season of Epiphany, we commit to creating experiences of Jesus so that there can be no doubt that Christmas was real?
The details of abundance cannot be overlooked in this text -- six water jars, each 20-30 gallons, filled to the brim, of the best wine. The amount in and of itself is extraordinary. But the best wine? At this point in a wedding celebration? Unheard of. Back in the day, weddings typically lasted a week, where the host would serve the better wine when the guests could actually taste what they were drinking, a nice Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Chardonnay, perhaps. Only after a few days of drinking and determined levels of inebriation would the guests be served the Franzia box Merlot or Gallo jug Chablis. Where have you experienced this kind of grace? Perhaps we can even think out of the box and imagine these more tangible presences rather than theologizing grace down to a mere doctrine.
Do What Your Mother Tells You Another important detail in this first sign, this first act of Jesus’ public ministry, is that his mother is present. In the Gospel of John, the mother of Jesus is never named, never called Mary. She is always denoted by her relationship to Jesus. Here, it is her urging that initiates Jesus’ action.
The exchange between Jesus and his mother is really quite funny and we do our congregation members no favors by insisting that the Bible is void of humor. She notes that the wedding hosts have run out of wine. Jesus’ response is that they should have hired a better wedding planner. But then, she tells the servants to do whatever Jesus says. I have this image of the mother of Jesus much like encouraging your child to get on the school bus for the first time: “Come on, you can do it! I know you can!” But, I also wonder what she saw in that moment. What had Jesus revealed to her up to that point that would cause her to believe that such a miracle was possible from him? How did she know that this was the time for revelation, the event of Epiphany?
The mother of Jesus appears only twice in the Gospel of John, at the wedding at Cana and at the foot of the cross. While we are not told about here about her reoccurrence later in the Gospel, we get a hint of her return in Jesus’ reason for what seems to be a refusal of her request, “My hour has not yet come.” Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus will refer to his “hour” which signals the time of his death.
It is more than poignant that the mother of Jesus brackets his life, surrounds Jesus’ earthly ministry. She is at the beginning of his career and watches him die. She is the nurturing force when he is the Word made flesh, a shared parenthood with God, the father. What difference does this make for preaching this text in the season of Epiphany? Perhaps it might help us to remember Jesus in a manger in the midst of miracles. Perhaps it is a reminder that whenever Jesus reveals his divinity, he is simultaneously revealing something about his humanity. Perhaps, in the sign that it is water into wine, we might even experience something that we need to know about ourselves.