Sermon preached 03.20.2011 based on John 2:1-12.
The Gospel of John
This morning we continue with the second sermon of our worship series called We Would See Jesus where we are looking at some of the encounters people have with Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of John. Last week Pastor Bob looked at Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus, as his friend Philip introduced him to the one he thought might be the messiah, Jesus son of Joseph of Nazareth. Today we turn from the first chapter of John to the second, and we hear the story of Jesus’ first miracle, or sign: Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding banquet in Cana.
As we look at this story today, I want us to appreciate the masterful way in which John has crafted his story. Sometimes we want the Gospel writers to have been reporters today, as if we are watching this couple’s wedding video and seeing the event first hand.
You Are There
When I was in grade school, I remember liking those You Are There movies they would show us from time to time. Walter Cronkite, the quintessential news anchor, told about historic events as if he were reporting on a current news story. He would appear at his news desk to introduce a story, like the signing of the Declaration of Independence or Washington crossing the Delaware River. He would then cut to a reporter “live on the scene.” We would see the event happening right there before us with an on the scene reporter describing the events. Inevitably, the reporter would find one of the prime actors in the scene to “interview.” For example the reporter might ask John Hancock why he signed his name so large, or something like that.
Sometimes I want the Gospel writers to be Walter Cronkite. I sometimes expect the text to function as a You Are There for Jesus and his disciples. I want to read the accounts as a textbook that is just giving me the facts – as if John were an unbiased reporter on the scene just recording the events. The more I study scripture I have learned how limited this way of reading the Bible is. When we read that way we miss so much.
I want to encourage you as we read the Gospel of John throughout this season of Lent, to try to appreciate the incredible storyteller that John is. When you read John, you are reading the work of a masterful writer and deep-thinking theologian. John is retelling the story with purpose – a purpose he states as “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31 NRSV).
To that end, John is deliberate in telling a story a certain way, he makes intentional word-choices, and he even tells us that his story choice, all add a depth to the Gospel story, layering it with meaning and texture.
For example, look at the his word choice for the opening of his Gospel, “In the beginning…” It is difficult to miss that he has intentionally used the same words that open the Bible in Genesis 1 – the Creation story. As we read the Gospel of John we would do well to stay closely connected to the creation story in Genesis, for one of John’s themes is that in Jesus we are experiencing a new creation, a new beginning. That theme pops up through out the book. On Easter Sunday we will read that John includes two details not in the resurrection stories of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Mary meets Jesus in a GARDEN in John, possibly alluding to the Garden of Eden of Genesis; and Mary mistakes Jesus for the GARDENER, alluding to Jesus as the “new Adam” the gardener in Eden.
And did you notice the Creation reference in our text today? The story starts of with this subtle hint: “On the third day…” Now he may just be talking about it being 3 days after the last event, and he could have said “three days later.” Instead he uses language that sounds an awful lot like Genesis 1:13 that ends a day of creation by saying, “And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.” On the third day of Creation, God gathered the waters together to separate land from sea, and said, “‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so” (11). Water and grapes. Water and wine. Hmmm. I think John is saying something here about who Jesus is.
This story is ripe with symbols and great sermons that one could preach. Like the symbolism of wine used by the prophets of the Old Testament to talk about the presence of God, the abundance of God, the providence of God. Notice that Jesus doesn’t just make some wine – he makes a ridiculous amount of wine – an over-abundance of the presence of God is known as we walk with Jesus. That’d be a good sermon.
I could instead preach about the jars he uses to make the wine in. The jars for ritual purification were more than just convenient, they also serve as sign and symbol. He takes the vessels that were used to make things ritually clean and fills them with wine. Jesus is letting us know that we are now made pure not through ritual, but through walking with him, and some might say through the wine of communion, his blood.
I could also do a sermon about the fact that this not just any party, but it is a wedding banquet – one of Jesus’ favorite images for the Kingdom of God.
I think I’m up to four sermons already. Take just about any text in the hands of this master writer John, and you can pretty much do that. One commentator, talking about our text for today, writes this:
With this story we begin to see the subtlety of the art of the Fourth Evangelist, for the story works on two levels. There is the historical one, certainly, but the story has been told because it aptly displays the theological and social significance of Jesus – he is the one who brings the new wine of the Gospel, which eclipses and makes obsolete previous sources of life and health such as Jewish purification water. (Witherington 78).
The challenge this morning is that I have several divergent sermons I could preach, and it is tempting to try to get them the all in here (and maybe I just did). Instead, I will try to be disciplined and delve into only one aspect of the story that is in line with the theme of our series that recounts interactions with Jesus and the growth that happens in the characters as a result.
So this morning, our focal point is the conversation that happens between Jesus and Mary. Actually, did you notice that John does not use her name? He never does. He never refers to her as Mary. He simply calls her “his [Jesus’] mother.” That is her only identity for John.
Mom. We revere mom on Mother’s Day, but my experience is that when you ask most people about their relationship with their mothers you get a response like, “I love my Mom, but…” The same is true of Dads, but Dads seem to get off easier, maybe because the expectation is lower. Many of us though seem to have, shall we say, “complicated” relationships with their mothers.
Maybe the reason is that our moms never seem to forget the toddler we were, even well into adulthood. What is it that moms say, which is a blessing and a bit uncomfortable at the same time? “No matter how old you get, you’ll always be my little Johnny.” They say it when you get enter high school, when you get your drivers license, get married, and even at your retirement dinner.
I remember when I told my mom that I thought I was feeling called into ordained ministry she said something like, “But you are too normal to be a pastor.” While that may reflect on what my mom, the church secretary, had learned about her pastors, what I think she meant was that I was just “her kid,” and not someone who could be a pastor. I was her little boy, Joe. Not Pastor Joe. Just Joe. And I never will be my mom’s pastor.
It is good to be reminded that we are our parents’ children – just “normal.” But every once in a while, it seems we need to remind our moms (and dads) that we have grown up. Jesus seems to be having one of those moments this morning. He has been baptized, having the Spirit descend upon him like a dove. He has received his first disciples. He is establishing himself as a religious teacher, leader, and scholar. His ministry is starting to take off.
Jesus turning water into wine
But there’s this thing he has to do. He has been invited to a wedding, maybe before all of his ministry stuff started to take off, and his mom is there. His mom doesn’t see the man standing before her. She sees the kid, the boy who used to run around the carpenter shop calling to Joseph, “abba, abba.” She remembers him getting lost, as she sees it, in the Temple when he was twelve. His mom doesn’t see Jesus, Son of God, the Messiah. Mary sees her “little Yeshua” (Jesus in Aramaic).
Yet we get the sense that Mary knows something no one else in the story knows at this point. Somewhere along the way she has seen his power. She knows what he is capable of. Maybe he has fixed a problem or two around the house, so she knows that he can fix this.
“Yeshua,” she says, “they’ve run out of wine.” Now a lot has been made about this wine thing, and what an embarrassment this would have been for the groom’s family, and all of that. But honestly, this is one of those miracles that just makes me shake my head. This is not a life-and-death situation. This is wine at a wedding. Weddings usually lasted about a week in Jesus’ day, and when the wine ran out it was a good sign the party was over. The wedding had probably already been going on for days, would it have been such a disaster for it to shut down? Probably not.
We expect Jesus to obediently say, “OK mom. I’ll see what I can do.” But he doesn’t. In fact, he is rather short with her. He responds, according to the NRSV translation, with these words, “Woman…”
I need to stop right there. I’m guessing that some of you hear that first word of his response, and it becomes the last word you hear. Maybe its because you heard that from a husband or boyfriend, and what followed was never good. Maybe it was by a man in your life to keep you down. Maybe you heard your mom addressed that way when you were a child, and that was a sign that the situation was deteriorating, and things were going to go badly. Still today when you hear that word used that way you feel a pit in your stomach and the anxiety rise within you.
Hear this clearly. Jesus is not saying it that way. This is not a pejorative term. The word used here is one used to address a female with respect, similar to the way we might use ma’am. In the Gospel of John Jesus uses the same word to address the woman at the well in chapter 4 and Mary Magdalene in the garden after the resurrection in chapter 20. Both polite interactions.
Having said that, we still need to recognize that this is not a term that one would expect Jesus to use to address his mother. One commentator tells us that while calling a woman “woman” was not disrespectful writes, “There are, however, no known examples of a son’s using such a term to address his mother” (Witherington 79). NONE. So while this is not disrespectful, it is still quite jarring. He could have said mother, mom, or even ma. That would have at least shown some warmth. Instead he calls her woman, or ma’am. A respectful but generic term he would use to address any other woman.
Jesus is disengaging (Witherington) from Mary at this point, putting her out at arms length. Remember when Philip is telling Nathanael about Jesus, he calls him “Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth.” There is a connection to Joseph that Nathanael gets beyond, as he begins to see Jesus as the Son of God, rather than Joseph. The same is happening here. Jesus is being distanced from his mom, so that we can see him as so much more than Mary’s little Yeshua.
Jesus’ response continues, “Woman what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come” (vs 4). In that short sentence Jesus is letting her and everyone else know that his authority to act comes not his earthly mother or anyone else, but from his Heavenly Father. “My hour has not yet come,” is a way of Jesus saying that he is waiting for God’s timing because he is not doing whatever he wants, but is carrying out the will of God. He is clarifying that he is not at the beck-and-call of anyone other than God, not even his mom.
In what some might say is typical mom-fashion, Mary completely discounts the response of her son. Reading the text you have to wonder if she even heard him. Unfazed, she recruits the help of the servants, telling them to “Do whatever he tells you.” Sure enough Jesus comes through, provides the wine, and keeps the wedding banquet going.
On the one hand, Mary is a mom, and we can relate somewhat on that level. On another level of reading though, she is every one of us at some point in our faith development. We know Jesus’ power. We know what he can do for us and others, and we can get stuck there, stop our faith development there. If we are willing to continue in our faith journey though, it gets so much better than this.
When I was a kid, I learned this through a bit of parable with my bicycle.
My family lived on a dead-end street in a quiet neighborhood (Beachwood, NJ). I had several friends about the same age, and we all hung out together. Our bicycles were an important part of our daily lives. We rode bikes for fun – having races, building ramps, and riding just to ride. Our bikes were also our primary means of transportation to our friends’ houses in the neighborhood, or to the bakery down the street for the best peanut butter cookies in the world.
I took good care of that old red Schwinn with the white banana seat. I washed and even waxed it from time to time. As I got older, I learned some basic maintenance like oiling the chain and I remember being pretty good at putting the chain back on when it fell off. But flats were hard.
I remember one flat in particular. I was at the age where I thought I should be able to fix it myself, but I hand’t been taught that one yet. Undeterred, I went into our “cold room” – a closed-in carport that functioned as storage of all of our outdoor stuff – turned by bike upside down and got to work. I couldn’t do it. So, I left my bike upside down in the room, knowing that when my dad got home from work he would go through that room as he always did, see my bike, and know what to do. I made sure it was right in his way so he would have to move it to get by. No way he could miss it. Then I went off to play something else with my friends.
When I got home that evening for dinner, my dad was already home, and I went into the cold-room to see if he was working on my bike. Nope. Maybe it was already done. Nope. Surely he would ask me about it at dinner. Nope. Maybe he would do it after I went to bed. I got up the next morning and found out. Nope.
So I went another day without a bike. The next day, I got smart and when my dad got home from work I asked if he would help me fix my tire. “Sure,” he said. And I learned where the “right tools” were to get the job done. While we were working, I remember asking my dad why he didn’t fix it the night before. He simply said, “You never asked.”
Several thoughts went through my head that I was smart enough not to say, like, “Why do I have to ask? You knew I had the flat; you knew what the bike meant to me; why didn’t you just fix it?”
Have you ever asked that question about God. He knows everything, so He knows my need. He knows I can’t fix it, and He knows that he can. Why doesn’t he just do it? Why do I have to ask?
I learned that day that my dad wanted to be more than my bicycle repair guy. He wanted to be my dad, to have a relationship with his son. The same is true of God. He wants us to realize that He is so much more than our “big fix in the sky.” He wants us to live in relationship with him.
Water into wine
When Mary says to Jesus, “They have no wine,” I see an upside down bicycle in the middle of the cold room with a flat tire in the way of the one person who can fix it. So Jesus gives that odd response “Woman what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”
Jesus doesn’t want to be just a genie in a bottle – rub him the right way, present the problem properly, and he will fix it. He wants more. He wants a relationship with each of us. The Gospel message is so much more than having a Jesus “good luck charm” to carry around in our back pocket to solve our problems.
It is a little unsettling to hear Jesus distancing himself from his earthly family, disengaging from Mary, as one author puts it. That is because we have only read half of the story.
Mary at Cross
The other half of the story happens much later in the Gospel of John, the only other time we read about Mary in the entire book. Mary appears here at the beginning of Jesus ministry, and then again, at the very end, at the foot of Jesus’ cross. John reports that Mary is one of the witnesses to Jesus’ crucifixion. As in the wedding story John does not use her name, but simply refers to her as “his mother.” The whole episode of this second and final interaction between Jesus and his mom takes just 3 verses (25-27) to tell, but we hear so much in it.
25And that is what the soldiers did. Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman [there’s that word again], here is your son.” 27Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. (NRSV)
Again there are two levels at work here. One, in a physical and practical, earthly sense. Jesus is fulfilling his responsibility as the eldest son making sure his mother is well cared for after he is gone.
On another level, he is moving Mary from status as his mom, to a member of the “family of faith” as he introduces her to one of his disciples as “here is your son” and “here is your mother.” Notice that does not happen in the production of wine, in the miracle of abundance. Instead it happens in the brokenness of the cross.
So too it is for us. We too need to travel to the foot of the cross and move beyond just the abundance of wine to a relationship with the one who loves us so deeply that he went to the cross for each and every one of us.
Yet that is what is so often preached. Faith in Jesus in the abundance of wine, because of what he can do for us. “Believe in Jesus and you’ll have a great life, great kids, the house and car you want, the job that satisfies you, and more!” Believe in Jesus and the party will never stop.
I’m sure I am not the only one who is sometimes troubled by the way Christianity is celebrated in the media. I hear people thank God or “give all the glory to Jesus” when they win an award, and watch them kneel in the end zone after a touchdown. I hear Christian artists talk about how Jesus helped them get them in the recording business, which seems easy to say when you get to do what you love and make a bunch of money doing it. In other words, it seems to me that we often hold up faith during the wedding when it is pretty easy to be a follower of Jesus.
Relying on the wine, relying on the blessings, is so fleeting. Seeing Jesus as a simple miracle worker doesn’t go far enough. There is so much more to our faith than just what we get.
I hear John saying to us today that it gets so much better than this.
Contrast this “what Jesus does for me” attitude of faith, with a sense of call because of what we have. I don’t know Sandra Bullock’s faith-story, but it was reported this week that she is giving $1million to help with Japan’s recovery from the earthquake and tsunami. Again, I don’t know Angelina Jolie’s expression of faith, but I am impressed that with her celebrity and wealth she is helping the poor in other countries and bringing worldwide awareness to the issue of poverty. Bono, the lead singer of U2, who is a confessing Christian, is said to live a fairly modest lifestyle, and uses his money and celebrity to do much the same, raising awareness for the poorest of the poor all over the world.
On a different scale I think of a mom I heard of recently, who had a child die from cancer, and is now a volunteer in a cancer ward, grieving with parents. I know of Stephen’s Ministers who give their extra time to work with those in our congregation who are hurting. We have a crew leaving today to work at the United Methodist Committee on Relief’s (http://umcor.org) depot in Salt Lake City, and our youth going on their mission trips this summer – people giving up their vacation time to do something for others. Talk to those who give like that and you will hear that it gets so much better than an abundance of wine.
There is this little detail at the end of the story, almost a little tag, that always makes me smile when I read it. The wine steward tastes the wine and is impressed with the quality of Jesus’ work. He calls the bridegroom over, whom he assumes has provided the wine and says to him, “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” (John 2:10).
On one level this is a comment about the quality of what Jesus does. But, as we often see in John, there is often another level at work.
Read symbolically we can hear John with a wink and a nudge, telling us that something better is still to come. If you think the “miracle working” Jesus is good – just wait, it gets so much better than this. This is just the appetizer – cheap wine masquerading as the good stuff. The best is still to come.