|What a great story we have for today. The Gospel of John is highly theological yet also includes the most intimate stories of Jesus’ life. Whether the gospel was actually written by his disciple John or dictated by John to a member of his community, the information clearly comes from someone who knew Jesus very well and witnessed firsthand many of the events of his life and ministry. In Matthew and Luke, the first act of Jesus’ ministry is a sermon. In Mark, it is an exorcism. But in John, his ministry begins at a wedding. The first miracle, or, as they are called in John, sign, that Jesus performs happens at this wedding. One of the major themes of the gospel, the abundant grace that Jesus brings, is also introduced.
In Jesus’ time, marriage and the family formed the foundation of society and weddings were large affairs that lasted up to three days. The entire village, as well as relatives and friends from the surrounding area, were invited. We do not know Jesus’ relationship to the bride and groom. Perhaps they were relatives; both he and his mother were invited. Maybe they were friends, as some of the disciples were invited as well. It doesn’t matter. A social event of great celebration in the life of the common people became the setting for the first major action of Jesus’ ministry.
This story is wonderful for many reasons, one of which is the fact that any mother who has experienced disrespect from her children can relate to Jesus’ mother Mary. The human side of Jesus becomes evident as he responds rather rudely to her suggestion that he do something to replenish the wine which had run out. He asks her “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” Yet Mary knows better and quietly says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” In spite of all the emotional burdens she has had to carry, and the premonition from his birth that she will suffer great loss, Mary offers a model of faithful discipleship. When he is rude to her, she doesn’t argue with him or reprimand him, she simply speaks quietly to the servants to prepare the way for him. Whether Jesus comes to his senses or responds to her quiet authority, or both, he performs the miracle.
Weddings were a time of celebration, and in first century Palestine that meant there was singing and dancing and feasting and a lot of wine was consumed. To run out of wine would have been an embarrassment for the bride and groom and their families, and would have started their new life together on a bad note. The same thing would happen today, everyone would remember the wedding where they ran out of food or wine! And, just as today, there was fine wine and cheaper wine. Poor people often drank wine mixed with vinegar and water. The wealthy, of course enjoyed the finest wines. For a wedding, the average family would have provided the best they could afford in the beginning, and later on, as presumably people would be too tipsy to notice, they would serve the inferior wine.
The quantities in the story are staggering – each one of six jugs held 20-30 gallons, which meant the equivalent of a total of 756 to 1000 bottles of wine in today’s measure, according to the conversion factors from Cornell University. Since 2.6 pounds of grapes yields a bottle of wine, we are talking about over a ton of grapes. Of course this does not surprise us, because when Jesus does something, he does it in abundance. Later on in his ministry, in another sign, he will not provide just enough food to feed the five thousand, there will be 12 baskets left over.
Another theme may not be as obvious, but we see it in the form of Mary’s command — “Do whatever he tells you.” In the Gospel of John, those who do whatever Jesus tells them find that they will experience grace upon grace – he tells the Samaritan woman at the well to “give me a drink” and she experiences the blessings of the water of life. He orders the man who was sick for thirty-eight years, “Stand up, take your mat and walk” and the man is healed. He has the disciples make the five thousand sit down so they can distribute food to them, and there is more than enough for all. He instructs the man born blind, “Go, and wash in the pool of Siloam” and his sight is restored. Finally, his last sign will be completed when his friend obeys his command “Lazarus, come out” and the dead man walks out of his tomb. They will all experience grace beyond anything they could have possibly anticipated.
This story also demonstrates that God’s grace is not just for us, it is to be shared with others. The setting of this first sign is a wedding. All the guests will get to experience this act of grace. Everyone will watch the steward pour more wine in their glasses when they thought their cups would remain empty. They will all will get that first whiff of a fine quality wine and be surprised. When they take that first sip, each one will say, “Wow, what vineyard did this come from?” Throughout John’s gospel, all will have the opportunity to respond to Jesus’ voice and know life in abundance. As Saint Paul reminds us in our second lesson, God’s grace is for all and it is just about impossible to restrain the abundance of God’s grace, although we sometimes try to contain it and place limits on it.
Jesus takes the opportunity to offer these signs of grace at everyday occasions. He doesn’t wait for the Sabbath at the synagogue or a visit to the temple; he makes normal occasions that ordinary people experience into manifestations of his power and grace. His first sign takes place at a wedding, one of the favorite social occasions of his time for all classes of society. But this wedding is not at the home of someone of wealth and power; it is in a small village in an insignificant place called Cana in Galilee, the area where he grew up. He encounters a Samaritan woman when he stops by a well and it becomes a life-changing event for her and for the people of her village. As he travels from village to village he meets people who are ill, crippled or blind and heals them. When he hears that his friend is seriously ill and near death, he willingly takes that opportunity to restore his life even though he knows that final sign will seal his fate among the religious authorities.
Although we sometimes have mind blowing mountain top experiences of God’s love, we usually experience the abundance of God’s grace in everyday situations with ordinary people. We experience it with all our senses, and feel it in every part of our mind, soul and body God’s abundant grace is not a concept but the incarnation of God’s love; it is not an idea but the experience of God’s love; and it is definitely not something to be kept to ourselves but good news to be shared because God loves the world, as we learn in the most well-known verse of this gospel – John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that all those who believe in him will not perish, but have eternal life.” According to his disciple John, the first manifestation of that gift of abundant grace began at a small town wedding when they ran out of wine. Amen.