Sermon from Sunday 20th January

John 2: 1-11


As stories about Jesus go, this one is fairly well known.  But then, turning water into wine is always likely to be a little memorable.  So this story finds itself right up there with “walking on water” at the top of the list of things the general public might know about Jesus.

It has also proved to be a popular passage for preachers.  After all it gives us a strong visual image to work with.  It allows us to say that Jesus takes the ordinary things of life and transforms them into something wonderful, into the very best.  Or we can use it if we want proof that Jesus may not have been as dull as he is often made out to be, which is useful when so many Christian folk come across as the sort of people who would want to turn wine into water.

It is a well-known passage and it is a much-used passage, so getting a sermon for this morning should not be too difficult for me.  I can simply look up my trusty book of pious platitudes for preachers and tell you that this story illustrates how wonderful Jesus is, what a good person he is to have around in a crisis, and conclude by reminding you that he can still take that ordinary, everyday life of yours, and transform it into something very special indeed.  All of which is good and true.  But there is something in this story that niggles me a bit.

I feel like one of those detectives in the movies - where everyone else is convinced that have caught the killer and wrapped up the case, but he insists that the evidence just doesn’t quite fit.  Here is the first thing that troubles me about our easy understanding of what this passage has to tell us.  Why was there so much water? When you do the conversion it comes out at around 500 litres of water in each of six stone jars, and my calculator tells me that adds up to something around 3,000 litres of water.  What were they doing with all that water at a wedding?

Well, the text tells us that this water is for the Jewish rites of Purification.  It makes it clear that they were stone jars, which fits because the laws of Leviticus state that an ordinary clay jar would not have been pure enough and would have defiled the water.  So the water was not for drinking, and it was not for washing, but rather it was for the rite of purification, it was to allow people to symbolically make themselves ready for worship.  Now the law specifies how much water is needed for the rites of purification, and it was only a token amount, taken out of a pure round rimmed container and poured over the hands.  So why, in this story, are we told that there are around 3,000 litres of water!   No wedding could need anything like that amount, no matter how many friends and relations the couple might have.  That is enough water for everyone in the whole world to purify themselves!

Purify everyone in the whole world!  Make the whole world ready to draw near to God and worship him.  Now there’s a thought!  Could it be that this deliberate exaggeration is there to tell us something?  After all Jesus surely wouldn’t be wasteful, he wouldn’t create more wine than was needed, he wouldn’t want the result of his fantastic miracle to end up being poured away - would he?  So perhaps the meaning of the story is not that Jesus took plain water and turned it into wonderful wine.  Perhaps it tells us something a bit more important about Jesus.  Perhaps the writer of this gospel gives us this story as his first miracle because he is trying to tell us something about what Jesus had come to do.  Not just why he had come to the wedding, but why he had come to the world.

I don’t believe that the gospel writer was really terribly concerned that we should understand the relative merits of different types of wine, nor that we should know about the normal patterns of drink consumption at Jewish weddings, but I do think that he might have been very concerned to let us see what Jesus’ life was going to be all about, so that we might better make sense of all that is to follow.  For what God is going to do is no miserly or carefully measured thing, but is a wild act of exuberant, generous grace, far more than we could ever need.

This way of understanding the story also solves yet another niggling problem I had with the story.  If the jars of water were not just jars that happened to be lying around.  If they were there because they were needed, then what happened when Jesus used them for a different purpose?  Great for those who just wanted to drink and party, but how could folk get ready for worship?  How would the guests now purify themselves to be ready for the religious parts of the celebration?  Rather than making the wedding go with a swing, Jesus could have brought the whole ceremony to a sudden stop.

What he did would have been very offensive to the religious people who understood the sacred significance of the water in these jars, water that had been carefully prepared and kept ritually clean for this very special purpose.  Would Jesus do something that would stop people from preparing themselves to worship God?  Unless of course, that the point of this story is that Jesus is going to offer another kind of purification.  Unless we are being prepared to understand that he is going to offer a new way to be ready for worship.  that he is going to offer a fresh route by which we can draw near to God.

I guess we are all here because we want to be close to God.  There may be plenty of other things that lead us to be in church on a Sunday morning, but for all of us, in us somewhere is the haunting desire to draw close to the source of life, and to rediscover a sense of harmony and peace that we seem to have lost.  For all of us, in there somewhere, is a hunger to know the blessing of God, and to see this world of ours become a little more like that kingdom of his.   But how can we achieve that?  How can we achieve that when the world seems so enslaved to powers and forces that divide us and create conflict and injustice?  How can we achieve that when, in our more honest moments, we recognise that dark shadows that lurk even within our own hearts?

We may do our very best in our attempts to find self-esteem, or peace of mind.  We may arrive at church hoping that we have done well enough to deserve another dose of strength to help us make it through next week.  That may or may not happen, but it is not really the purpose of what we do.  The purpose is to come here hoping to meet, or more to the point, hoping to be met by God.  For once we begin to see it, we are instinctively drawn to the one who pours out grace and love in outrageously generous measures, doing for us what we could never achieve for ourselves, and pointing to a new way of looking at our world.  We are instinctively drawn to the one who came among us to change things, to transform things, to offer us a new beginning and a new way, all of which is symbolised here in the new wine, which was better than anything that had gone before.

Turning water into wine is impressive, but in the face of all the problems our world faces, it is a bit petty.  If that were all that the story was about it would be a very trivial way to begin a gospel - at an ordinary wedding reception with ordinary problems like running out of wine.  Well John's gospel is never casual with words.  Everything is packed with meaning and significance.  Jesus is among us, not to provide wine, but to provide glorious, overflowing new life.  The one who introduces his ministry with this kind of miracle is giving us a bold and blatant clue as to what his God is like and what kind of new kingdom he is inaugurating, and what kind of living he is calling people to

This is not a God who cautiously measures who deserves to be loved and who does not; who deserves to be blessed and who should be cursed.  This is not a God who decides who has done enough to be declared pure and who has not.  This is not a God who watches our every movement to make sure we obey the rules before he will allow us into his presence.  This is a God who delights in lavishing goodness and love and tenderness and mercy, even on those of us who have done nothing to deserve it.  This is a God who delights in lavishing goodness and love and tenderness and mercy, even on the hungriest and the thirstiest and the dirtiest among us; on the most isolated and most alienated of us, on and the most distressed and the most depressed of us, on the loneliest and the sickest and the saddest among us, on the most timid and the most fearful and the most hostile among us, on the most ignorant and most intelligent and most arrogant of us, on the most prudish and most careful and the most cautious among us, on the most hypocritical and the most narrow and the most judgmental of us.

This is a God who turns three thousand litres of holy water into wine so that we can live abundantly and love extravagantly!  This is a God who intends to change our lives and change our world and turning water into wine is only the beginning.  This is the good news which the writer of John’s gospel is introducing us to, and it is the good news that we believe and proclaim.  May we learn, more and more, to trust in that abundant generosity, and may we learn, more and more, to demonstrate such abundant generosity, and to give everyone a glimpse of what life in the kingdom of God might look like, as we live together in his world.