Second Sunday after the Epiphany—Year C, Cynthia K. R. Banks
Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; I Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11
If you are a child, has your parent ever tried to get you to do something that you did not want to do? Did you bow, and say, “Yes mother, yes father, I would love to do that?”—I know that’s how it goes in our house—or did you resist, just a bit. If you are a parent, have you ever tried to get your child to do something they did not want to do? Did you meet a willing and cooperative spirit, or did you hit a wall of resistance? Isn’t it nice to know that Jesus and his mother had their moments?
So, there was this wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there, and Jesus and his friends had also been invited to the wedding. Apparently, it was quite the event, and a good bit of food and drink were consumed. When the wine gave out, Jesus’ mom called him over, “Uh, Jesus, they have no wine.” That’s code for “get more wine.” He doesn’t want to, so he deflects, and with a bit of attitude, too, “Woman,” (How’s that going to go if you call your mother, ‘Woman’? Not so good in my house.) “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? Not my problem, mom; not yours either.” She ignores him, turns to the servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you.” Oh man! Now it’s back on Jesus. What’s a son to do?
Well, there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, just standing there. Each one of those jars held 20-30 gallons of water, that’s like 120-180 gallons of water. So, Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them to the brim, maybe even squeezed an extra gallon into each of them. Then Jesus said, “Now draw some out and take it to the chief steward”—he was the guy in charge of the reception, so running out of wine was not a good thing for him. So the servants took the wine to the steward, and when he tasted it, oh my gosh. He called the bridegroom over and said, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then when the guests have drunk enough that they don’t know any better, they bring out the cheap stuff, but you have kept the good wine until now.”
So, what’s this story about? Is it about a wedding? We might think that was the primary purpose because this story is woven into the introduction of the wedding service in the Book of Common Prayer, so we reference this story every time we do a wedding.
Is it about performing a miracle? Is about proper etiquette and not getting by on the cheap with your guests? Is it about discerning palates who could even tell the difference between good wine and inferior wine? Is it about a mom showing off her son? Is it about a mother-son standoff which the mother wins—chalk one up for the parents?
Or is it about something else altogether?
I got to thinking this week about those stone jars that hold the water. They don’t just hold any water. I mean these aren’t stone jars holding drinking water for the guests; they are there to hold water for the Jewish rites of purification. Jesus could have chosen other vessels; he could have chosen troughs of water for the animals, surely some of those were around, but he chose these vessels. He chose vessels that weren’t used for anything other than the Jewish rites of purification. So if you had come to the wedding and were ritually impure, like you had come into contact with a dead body or certain types of dead animals, including insects and lizards, or had a certain skin condition, or any number of conditions that women might experience throughout the month or throughout their life, or if you had mildew on your clothes, or any number of other situations that seem a bit odd to us, then you would cleanse yourself with water from these jars to restore yourself to a ritually pure state. And this was so important because to be ritually impure was to be isolated and set apart from the community. These are the vessels that Jesus tells the servants to fill with water which he then changes into wine.
Jesus is signaling something important here that will become abundantly evident throughout the gospels. Jesus has no interest in maintaining codes of purity. Jesus has no interest in maintaining divisions and “this-person-is-more-in-the-community-than-that-person” attitudes. Jesus has no interest in perpetuating criteria for exclusion. Over and over, Jesus will upturn the purity code of his tradition, just like he will turn over the tables in the temple in the very next scene of John’s gospel. Jesus is taking the containers of the old vision, that also were about restoring people to community, but that restoration was made necessary because they had been cast out to begin with, Jesus is taking these containers of the old vision of distinctions, and filling them with new wine that will actually be a source of joy and feasting and bringing the community together. Instead of some having to make themselves pure again, everyone, no matter their state, can partake and enjoy the feast.
So, what if we are the containers? What are we holding? What are the codes that we are upholding? Are we holding distinctions that exclude and keep some out? Are we vessels of a system and a vision that once made sense but no longer does? Are we holding water than can only be used for one thing instead of allowing such water to be used to sustain life, or even better, allowing such water to be turned into a source of joy and delight? Have our containers become rigid? Are our souls in need of new wine?
It is easy to get in a groove in this life and not allow ourselves to see new possibilities. That’s what Isaiah was proclaiming to his people in the first lesson. His people had just gone through the exile. They were pretty down on themselves. It happens sometimes. Life throws us a series of curves, and we go into survival mode, and we forget what is possible with God. But today, Isaiah proclaims, “You shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married.” If you have felt forsaken, if you have felt desolate, if you have felt like a stone container holding water that promises to make you somehow clean and acceptable but you still feel separate, apart, maybe even dirty, well, you have a new name. You are a crown of beauty. You are a royal diadem. God’s delight is in you. Your life, your being is inextricably wed to God, and God is thrilled about it. You have gifts, abundant gifts to offer. I Corinthians names a ton of them, and as sure as God is God, you have one that is uniquely yours to offer for good of the world. Cool.
You may have been a stone jar, just holding water for a vision that is not your own, but today, Jesus commands that you be filled to the brim. Today, he is inviting you to be transformed into new wine that will keep the party going. There is so much feasting to be done in this world, so much in which to take delight, so much beauty to be shared and enjoyed. There is another way to be in relationship other than overcoming distinctions of our own creation—we can partake of one bread, we can drink of one cup, we can know that our lives are full of new wine, good wine, and such libation is always better shared.
All that is necessary is a willingness to allow Jesus to transform us in ways that defy our sense of possibility. What do we have to lose? Would we rather sit there in our stone cold jars, or be poured out as wine that can enliven the world? Choose to be the beautiful, radiant, delightful fine creation that God has made you to be. You are not inferior wine; you are good wine. Let yourself be changed, and then share that beautiful new creation generously because the party can’t go on if you don’t. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
January 20, 2013