Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
Weddings can be wonderful, joyous, and stressful occasions. Nowadays there is a whole industry geared up to persuade the happy couple that their wedding day will be incomplete without whatever the latest fad is. Famous weddings will have their impact: I remember after the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge got married I had to fend off requests for trees to be installed all the way down the nave of the cathedral where I worked, and to persuade an insistent bride that replica state trumpeters were not absolutely necessary for her marriage to be valid. Even without the marketing pressure, there are often the stresses of money and of difficult relationships within the wider family. Everything gets pinned on it being a perfect day.
In Jesus’ day expectations around a wedding were also high. The celebrations often lasted a week, and would involve the whole community, as well as family and friends from further afield. Feasting was expected: this was a display of lavish hospitality. To run out of wine would bring shame and humiliation. The wedding would be remembered by everyone as a disaster, and in a society where the bonds of reciprocal hospitality were strong, the social stigma would be felt for years to come.
This is the situation at the wedding at Cana. ‘On the third day’, John tells us, ‘there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee.’ We, who hear this story after Easter, are meant to pick up on this resonance. Here is a sign of the new life Jesus will bring through his death and his rising again on the third day. The great abundance of wine is also a sign of this. In the Old Testament, wine is a sign of the covenant, of joy, and of blessing. The people’s delivery from slavery is remembered with the cup of blessing each Passover. The prophets tell of the coming days of the Messiah where wine will flow freely (Amos 9.13-14); where people will sit and feast and drink rich wine (Isaiah 25.6). Joel says of those days ‘The threshing-floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine’ (Joel 2.24).
But at the start of the story we hear today, the vats are empty. The wine has run out. And so this is not just a crisis of hospitality and cause of shame. With all the rich symbolism of wine in Israel’s history and expectation, it is a sign that the very relationship between God and his people is in crisis. Imagine if we ran out of wine at communion: that would be a failure of preparation and hospitality, for sure. But because this wine is a sacrament it would also be like saying that God’s love and grace had run out; that there wasn’t enough for everyone.
Mary is alert to what’s unfolding. And so she intercedes with her son. ‘They have no wine’, she says, not needing to fill in the background, to draw attention to the shame, but with faith that Jesus can act to avert humiliation. His response, though, sounds harsh: ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ However we read it, this is not the way we would expect a son to speak to his mother. There is a distance created by the words: not ‘mother’, but ‘woman.’ We may recall that the Prologue to John’s Gospel has told us that Jesus is the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth, who has come to make the Father known. Even family ties will not divert him from this mission. Yet it’s also important to see that Jesus’ address to his mother here is balanced by an episode at the end of his public life: on the cross, when his hour has indeed come, Jesus again addresses his mother as ‘woman’, and entrusts her to the beloved disciple. Here again is a sign that what is begun and foreshadowed in the miracle at Cana will reach its fulfilment on the cross.
Then Mary utters words that are timelessly true for those who would follow Jesus. ‘Do whatever he tells you’, she instructs the servants, who duly fill six stone jars with water. These jars are intended for the rites of purification: for pouring the water with which the guests arriving wash themselves before the feast. They are empty, as we would expect since the wedding is already well underway. But they also stand as a sign that in Jesus a new covenant is being made. John tells us that there were six water jars. Six is the number of incompleteness: seven is the symbolic number of perfection and completion, after the seven days in which God created the world. That the wine of the new age comes from the water of the first covenant is important. But the point being made here is that the old rites have not secured the purification and righteousness of God’s people. Something new is here.
And this new thing, this new life, is symbolised by the water that has become wine. It’s a sign of abundance: the equivalent to about 800 bottles of wine, more than could possibly have been needed. ‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him’. Here, in a tiny village so small its exact location has been lost to history, at the nuptial celebrations of a peasant community, Jesus reveals his glory. It is an epiphany, a manifestation, which is why we tell this story in this season each year. Miracles in the New Testament, and certainly in John’s Gospel, are always signs of a deeper reality. Jesus does not act simply to help the host family save face, just as he does not heal or walk on water or rise from the dead simply to demonstrate his power. Here we are given a glimpse of the new age that has dawned: of a feast where rich wine flows in abundance bringing joy and blessing and life.
And then life goes back to normal. ‘After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples, and they remained there a few days.’ This small group carries with them the knowledge of a new world. They have tasted the wine of the kingdom, seen it flow rich and ruby red. They have drunk from the cup of salvation, though it will be three years and more before they understand just what that means.
And here they are just like us, or we like them. Here, in the Eucharist, we too drink the cup of salvation and the wine of the kingdom, and are made sharers in the new life Christ brings through his death and resurrection. And then we leave church and go back home. Life carries on. But because of that new life, everything is different. The future has become present. Word has taken on flesh. Water has become wine. The old has become new.
So what? we might say. Life does carry on as before. This, I think, is where understanding the miracle has to give way to experiencing it. In Jesus God shows us that he wants to pour out the new life of the kingdom on us, to bring us all to share at the table of his Son. Like those stone water jars, he wants to fill us with living water that becomes the wine of blessing and gladness for others. But I have learnt in my own life that he can’t do this while I am refusing to recognise that I am empty; when I am busy pretending that I already have his new life. It has been in the places where hope has been pushed out by fear; where my courage fails; where my faith feels small; where I have had to recognise in despair or frustration or relief that I am finite, that I am not enough, that God has poured out his grace to bring me new life. I need reminding again and again that I don’t come to God, and most especially to his life in the Eucharist, because I have everything sorted out. I come because I’m hungry and need food, because I’m thirsty and need to drink, because without him I am empty, and if I can’t taste the new wine for myself, how can I help others to find it?
In the miracle at Cana Jesus shows us that it is in the places of our poverty that he makes us rich. He shows that in the places that have grown arid and empty, new life can stir. Mary says to the servants ‘do whatever he tells you’. And in obedience to his command, we eat the bread and drink the wine of the kingdom, where we touch and taste and smell and see the new life that is Christ’s gift and his desire for each one of us. Here, we behold his glory, as he is made manifest once more in our midst.