Every three years in the lectionary cycle, the story of the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12) is the suggested passage for the Sunday before the MLK holiday. Since neither the gospel writers nor the lectionary committee knew anything about the King commemoration, many churches turn to King’s words in their worship. This year, as I explored the story of Jesus’ first miracle, I found a connection that fed me. Here’s my sermon for this week: “Let Justice Flow Down Like Wine.”
We don’t know why they ran out of wine at the wedding. Perhaps people drank more than they thought. Perhaps they had planned poorly. We don’t know the relationship between Jesus and the guests. Pretty much everyone in the story remains anonymous except Jesus. Even Mary is not named; she is referred to as “his mother.”
Of all the stories in the Gospels, the story of the wedding at Cana probably ranks as one of the best known for a couple of reasons: one, it was Jesus’ first recorded miracle, or sign, as John refers to it; and two, Jesus turned water into wine to help a wedding party keep going. He didn’t heal anyone or raise anyone from the dead. He made wine for the party.
From a preaching standpoint, the story is interesting because of the various ways people interpret the details. Rebecca Solnit says, “To tell a story is always to translate the raw material into a specific shape, to select out of the boundless potential facts those that seem most salient.” Though she was not talking specifically about scripture, I think she describes well what we do when we come back to these stories again and again and find fresh understanding. What’s on the page may be the same, but we are not. What we notice about life, about the biblical accounts, about ourselves are all things that stay in motion.
We don’t know why Mary knew about the problem, or why they were even at the wedding, but she wanted Jesus to do something about it. She finds him and says, “They have no wine.” In most versions Jesus’ response is translated, “Woman, what does that have to do with me?” but in the Greek it reads, “What does that have to do with you and me?” When the question includes them both, I hear it differently: why did the wedding party’s problem have to be their problem too?
In that light, it almost feels rhetorical, but then I think of Jesus sitting at the table with his disciples and I wonder if it wasn’t a teaching moment. Perhaps I read it that way because that’s where I found myself in the story this time around sparked by one commentator in particular who turned the question on himself:
In what way are others essential to my relationship with God? In what way are they indispensably present? Other people are obviously crucially important and integral, irreplaceable. I spend most of my life with them and (hopefully) much of it for them. They enclose relationships of friendship, love, and wisdom that make up much of the richness of life. This seems obvious. But how are they absolutely essential and indispensable to my hope for a relationship with God—so much so that if they were not present, I would have no relationship with God at all? That is what I mean by “absolutely essential.
Even in the few weeks I have been here, I have said more than once that life and faith are team sports. Jesus’ question underscores that truth. We are essential to one another. The answer to his question about who the wedding party was to him and his mother was everything. So, Jesus went to work.
He told the servants to fill up the six big clay pots or pitchers that were there with water. Each one held about thirty gallons of water. Their usual purpose was to hold water for Jewish purification rituals—not just handwashing, but rituals that symbolized internal cleansing—repentance. The servants did as they were instructed and when the caterer drew from the pots he found wine. Good wine. Really good wine. And a lot of it: those six pots would have the equivalent of somewhere in the neighborhood of 750 bottles of wine as we know them. I don’t know how big the wedding was, but whatever size the crowd, that is an incredible amount of wine. The only ones who ever knew about it were the catering staff, Mary, the disciples, and Jesus. No one else knew who saved the party, only that the wine never ran out.
Another commentator focused on the extravagance of Jesus’ miracle:
This is a miracle of excess, and we’re generally more comfortable with moderation in all things. Even grace. There are rules we’d like to see God follow, actually. Jesus comes around and messes with the rules—no wonder the religious authorities wanted to kill him. He seems genuinely dangerous to almost any system, to any plans we might have intended to implement. Jesus turns the purification water into wine. Is he going to turn our laws into gushing streams, our boundaries into blossoms, our principles into feasts for everyone to attend?
Her description of the miracle being one of excess made me think about coffee hours I have seen where the kitchen is full of things people brought to share but those serving the food put it out a little a time to make sure it isn’t all eaten. It’s what we might call a hospitality of scarcity: they mean well, but they don’t know how to trust an extravagant God.
Her question—is Jesus going to turn our laws into gushing streams—helped me find a connection between the story and the fact that the lectionary lets it land on the weekend when we commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In my notes I wrote, “Let justice roll down like wine.” And then when I returned to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech I heard echoes of both extravagant love and our essential connection to one another. Listen again to what he had to say:
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
As Americans, we are immersed in a culture of scarcity, sort of like the folks running coffee hour. We have been trained to expect that things are going to run out, so we had better take care of ourselves before we care about anyone else. That was true before the pandemic, and it seems to have only gotten worse. I am not saying that as a judgment as much as to say the world we live in makes this a hard story to take to heart because we are inundated with reminders that there is not enough.
It’s a lie.
One of the consistent arguments raised when people talk about living into Dr. King’s dream and creating a more just and equitable society is that there is not enough for everyone to be taken care of. Jesus’ consistent message was that God changes the world—changes us—through relationships. We—together, essentially connected—are enough if we are willing to take care of each other.
Christ calls us to look at our world, our country, our town, our church, our family and ask, “What are they to you and me?” and then to hear the answer that Jesus embodied: “Everything”—an answer that leads to lives, as Dr. King said, that are able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we—all of us–will be free one day.
John finishes the story be saying that the disciples believed in Jesus. They put their faith in him. They trusted him. But it wasn’t long before they were on a hillside covered with over five thousand people who had followed Jesus all day wanting to hear him speak. You know this story, too—about the boy with the loaves and fish. When the disciples noticed the massive crowd was hungry, Jesus didn’t ask a question; instead, he just said, “Feed them.” The disciples were incredulous. “Where would we ever find enough food—or money to pay for it?” They may have trusted him at the wedding, but they had forgotten by the time it came to take care of the crowd. Jesus took the loaves and fish and fed thousands. Even though they walked with him every day, Jesus’ followers had a hard time really trusting the extravagant grace of God that Jesus kept showing them.
In these days, what we need to remember about this story is God dreams bigger than we do. God loves bigger than we do. God welcomes bigger that we do. And God wants us to grow into all of it. God wants us to revel in the audacity of excess, in boundless love, and unfettered grace.
That’s why we keep coming back to this story, and to the life of Dr. King—to allow the Spirit of God to keep telling us that we are essential to each other, not just because we are connected but also because we are each other’s best way to experience the extravagant, unrelenting love that lets justice roll down like wine. Wine enough for every last one of us. Amen.