2/17/19 - When the Wine Runs Out - John 2:1-11

When the Wine Runs Out

John 2:1-11

Emmanuel Baptist Church; Rev. Kathy Donley

February 17, 2019


 Last Thursday evening, Jim and I had the privilege of hearing an address by Juan Felipe Herrera.  He was the 21st U. S. Poet Laureate and the first Latino person in that role. Later on in the conference, we would hear scholars reading out their well-argued position papers with statistics and historical events and academic citations.   But this night, a poet was speaking. He began with his family story, about his father who hopped a train from Mexico to Denver with very little money and only the clothes on his back.  He arrived in a snow storm, and was, as you might imagine, very unprepared for such weather.  Throughout the evening, that story was repeated in several variations.  Juan must think simultaneously in English and Spanish.  He moved easily between them.  At one point, he had us repeat an entire poem after him, some lines in English, some in Spanish. Having never heard a poet laureate before, I don’t know what I was expecting.  It was probably the closest I will ever come to inhabiting the mind of a poet.

There was time for audience Q&A.  One seminary student stood and made a lengthy point about how on the one hand we can appreciate people’s immigration stories and their culture, and on the other hand, sometimes those stories and culture are appropriated, taken on, exploited by the dominant culture. He seemed justifiably riled up about such exploitation.  I think he wanted Juan Felipe Herrera to offer some kind of morally indignant pronouncement, to side with him, but what the poet laureate ended up saying was “it is not as complex as we think to be kind.”

That was the kind of evening it was.  I heard things that I already know, basic things, but said in new ways or with new importance.  “It is not as complex as we think to be kind” says to me that while I am focused on sweeping policy changes or reforms at the state and national level that might bend toward justice, I might be missing opportunities to be kind. Yes, good reminder.

I tell that story in part as a sound-bite from the conference and in part because our reading today is from John’s gospel. John’s gospel should often be approached with the mind of a poet. There are symbols and layers, and the path through them is not a straight line, and where we end up might be something basic that we already know, but have forgotten how important it is.

John’s story centers on a problem. The wine has run out.  Weddings in first century Palestine were week-long events. They involved the whole village and out-of-town relatives and guests.  If the wine runs out and the party fizzles, well that’s not a happy beginning to a marriage.  Weddings were not just the joining of two people, but of two families. Remember that this is an honor-shame culture. Whatever embarrasses you embarrasses your family, including the family that you’re marrying into.  Shame affects your status, your future opportunities. Running out of a wine was a big deal. 

It was the custom that friends and relatives sent gifts to the bride and groom ahead of time. The gifts were not pieces of silverware or china from their registry patterns. The gifts were usually provisions for the wedding feast.  So, a lack of wine could imply a lack of friends.[1]  When Jesus turns water into wine, he protects their honor and preserves the celebration. 

The story ends with these words, “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”   John uses the word “sign” where others might use the word “miracle.” Signs point to something else and so we are led to wonder, what does this sign point to? 

If it points to God, what kind of God is revealed in this particular sign? Well, certainly a God of abundance. Jesus produces 120-180 gallons of wine.  For those of us not used to measuring wine by the gallon, that’s 600-900 bottles. Of wine. For one wedding.  Abundance. 

This sign points to a God of abundance and of extravagance.  Jesus does not produce 120 gallons of boxed wine, or 600 bottles of some cheap vintage.  What he brings to the party is fine wine, the quality stuff, to be savored and appreciated and enjoyed with gusto. 

It says that this first sign revealed Jesus’ glory.  In John’s gospel, God’s glory is continually manifested in Jesus’ life and ministry.  His ultimate glorification will happen in his death and resurrection, so throughout this gospel, there is a tension between Jesus’ glory and his death. [2]  All of which is to say that Jesus’ glory is not like the razzle dazzle of a magic show.

In fact, the way that Jesus works is as important as what he does.  Look what is required: There are 6 stone water jars. An ordinary household would have had one.  The fact that there are six implies that some neighbors have shared theirs for the occasion.  At first, Jesus seems reluctant to get involved.  For reasons unknown, when his mother tells him that the wine has run out, his response is “What business is that of ours?”  But his mother puts him on the spot when she tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” I guess she knows her son, because then he does start giving instructions.  It is the servants who schlep the gallons and gallons of water to fill those water jars up to the brim.  And presumably it is those same servants who schlep all the wine from the jars out to the wedding guests.

What happens when the wine runs out?  Jesus restores the joy through community.  It’s not a one-man performance.  The joy comes through Mary’s nudging and the neighbor’s sharing and the servants’ labor and the steward’s evaluation.  We might notice that the steward appreciates the quality of the wine, but he has no idea where it came from.  The brimming jars benefit everyone, but it is the servants, the ones who do the most work who are privileged to know the whole truth of this story and their part in it. 

“By providing wine for a wedding, Jesus tacitly endorses things that make human life meaningful and pleasant: relationships, sexuality, community, hospitality, meals, family and celebration.”[3]

More than fifty years ago, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, "People of our time are losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating we seek to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state--it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle.” 

Rabbi Heschel went on, “Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one's actions.   Celebration is an act of expressing respect or reverence for that which one needs or honors. Its essence is to call attention to the sublime or solemn aspects of living, to rise above the confines of consumption.  To celebrate is to share in a greater joy, to participate in an eternal drama.” [4]

When the wine runs out, Jesus restores joy through community.  When the wine runs out, Jesus offers something so good, so deeply and powerfully good that the only appropriate response is celebration. 

The Rev. MD is a friend and colleague.  I met him through the Strategic Pastoral Excellence program. You might remember that for the last 3 Januarys, Jim and I have gone to a conference in Florida on financial wellness.  KM went last year and RP attended this year as Emmanuel’s representatives. Through that program, I got to know MD.  He is 10 years younger than I am.  He serves an African-American church with more than 10,000 members.  He has a degree in Engineering and has won awards for his musical abilities.  To say that he is gifted is putting it mildly.   He and I have come to a place of mutual respect for each other, even though our lives and ministry contexts are so different. 

From him and others in the group, I have learned things about black church culture that I would never have known.  I think I have also managed to contribute some nugget of inspiration to him in most of our encounters.  This last time, I simply described the process that most mainline historically white churches do, in which there is an annual stewardship campaign with an annual pledge to support the budget.  His church is no stranger to property and financial management.  They run a non-profit aimed at community development for which they purchased much of the area around the church property.  There are 9,000 giving units in the church, which means that many people are giving on a regular basis, without pledging. But somehow he latched on to this basic idea that I shared, expressing his thanks for it several times. 

The official program of these events focuses on church and personal finances, but often the most important conversations happen at other times.  At dinner one night, he was talking about the more obvious racism in our country right now.  He was lamenting racist and xenophobic policies and acts of violence. He said that he has heard directly from a number of younger African-Americans who have either left the church or have been strengthened in their conviction to stay away because of white Christian tolerance and even support for these policies. He thinks that at some future time, historians will identify this era with a sharp downward turn in the American church.  In that conversation, Jim and I talked about our trip to the San Diego/Tijuana border.  We shared our own outrage at the apathy and rejection and hatred being shown to migrants in desperate need.  We denounced the rampant racism we saw there and elsewhere.

I thought that this was a just dinner conversation between some ordinary Christians, commiserating about the state of the world. But then MD said, “Now, because of this conversation, I can go back to my congregation and tell them.  I can tell them that there are people out there who look like you (meaning Jim and me), who don’t look like us (meaning his congregation) but who are just as outraged and upset and concerned about this as we are.  Now I know.”

And I have to say that a little thrill of joy went through me.  At the border, I felt powerless.  There was so little I could do to change anything.  But in this conversation,  MD affirmed that my words and actions might matter.  They might actually make a difference and offer some hope to folks in despair.  They could preserve celebration for those running out of wine. I know it is a small thing in the grand scheme of things, but for me, it was the basic gospel idea of loving your neighbor understood again in a personal, one-to-one, real-life way.  As Juan Felipe Herrera said, “It is not as complex as we think to be kind.”

“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee --   He brought the gifts of joy and celebration to a wedding.  Revealing a God of abundance and extravagance, he sowed delight and good surprise and laughter within community  -- he revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.”  May it be so for you and for me.  Amen.


[1] Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, (Minneapolis:  Augsburg Fortress Press, 1998),  p. 66.

[2] Gail R. O’Day, The New Interpreters Bible, Vol. IX,  (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1995),  p. 539.

[3] Matthew L. Skinner in Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship, Year C, Volume 1 Joel Green, Thomas Long, Luke Powery, Cynthia Rigby, Editors, ,  (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2018), p. 190.

[4] Abraham J. Heschel, Who is Man? (Stanford, CA:  Stanford University Press, 1965),   p. 117