Jesus Turned the Water into Beer! (A sermon on John 2:1-11)

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.

When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it.

When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”

Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

As many of you will know, this year begins my twentieth year in this parish, and over that time I have seen a lot of changes take place in the composition of our community and a lot of changes in the way we do things.

One thing we tried here once and did not repeat, in the first church BBQ I organised, was to offer free beer to those who attened. I can’t remember whether we took the money out of church funds or (more likely) a few of us just chipped in to purchase a few cartons. Either way, we got through it all. It may be that we were a somewhat more earthy congregation then than we are now?

I won’t say more about that event, as so many of those then present are no longer with us, and I certainly don’t want to tarnish the reputation of any sisters and brothers who can no longer answer for themselves. Let it suffice to say that it was decided afterwards that this had not been money well spent!

Yet if I had been looking for a Biblical justification for my actions I need have looked no further than today’s Gospel, where Jesus miraculously supplies a party (indeed over-supplies a party) with an enormous amount of wine!

What was Jesus thinking? Why did He do it? What are we supposed to see in this miracle?

I suspect that we will see different things here, but I tell you that the first thing that strikes me here is the question of how it was that Christian people ever managed to launch the Temperance Movement in the light of this miracle?!
For this was Jesus’ miracle, and it was not just any miracle. It was (according to John’s Gospel at least) Jesus’ first miracle. And it’s not as if Jesus only provided an extra bottle or two for the party. According to the Biblical narrative, Jesus was responsible for producing six enormous vats of wine, each containing twenty to thirty gallons, which according to my calculations means he delivered the equivalent of at least 1000 bottles 750ml bottles. If we were talking beer, it would be the equivalent of at least 20 kegs!

It must have been some party! And consider this: surely the very fact that the host had run out of wine indicates that the guests must have already been drinking pretty heavily. How bizarre is it then that Jesus produces enough extra booze, not only to finish off the wedding party but probably enough to get most of the rest of the population of greater Judea at least a little tipsy!

And in case there be any question as to the alcoholic content of Jesus’ beverage, the comment of the wine steward – that most people serve the good wine first while the guests are still sober, whether or not he was being tongue-in-cheek, certainly does indicate that what he was tasting was not sparkling grape-juice.
I’ve got nothing against the Temperance movement, mind you, and I’m certainly not unaware of the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption, having spent a great deal of time in my youth volunteering at a local home for aging alcoholics. Even so, I do wonder how complete abstinence from alcohol ever came to be considered by some to be a Biblical mandate.
And yet it was such an odd thing to do – turning water into wine, and not just into any wine, but into great wine! And it was produced from not just any water, but water that we are told had been set aside for religious rites of purification, which means that it was ‘holy water’ of sorts. 1000 litres of holy water, and Jesus turned it all into alcohol! Why?

Surely there were any number of more useful things Jesus could have done with His miraculous powers rather than engaging in this conjuring trick? For that’s what it looks like, doesn’t It?

When I was a child I used to have aspirations of being a great magician when I grew up, and indeed I was tutored to some extent by the late, great Clifford Warne – surely one of Australia’s greatest stage magicians. And one trick I do remember purchasing as a child from the magic shop in the city was an illusion where I apparently turned water into wine.

The trick involved sneaking small amounts of powder that were actually powerful dyes into the base of various glasses, such that when you poured water from a jug to the glass, and then from one glass to another, the liquid mysteriously changed colour – going from being clear to being something resembling a light red (and then back again)!

I remember performing this trick in front of my father, who was slightly impressed as I remember, though he would have been far less impressed if I’d let him taste the red liquid, which certainly was not wine but something quite toxic as I remember. There’s only so far you can go in simulating a miracle, and I remember this package came with dire warnings, “do not drink”! By contrast, of course, the danger presented by Jesus’ concoction was more that you wouldn’t know when to stop drinking! Evidently it just tasted too good!

I don’t know, and maybe it’s just my upbringing, but I do have problems squaring this account with my wholesome Christian values. What made Jesus think that producing so much wine was a good idea?

Surely, as I say, there were better things He could be doing with His Divine powers. Surely there were people who needed healing at that wedding party – blind persons who needed their site restored, lame persons who needed to be able to walk, alcoholic persons perhaps who needed to overcome their addiction?

What are we supposed to see here? There must be more to this miracle than meets the eye, for it seems so trivial, and so relatively pointless, particularly when put alongside Jesus’ greater work and even when put alongside His other miracles.
What are we supposed to see here? There must be a deeper meaning. And don’t think I’m asking this as a rhetorical question, leading to the conclusion that there was nothing more going on here than Jesus wanting to see that everybody had a good time. For the Gospel writer himself indicates that this miracle did have a deeper meaning, as he refers to this miracle as a ‘sign’, and a sign is something that is supposed to point to something beyond itself.

If you look at the signs that adorn the sides of our church building, they serve to point to what is going on in here and they function t direct people in here. What is this sign pointing to? Where is this sign supposed to direct us?

As I read through the writings of some of the great Christian thinkers, I see no shortage of suggestions as to what the deeper meaning is of Jesus’ action at the wedding in Cana of Galilee.
Some point to the way in which wine is used as a symbol of life, and the tragedy associated with a wedding where the couple have already run out of life even before their life together has even really started! The deeper meaning then here is that Jesus is the life-giver, bringing new life to the world!
Others have pointed to the common association made between wine and blood – an association that Jesus Himself draws upon of course at the Last Supper. Taken in this way, the copious amounts of wine produced by Jesus anticipate His blood that will be poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. There is enough wine for everybody, just as there will be enough grace to go around to all who need forgiveness. His blood will be sufficient to cleanse the sins of the whole world!

This whole line of thinking might seem a little far-fetched, and yet it does help make sense of the rather rough conversation that is recorded as having taken place between Jesus and His mother when she calls on Him to do something.
“What have you to do with me, woman!”, Jesus says. “My hour has not yet come!” (vs.4) Clearly Jesus Himself sees some link between this miracle and the suffering that He knows He will one day have to endure.

A third interpretation focuses on how the wine of Jesus replaces the water of purification that was part of the Jewish religious system. Jesus is the bringer of the New Covenant that is sealed in His blood. The New Covenant, where God’s grace is poured out upon all humanity, replaces the Old Covenant that was made specifically between God and the Jews.

With the coming of Jesus, the old system with its various rites and laws and religious obligations becomes defunct, to be replaced with the new life that is lived in the Spirit of Jesus – the new wine of Jesus replacing the old stagnant water of law and commandment.

Is that how we are supposed to interpret this miracle? Is that all part of the deeper meaning that this sign is pointing to? I’m not sure. I suspect that the Gospel writer would have been happy enough for us to have seen all these deeper meanings in the event that took place that day – the life, the blood, the beginning of the new era. Even so, it’s hard to be sure whether Jesus Himself saw any or all of those connections. What I think we can be sure of though is what the disciples saw in this sign, and we know that because the passage tells us. They saw glory!

“Jesus did this”, John says, “the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

They saw glory – that mysterious, surprising, unpredictable glory that is so uniquely Jesus – and I suspect that part of what made it so glorious for the disciples was the fact that the miracle was so unexpected and so resistant to any simple explanation.

And yes, I’m sure that there must have been any number of more important things that Jesus might have been focusing on, and I suspect that Jesus’ disciples were pondering that themslves after the music stopped and the party was over.

And yes, I suspect that the more pious amongst Jesus’ crew would have preferred to have seen Him healing the sick rather than producing alcohol, just as we’d rather see Jesus spending more time in Haiti at the moment, rather than worrying about dealing with relationship issues we might be experiencing here. And yet Jesus always seems to have His own way of doing things and His own weird list of priorities, and that’s kind of disturbing, but kind of glorious too as it reminds us that Jesus is not our creation, called forth to fulfil our agendas, but rather that we are His creation, and part of a setup where He calls the shots!

As I said, this is the beginning of my twentieth year in this parish, and looking back I can say in all honesty that almost nothing has turned out as I expected it to! Maybe that reflects on my lack of imagination, but maybe it reflects even more so the way the Lord Jesus acts in ways we do not expect, performing miracles that we do not anticipate, fulfilling an agenda that in the end only He can truly make sense of!

Following Jesus – it is rarely a comfortable experience. It requires us to be open to the unexpected and a willingness to be involved in things we will never fully understand, and yet, through it all, we see His glory!

First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, January 2010.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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