Pretty much everyone in Ministry has some good stories about weddings, and wedding receptions. Other than a few brides being prodigiously late, there haven’t been many silly things happen at weddings, but wedding receptions, welllll, that’s another story.
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There have been heartfelt, touching, entertaining receptions, there have been top-notch plated meals, and there have been DJs or bands who did an excellent job of inviting and encouraging all ages and abilities to enjoy a fun and celebrative time on the dance floor, and I thank everyone responsible for these memorable times. There have also been: inebriated toasts where the ill-prepared speaker could remember only the F-bombs; “funny stories” told at the podium that revealed carefully guarded secrets, such as “remember that time you wrecked mom and dad’s car and told them a big story about it” and the room went silent; and there was that time when I was heading up to the platform at the local Legion hall to give the grace before the reception banquet, and drew a complete blank on the name of the happy couple. I learned at that moment: if there are napkins, matches or place cards with the couple’s name embossed on it, tuck it into your pocket before you head up to the mike, just in case.
The gospel of John tells the story of a wedding banquet. Apparently, wedding banquets by the custom of the day spread over seven days, perhaps even longer, with pretty much everyone you know and everyone THEY know invited to the festivities. This wedding was at the community of Cana, just a few miles uphill from Nazareth, and by the unfolding of the story, we can surmise that Mary and her family were related to the bride or groom.
John’s gospel is structured around seven miracle stories and curiously, this is the first miracle or sign pointing us toward the unique spiritual identity of Jesus. This isn’t the story of a person whose life changes completely due to a healing from debilitating illness; the critical incident of this story, is that the wine was running low. Embarrassing for the host, yes, and Anglican Priest Ray Galea, reflecting on his own cultural background on the island of Malta, suggests that such an event would bring shame to the family, and the weight of that may be hard for us to understand. Still, water-into-wine is not what I would choose as “first evidence” in demonstrating the Divinity of Jesus.
Over the years, then, Bible commentators have dug deep into this story, knowing that saving the day at a seven-day wedding party can’t be the whole point here. Much has been made of the six water jugs, with six regarded as an “incomplete” number in mythology as opposed to the more “holy” or “perfect” number, seven. Others compare the setting of this story on “the third day” and see in that a prefiguring of Christ rising on a third day. A common connection is to see the wine in this story connected to the bread and wine of Communion/Eucharist, and to the “heavenly banquet” yet to come. More traditional scholars have delved into the interaction between Jesus and his earthly mother and compare it to the universal and future agenda that is unfolding between Jesus and his heavenly Father. And, of course, there is the whole “water into wine” event, which is the “word association” one would usually get if asking, “tell me one thing about the Wedding at Cana.”
As I have been pondering this gospel text, the two themes that keep presenting themselves to me are: the joyous celebration, and the transformation, or even sanctification, that Jesus enacts in this event.
Regarding joyous celebration: this is a multi-day wedding banquet, what’s not to celebrate? Yes, I realize that this story has lots of triggers attached, both because it is about a wedding and because alcohol is a prime player in the story. Having labelled both of those, though, I like what Ray Galea says about it: “a wedding is likely to be the most expensive party you will have to host. So you want to get it right. But it’s a great day as well. It’s the closest any of us get to being famous. You are the one people want to photograph. You are the one people want to be photographed with. More importantly, you get served first every time. People make speeches about how wonderful you are. The only other time they will do that is at your funeral, and you won’t be there to enjoy it.” So as we hear this gospel reading, why not let it transport it to a place of celebration? And, later on in today’s service as we share in Communion, let’s truly “celebrate” the sacrament.
As you may notice, while many of our online Communion services have used quite a brief prayer, today we’re using one of the big, long, traditional prayers, having some wonderful music from our choir as we break the bread and drink from the cup, singing a joyous Communion Hymn from the Caribbean proclaiming that in this sacrament we experience the grace of Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, “Communion” or “Eucharist” or “Mass” has frequently been attached to a theology suggesting that participants need to be more worthy or better than others, emphasizing the salvation that goes on “inside” the community of the saved rather than “outside” with the community of the doomed; and if that has been your experience, I invite you to picture the Table of Communion in the same way that Jesus pictured the tables he dined at. All were welcome at Jesus’ table, especially those who were snubbed by society, and all are welcome at this table. As I have seen posted on many a Church Sign, “When you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher fence” and that type of invitational love is what we hope to emulate as a Church, welcoming anyone and everyone who wants to be at table with Christ.
The second aspect of this story that has kept tugging at me this week, is the symbolic action carried out in this story by Jesus does here, to transform the ordinary – in fact, LOTS of ordinary – into the extraordinary. He takes washing water – water you’d use to wash your hands and feet before entering a holy place or taking part in a sacred ritual – and turns it into something drinkable, refreshing, pleasing to the palate. And he doesn’t make a big show of it: only his mom, and the wine steward, and a few other witnesses would even have known it happened.
In a classic, rollicking sermon in a British college community about 160 years ago, with many young men from the seminary in attendance, Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon spoke of this miracle story as a meeting-place between what we bring – our willingness in Jesus’ name to love, and serve, and learn – and God’s activity that takes what we bring and sanctifies it. Spurgeon, a noted teetotaller, made a great point of talking about the dangers of over-imbibing before starting his sermon, and then said this, pretty much as-is in its 1860s form:
“There are a good many here from the College tonight, and they are trying to improve their gifts and their abilities. I think you do right to do so. But I have heard some people say, ‘The Lord Jesus does not need your learning.’ No, it is very likely that he does not, any more than he needed the water: but then he certainly does not need your ignorance. He did not seek for empty pitchers on this occasion; he would have them full, and the servants aid well to fill them. Our Lord to-day does not want empty heads in his ministers nor empty hearts; so fill your waterpots with water. Work away, and study away, and learn all you can, and fill the waterpots with water. ‘Oh,’ somebody will say, ‘but how are such studies to lead to the conversion of human hearts? Conversion is like wine, and all that these young students will learn will be like water.’ You are right; but still I bid these students fill the waterpots with water and expect the Lord Jesus to turn the water into wine. The great Teacher would have his people know all that they can know, and especially know himself, and the Scriptures, that they may set him forth, and proclaim his gospel. ‘Fill the waterpots with water;’ Jesus Christ knows how to turn the water into wine.” Spurgeon continued, to address Sunday School teachers and worship attendees and lay evangelists to do likewise: to keep on filling their waterpots with water, to put significant, continuous effort into doing what they could as loving followers of Jesus to make his love real in the world, and trust that God will take what is offered, will infuse it with grace, and will sanctify what is done. Coming back time and again to that phrase, “fill your waterpots with water”, Spurgeon invited his listeners to a partnership between what we can do, and what God can and will do through us. As we have seen in heartbreaking fashion, not everything done in Christ’s name over the centuries has been or will be to be of automatic benefit for others, but still the point is clear: my humble preparation and intention are only part of the equation; if we are open to be guided, even re-directed by the Holy Spirit, more will happen than I could enact on my own.
As we live the most mundane tasks of our lives, as we are faced with decisions that can alter our life’s path or the destiny of another, we keep facing tests, we keep making decisions, we keep making choices, we open ourselves or close ourselves, we speak up or we don’t, we keep either inviting Christ to walk with us or we go our own way. In all of these, that gracious, transformative reach-out by Jesus either finds a home in us or it doesn’t, and the call is to keep on filling the waterpots with water: keep on trying, keep on loving, keep on being open to the transformative love of Christ and see what happens.
None of this is easy, and none of it is intended to be one more guilt-builder in your life, especially if you are already carrying a big load of trauma or abuse or betrayal. It is, however, a real thing: opening oneself to be transformed, bit by bit, day by day, over and over again, as the person of love that you are intended to be; opening one’s consciousness to be sanctified, bit by bit, day by day, as you learn to perceive all of life as sacred, holy, light-infused.
So my hope, in our interaction with the second chapter of John, is that it will open us to something lively, energizing, and joyous. It’s a story surrounded by finger foods and cut-up pomegranates and more pitas and hummus and olives than you can imagine. It’s a story filled with things we haven’t been able to do much of these past two years – visiting, telling stories, laughing, dancing – that invites us into that kind of life-energy. It’s a story of transformative change, change for the better, change with positive impacts we cannot fully foresee. As we acknowledge the way that Christ already shapes our lives as individuals and as a community, may we continue to open ourselves to this enlivening presence of Christ Jesus. As we stay engaged with Christ’s new path of invitational, beautiful love, may our lives, singular and plural, be transformed, sanctified, and fulfilled. Amen, and Amen.
Galea, Ray. https://mbm.org.au/bible-talk-manuscripts/john-21-12-the-wedding-of-cana/
Spurgeon, Charles H. https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/the-waterpots-at-cana/#flipbook/
Tabor, James. https://jamestabor.com/a-wedding-at-cana-whose-and-where/ and https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/mark-and-john-a-wedding-at-cana-whose-and-where/
© 2022, Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church