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Transforming Water into Wine
When ministers get together and begin sharing humorous incidents from their ministry, it is not long before the talk turns to weddings. Most ministers can share horror stories of weddings. I remember being told in seminary a out the nervous graduate, at the celebrated moment, in sonorous tones, proclaiming how the bride and groom, "have consented together in holy headlock."
Murphy's Law--if something can go wrong, it will--is usually in full operation at a wedding, even in Jesus' day. Jesus, his mother, and his disciples were invited to a wedding in the village of Cana, not far from his hometown of Nazareth. And, typically, something went wrong. They ran out of wine; but Jesus rose to the occasion and transformed between twenty and thirty gallons of water into wine. Not only did Jesus turn the water into wine, but he transformed the water into vintage wine. The guests were pleased to discover that the best wine had been saved until last. Usually the best wine was served at the beginning of the reception, and later as the guests mellowed out, the cheaper wine was served.
This miracle raises two questions:
1) Most of Jesus' miracles had to do with healing people. Why did Jesus perform a miracle that, at first sight, makes him look like a carnival magician?
2) Why did John think the miracle of such significance it merited inclusion in his gospel?
The immediate answer is that Jesus transformed water into wine because his mother asked him, and because he wanted the wedding to be a success. There are at least two other answers, and they have to do with transformation.
First, Jesus was about the business of bringing joy and gladness into people's lives. I did not discover this reason in any of the biblical commentaries; but I base this reason on my experience of officiating at weddings, the first of which was 36 years ago!
Probably most of you here this morning, along with most biblical scholars, have difficulty understanding what a wedding means to poor people. We who are WASPS--white anglo-saxon Protestants, particularly middle-class WASPS--were taught to do all things in moderation; avoid ostentation, frivolity, and extravagance; and to beware of boisterous, exuberant celebrations that serve wine! Some of us were raised in communities where even dancing was forbidden. The only dancing allowed in the high school I attended was folk dancing. We middle-class WASPS have a difficult time appreciating what a wedding means to much of the world.
I recall a conversation with a minister colleague who was very upset with a wedding. He was horrified at the extravagance of the large number of attendants, the cost of the dresses, tuxedos, food, music, and decorations at the receptions. He lamented, "Do you realize what this wedding cost, and do you know how poor these people are? They can't afford this extravagance. They will be paying for it for years to come. They will be denying themselves necessities in order to pay for this wedding!"
I argued with him, "Don't you realize what a wedding means to this family and their friends? No doubt, they have been saving for years. This wedding is their moment of glory. This is their moment to step out of poverty, to leave their dirty streets where pushers hog the street corners. This is their moment of glory when their little girl, representing all of them, is transformed into an elegant, beautiful, glamorous, graceful bride."
Jesus changed water into wine because Jesus was about the business of transformation. A wedding party in Jesus' day usually lasted seven days. It was the long-awaited time for a family to shine, a time to host a party for the village. It was a party that meant a great deal to the guests, one of the few times when food and drink were plentiful. Most people in the villages of Jesus' day had little wine and even less meat. Their diet consisted of cheese, bread, olive oil, and water.
A wedding feast, therefore, was not just something to go to. It was a time of transformation, a time when their drab, simple, ordinary peasant lives were transformed into beauty, splendor, merriment, abandonment, fun, laughter, gaiety, and glory. A wedding was a time when roast fatted calf and lamb were plentiful, where wine flowed, and where they danced in abandoned joy and fun. Jesus changed water into wine because he had compassion for not only the bride and groom, but for all the people to whom a wedding was a week of transformation.
There is a second reason for including the miracle at Cana of Galilee in John's gospel. John records the miracle because he took it to be a sign of things to come. John 2:11, "This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory." The miracle of changing water into wine was a manifestation, an epiphany, of the new age, the coming of the kingdom of God. The miracle is a sign that the Son of God has come to the world, and that the Son of God is about the business of transformation. In some rabbinic writings about the day when the Messiah will come, the wine of the future is set against the present age of water. Wine is a symbol of the future. Water is a symbol of the present.
God is about the business of transforming ordinary water into extraordinary, vintage wine. God is about the business of transforming plain, ordinary, daughters of poverty into elegant, beautiful brides. God is about the business of transforming you into the likeness of Christ. God is about the business of transforming his church, this church, into a model of what God intends for all people. God is about the business of transforming this community, this country, this world into the kingdom of God where God reigns.
And the transformation is taking place now. We may live in an impoverished village called Cana, but that village is also transformed into a wedding feast. We live in the old and in the new. We live in the present and in the future. Gerald Sloyan in his commentary on John in the new Interpretation Series, does a masterful job of describing the relationship. (p. 36) That is the genius of this gospel. It goes back and forth from one world to another, one eon to the next with silent ease. To believe in Jesus as the Christ is to live a life within a life. Nothing is changed but everything is changed. What had been water is wine. Word has become flesh. An hour that is not yet come is here. This is existence at the edge of the age, a point at which the old eon and the new dance a figured minuet. What will be is. What seems to be is no more.
Jesus is about the business of transformation. When Jesus gets hold of us, and the Holy Spirit starts working, the world is never again the same.
Today is the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. God worked through him, and the United States will never be the same. Violent revolution was avoided, and the Civil Rights Movement launched. There is still much kicking and screaming as racism is still widely prevalent in our society. There is much yet to be done, but life in this nation will never be the same.
Jesus is about the business of transformation. When Jesus gets hold of us and the Holy Spirit starts working in our lives, we will never be the same. You will gain new ideas, new attitudes, expanding vision, and increasing disquiet about what is wrong. You will become dissatisfied with old friends who are not growing with you. You will find new friends, new companions, a new fellowship. You will increasingly find yourself at home in the church, and less at home in the world. You will find your circle of relationships expanding. You will find your circle including people of different color and nationality.
Why? Because Jesus is about the business of transformation, and the Holy Spirit is busily transforming our church. This church is certainly not the same church it was five years ago. It is not the church it was even three or two years ago. This church is changing, and I believe the Holy Spirit is transforming us from a predominantly white, middle class church into a rainbow church for all people.
God has sent people from Tonga to our church. Tongans have been emigrating from the island of Tonga steadily these past ten years. They left Tonga for economic reasons and are finding a new home. Can you imagine what it is like to change countries? Different values, strange cultural practices, erosion of family and tribal authority, finding jobs and housing, and trying to get along in a community where no one speaks your language. How bewildering it must be to be an immigrant!
Yet, the Tongans are succeeding. For five years a group has met in our chapel as a Methodist Fellowship group. On January 29, many of them are going to join our church. They will continue to conduct their afternoon service in the Tongan language, but gradually their children and youth will begin coming to our Sunday School and joining our choirs.
We who are presently members and friends of this church are now called to transformation. We are called to assist in the transformation of our church. We are called to step outside our circles. We are called to expand our circle to include persons of another culture and language. It is your joy and privilege to welcome the people God sends.
Do you find it easy to greet newcomers? Do you find it easy to help people feel comfortable? Do you find it difficult to speak to a person of another race and culture? If so, God is giving you an opportunity to grow. You will now have the opportunity to learn how to reach out. You will learn how to form relationships and even friendships with people of different color and language. If you find it difficult to welcome them, think how difficult it must be to be strangers in a foreign land.
The Tongans are taking a big step by joining our church. They are so happy about their decision, they are inviting us to a party on January 29. After the morning service, during which they will become members, they are providing sandwiches and cake on the patio for us. Our Committee on Evangelism served them supper during the Membership Orientation session. Now they are going to serve us lunch.
Isn't it exciting! Jesus is about the business of transformation: transforming water into wine, transforming ordinary existence into moments of transcendent glory, transforming you into becoming more like Jesus, transforming churches from private social clubs into the whole people of God. Isn't it exciting! Will you be transformed? Will you be transformers?
© 1989 Douglas I. Norris