Six Stone Jars
On Thursday evening I had dinner with some of the other mothers of young children here at Peace and at CNS. As we walked out to the car, one of them asked what I was preaching on this week and I told her the text, that it was the story of Jesus turning water to wine, that it was a text I had never preached on before. She turned to me, stunned, and said, “Excuse me, but isn’t it sort of a ‘go to’ scripture? One everyone knows by heart? We all know Jesus turned water to wine? How have you missed this one?” As I drove home that evening in the darkness I pondered her question. It’s true, this is sort of a common story. It’s true, most people, even people who aren’t avid church goers could name it. And so how is it that I, who loves searching the scriptures backwards and forwards, and who especially loves looking at the stories of Jesus missed this little gem.
There are a couple reasons I’ve concluded, the first being that the other lectionary text that runs next to it is one of my favorites from Corinthians about gifts and spirits and I given my druthers I’ve probably leaned that way in past years. But, to be honest, if I search my heart, it’s more than that.
Many of you know that I grew up as a preacher’s kid, the child of a United Methodist pastor in the 1970s and early 1980s. And the United Methodist Church at that time reflected the culture of, well, a good fifty years before it. Which meant, that for many of the older generation at Crescent Avenue Church, prohibition still felt, well, pretty recent. There was a strong T-totaling strand which I remember being aware of from my earliest days. The story is told in Miller family lore of the day in which my four-year-old tow-headed and shy self played in the housekeeping section of my nursery school classroom, a nursery school which was a ministry of the church where my father was the youngest minister on staff fresh out of seminary. I played with that wooden kitchen set in a room just down the hall from my father’s office with a little boy named Ryan, whose parents were parishioners at the church. And on that day I played “house.” And following traditional gender stereotypes I decided that I would be the mother in the household, and Ryan, being a rather passive and obedient child was commanded by his domineering play spouse to be the father. I sat him down at the table and offered to serve him supper (ironic, given that I don’t cook now), and then offered him an imaginary hamburger and a few make-believe french fries and green beans. And then, almost as an afterthought, and perhaps realizing my error at not being hospitable, walked to the small refrigerator turned to him and said in my sweetest wife voice, “I forgot to get you something to drink, Honey. Can I get you a beer?” It was an innocent question for me, for I had seen my father, especially after mowing the lawn on a hot summer afternoon drinking from a long-necked bottle with condensation beaded on the outside. I knew that my parents served wine when company came over. But, I became aware by the teetering of the preschool teacher, and the slightly nervous laughter of my parents that there was something powerful about what had been said, some secret I had just let loose into the world.
The church, or at least the American church and wine, while historically completely intertwined still can have an uneasy relationship. The theologian and writer Frederick Buechner, in his book Wishful Thinking: A Vocabulary of Faith, offers this definition of wine from a modern Christian perspective. He says this: Unfermented grape juice is a bland and pleasant drink, especially on a warm afternoon mixed half-and-half with ginger ale. It is a ghastly symbol of the life blood of Jesus Christ, especially when served in individual, antispeptic, thimble-sized glasses. Wine is booze, which means it is dangerous and drunk-making. It makes the timid brave and the reserved amorous. It loosens the tongue and breaks the ice, especially when served in a loving cup. It kills germs. As symbols go, it is a rather splendid one.” (Buechner, 120).
Frederick Buechner’s definition gets to the heart of the matter, doesn’t it? Intoxicating beverages can be dangerous, but they can also be powerful and splendid symbols. We must respect them and sometimes we don’t know how to talk about this in the church. The joke has been told, “How do you keep a Baptist from drinking your beer when you go fishing? The answer: take another Baptist along.” Some folks may drink, but they may not want other church members to know it. But alcohol addiction is not a joke, of course and we dare not disregard the many lives that have been ruined by alcohol, not to mention the lives of countless people whose loved ones are trapped in the spiral of this kind of addiction. We dare not trivialize those who day in and day out struggle with how to set limits about how much they will drink alcohol, or whether they will drink knowing their family may have a strong history of alcoholism. But that isn’t really the kind of drinking we’re talking about today, this morning we are talking about that first sip of an aged and smooth cabernet that a seasoned wine conossieur knows. In the same way in which we might talk about the way a coffee lover feels with the first sip from a hot cup of freshly roasted Guatamalan coffee. And so I preface this sermon, just for the record, a sermon in which Jesus, our teacher and master, turned water into wine with those words of explanation, lest you infer that I may dismiss alcoholism too easily. I don’t.
This miracle story, the story of the wedding at Cana, is actually the first in a laundry list of miracles stories at the beginning of the book of John. It occurs in none of the other gospel accounts. Only here in the second chapter of John do we learn of what Jesus did that day, on the third day of a wedding feast. Weddings were different during the time of Jesus. A wedding ceremony wasn’t just an hour or two on a Saturday afternoon or evening in a church with a meal or cake and fruit punch afterward. Instead, a wedding in Jesus’s time was generally a seven day affair. And the other reality was that a wedding in those days was not actually a religious ceremony. It was strictly a legal one. A couple who were marrying would sign a contract. The bride and her family would process from her childhood home, along with villagers and friends to the home of her fiancée. And then a week long feast would take place at the home of her groom hosted by his family. For seven days there would be revelry and celebration and an abundance of joy and conviviality.
But in this story, in John’s account of the wedding at Cana, there was a little hitch. For on the third day, less than halfway through the festivities, the wine ran out. It’s unclear why that happened. Perhaps the groom’s family were poor and hadn’t budgeted enough, perhaps there were a few party-crashers who imbibed a bit more than they should have, maybe everyone was just really, really thirsty. But, regardless, while not a tragedy, this was still a bit of a crisis, this was a serious breach of hospitality protocol. And Jesus was approached by his mother, who is not named in this gospel account, but we know who she is, right? Mary found her son and said, in essence, “Help! Help! There are all these people here to host, and this poor family doesn’t have enough. Help! Do something!” It isn’t exactly clear at first what she expected Jesus to do, but what was clear was that she believed in him. She believed that somehow he could and would do something to help.
Jesus’s response to his mother may seem a little gruff. What he said was this, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” Now, were I Mary, and were my son to respond to his mama that way I might be inclined to remind him exactly how far I traveled on that donkey when I was in labor with him and exactly how bumpy that road was and exactly how unsanitary and messy that stable was where I gave birth to him and exactly how many hours I was in labor. But, we mothers need not get our hackles up, for actually the translation is a little gentler, instead it would be like saying, “My Lady,” or “Ma’am.” It was a formal address that Jesus offered that day.
And Mary, the mother of Jesus who pondered things in her heart and who ultimately stood at the foot of the cross in the final hours, understood this and was not offended by her son’s words. She knew that he would do what was appropriate, would do what was right and she turned to leave, informing the servants on the way out to do whatever it was that Jesus said.
The six stone water jars were just sitting there. But they weren’t just jugs for holding water. Instead, their placement in the story is significant. For they were an important symbol in a traditional Jewish home. And any observant Jew who heard this story in Jesus’s time would have understood this. The six stoneware containers were often filled with the water that was dipped out to purify and cleanse oneself. They were symbols of an age-old religion which believed that some were pure and others not so much, or not at all. They were reminders that some were accepted and others were not. This water would have been used because it was believed that God did not find humanity acceptable as it was, we must be purified first before coming into God’s presence. And so, what is to come, the miracle that is to unfold is a direct challenge to that kind of measured legalism and rule-bound orthodoxy. A religion which worshiped law, rather than love. A faith that said “no” more than it said, “yes.”
We all know what happened next. Jesus invited the servants to fill the six stone jars with water and, “voila!” When it was taken to the chief steward, the wine expert to taste, he was amazed. This wasn’t just your average two buck chuck from Trader Joe’s. This wasn’t the box o’wine that you can get at CVS. This was the good stuff, the stuff you find on the top shelf, the stuff you could never afford to buy but have read about in Wine Spectator. He was amazed. And the wedding party could go on. The revelry could continue. And the people, the guests, realized that there was something special about this Jesus.
So, why do we love this story? And why, in heaven’s name is it even mentioned in scripture? I mean, other miracle stories have a lovely moral, and a huge transformational take-away, right? Someone can walk again. Someone can see again. Someone comes back to life. Someone discovers faith. And here what happens? A party can continue. Wine can be imbibed. It’s no wonder the church hasn’t always known what to do with it. But, there has to be something here. And I believe the something is this: Jesus came to us to offer radical and love and hospitality, and what better symbol could there be of that kind of extravagance than through an act like this? Jesus came to us to strip away the legalistic rules and understandings of a judgmental God and what better way than to transform those purifying stone jars into founts of fine wine? Jesus came to us inviting us to the feast of joy, to the beloved community of hope and possibility and what better way than to serve the finest to guests he doesn’t even know?
The University of Chicago theologian Robert Hotchkins sums it up better than I ever could when he wrote, “[The message here is that] Christians ought to be celebrating constantly. We ought to be preoccupied with parties, banquets, feasts, and merriment. We ought to give ourselves over to veritable orgies of joy because we have been liberated from the fear of life and the fear of death. We ought to attract people to the church quite literally by the fun there is being a Christian.”
Listen to that again: we are liberated from the fear of life and the fear of death. Perhaps this is why the first miracle of Jesus was turning water to wine, to remind us that joy is not optional as a Christian, it is imperative, and therefore even a world where fear and hatred exist, we must commit ourselves to love and to joy. Those six stone jars were the radical “yes” that Jesus offered in a world which had seen a whole lot of “no.”
There is a poem that hangs over my desk. It has followed me from my work as an associate pastor in North Manchester and then was posted with scotch tape in my little cubby at Lutheran Hospital where I was a resident chaplain, and then carefully moved to Hospice Home, and now, battered and tattered hangs, a little worse for the wear here at Peace. It is a poem by a woman who I know nothing about, a woman named Kaylin Haught and was originally written in The Christian Century magazine. It speaks to me of the extravagance that Jesus’s water to wine miracle embodies. The poem is called God Says Yes to Me. [And I’ll warn you ahead of time that the writer refers to God with a female pronoun, so just be prepared, okay? She takes a little poetic license which may take you out of your comfort zone]
I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
And she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
And she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
Or not wear nail polish
And she said honey
She calls me that sometimes
She said you can do just exactly
What you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph
Sweetcakes God said
Who knows where she picked that up
What I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes
May we each accept an extravagant “yes” to the God who came to us in Christ. The God who welcomed spontaneous celebration. The God who leads us again and again and again into joy-filled life. Amen.