stopping for directions: follow the sign

John 2:1-11

Y’all know the story, right?
Familiar as it is, even the biblically less literate
tend to know that Jesus turned water to wine.
It’s early in John’s gospel—
marking the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry—
in Cana,
at a wedding,
on the third day.

Now, what third day?
Or rather, the third day from what?
I mean, if you say the third day,
you’re counting from the first day, right?
So when is that?

I know. Some of you are shaking your heads—
even though I can’t necessarily see you shaking your heads,
some of you are, I know—inside!
But the first day—the first day recorded in the gospel
is the day of the story of the emissaries of the Pharisees
interviewing John the Baptist
in Bethany across the Jordan, some miles north of the Dead Sea,
and of John testifying to Jesus.
And the next day, the second day, John the Baptist sees Jesus
and identifies him as the lamb of God
who takes away the sins of the world
(and just because we noted last week,
that John the Baptist doesn’t baptize Jesus in Luke,
let’s note that Jesus isn’t baptized at all in John!).
The next day, so the third day, John calls Andrew and Simon.
And the next day, the fourth day, Jesus calls Philip and Nathaniel
and went to the Galilee.

Which is to say that on the third day, Jesus wasn’t even in the Galilee,
let alone at a wedding in Cana.

Now consider that it was likely a four day journey
from Jerusalem to the Galilee, roughly 120 miles,
but that Jesus was already along the Jordan
in the Judean wilderness east of Jerusalem—
so one day already into that four day trip up to the Galilee.
It would have taken another three days—
to walk up through the Jordan Valley to the Galilee—
a route, by the way, clearly not prescribed by theology or racism
(ie/ avoiding the more direct route north through Samaria)
because just a little later in this gospel—chapter four—
Jesus will again leave Judea headed to the Galilee
and go, with his disciples, right through Samaria.
So this route north was not prescribed by prejudice,
but by geography—
they were already on the way.

So it’s on the third day of travel—
the third day after having left Judea,
that they arrive in Cana of Galilee.
Nothing else makes sense.

And they arrive in time for a wedding.
So they were evidently under some pressure to get there then.
They had a deadline—a schedule.
They had RSVP’d and were expected.
Not to mention they were meeting Mary there
who was herself headed up from Nazareth.
And none of them wanted to disappoint Mary,
especially since before they had headed south,
she had rather explicitly said,
“Now don’t lose track of time, boys!”
Looking rather pointedly at James and John, James and John thought.
Unfairly looking rather pointedly at James and John,
James and John thought, though no one else concurred.

And some of you are sitting there thinking,
“Whoa, John! This is a whole lot of effort
going into what day it was, isn’t it?
I mean what difference does it make?”
And that’s a good question.
Interesting that the details are there though, no?
Enough detail to be able to make such an effort
with regards to what day it was.

Because here’s the thing,
writers know—they know—you don’t include indicators
without some sense of what they will indicate
to your readers and your hearers.
Writers know that indicators without indication are frustrating.
And we have a lot of time indicators here early in John.
And while time indicators continue throughout the gospel,
this consistent marking of the days—the next day, the next day—
the consistent marking of the days we have here does not—
does not continue through the gospel.
In fact, it doesn’t continue after this wedding.
It leads up to this day, and then it stops.

So we have it to figure out.
Otherwise, we have a free-floating third day,
and time indicators that frustratingly don’t indicate anything.

But if it’s the third day of travel that began on the fourth day,
it’s also the seventh day, right?
So we get a day
that was both the third and the seventh day—
how perfect is that?!

Now on this seventh day, Jesus didn’t rest
(a full day of travel does not qualify as rest!),
but he celebrated.
For this perfect day was the culmination of so much preparation—
so many plans, so many hopes, so much work—
so much shared excitement and anticipation.
It was a day of arrival in so many ways—
the day long-expected that finally arrived.
And on this perfect day,
this day of utter fulfillment,
there was a wedding.
Of course there was.

I have always—ever since I was a wee lad
enjoyed a certain reading experience.
It started, maybe, with Encyclopedia Brown,
came to encompass Sherlock Holmes,
and progressed to modern mysteries—
psychological and legal thrillers.
And it has to do with the way in which more is actually said
than is consciously said—
how more is revealed than is known,
and how what is thus discovered—
often in apparent insignificance
(the overlooked detail—taken for granted)
turns out to be crucial.

This idea of there always being more to discover
is part of my understanding of the inspired nature of Scripture.
As many times as you read a text—read a story,
different details jump out at different times—
revealing more of what is there.

So on the perfectly perfect day,
that was both the third and the seventh day,
that represented the culmination of long-held hopes,
long-said prayers—
on the day that finally came,
Jesus was at a wedding.

Now consider, for a moment, your best memories of weddings—
your own, or those of loved ones, family—
celebrations of love,
but not just to love
also to commitment to love in and through time, right?

Now I ask you, is there a better, more accurate description of Jesus?
God’s commitment to love in and through time.
So pass the vino.

Except at this particular wedding,
they ran out of wine.
And yes, you can totally factor in the Eastern value of face—
saving face,
losing face.
If the wine runs out, that’s major face loss!
And introduced into all that is the best of what a wedding is—
stress and fear and anger and humiliation.
Into this perfect day comes imperfection.
And whether it’s someone’s fault or not isn’t important.

Because some have suggested that Jesus was responsible
for the wine running out—
since it didn’t run out, you know, until he and the disciples got there—
the implication being they consumed more than their fair share!
Or that as beggars,
Jesus and the disciples wouldn’t have brought their fair share
of what was needed to pull the wedding off
(Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII:
A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary
in The Anchor Bible [New York: Doubleday, 1966] 102).

One of the Coptic gospels of Egypt claims
that the groom was actually a cousin of Jesus’—
that Mary was the sister of the mother of the groom
(William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Volume 1
in The Daily Study Bible Series [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975] 96),
so that Mary was perhaps there in some official capacity—
again, invested with a greater level of responsibility.

I’ve even read the suggestion that while Jesus may have been invited,
the disciples weren’t,
and thus weren’t planned for—weren’t accounted for,
and yet, in a dreadful display of an utter lack of manners, tagged along,
and Jesus was responsible.
Jesus was at fault.

That constitutes a fundamental misreading of gospel.
That’s not the point here at all.
Jesus is not responsible for lack.
The imperfection that comes to what’s perfect is not his fault.
Jesus is rather responsible for love—
responsible to and for commitment to love in and through time,
responsible to and for the requisite discipline of committed love
to redeem imperfection,
and responsible to and for the subsequent joy
of such commitment and such work.

That’s why Jesus’ mom tells him to do something about it.
Actually, note what she does,
because she doesn’t tell him what to do.
She just states the obvious.
That’s all she does—states the obvious.
“They’ve run out of wine.”
And Jesus’ response? “What concern is that of ours?”
Which is to say,
the way things are … what’s that to us?
What’s that to me?

Well now, that’s a question his living,
and the ministry this gospel now begins to track, will answer, is it not?
This story, remember, marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry
in John’s gospel—
the answer to precisely that question.
What is the way things are to Jesus?

And his mom tells the servants to do whatever he tells them.
She knew, you see, him.
She knew who he was.
And so she knew what he had to do.
She knew that in face of the obvious—
in face of what was so far from what it was supposed to be—
he would take what was—
he would take loss and emptiness
and fear and humiliation and stress,
and he would transform it all into possibility—
back into the celebration of love.
That’s more than a story of this wedding.
That’s introduction to who Jesus was—who Jesus is—
to his calling …
and ours maybe too.

Mary didn’t tell Jesus what to do—
didn’t give Jesus directions.
Who Jesus was had given her direction,
and she knew what to expect.

And the ordinary water was changed to extraordinary wine—
from relatively tasteless water to that potent combination, ever-changing,
of particular yeasts reacting to oxygen, temperature, humidity, wood,
bringing out various integral yet evolving flavors—
as what we drink in celebration is itself the end of a long process
that is but the beginning of the pleasure we take in it—
is itself the culmination of preparation and anticipation, work and hope.

And the wine steward marvels
that the good wine was kept in reserve.
Quick lesson in wine service management at a wedding
(this is gospel now!):
if you’re serving large quantities,
you serve the best wine first
because by the time you’re pouring the last of it,
no one knows or cares about the quality.
So we imagine the surprise of the steward
who tastes of this new wine
and discovers it to be of superior quality.

And, maybe—maybe we’re just supposed to be in awe.
God does the impossible.
Jesus does the impossible.
Jesus has the authority and power of God.

Or maybe we’re supposed to think about what it meant—
and what it still means.

Do I mean to drain Scripture of the supernatural?
The inexplicable and the mysterious?
No. Absolutely not.
But neither do I mean to cheapen it in dead-end wonder—
an end of the road marveling
at what God can do that we can’t.

Maybe, wondrously, Jesus did transform water to wine.
If so, that’s that.
Utterly beyond my ken,
and Jesus’ ministry begins with what we cannot do.
May be. May be.

But to transform misery into joy,
stress into relief,
fear into celebration,
anger into deeper relationships—
well, amazing,
but not just miracle I at which I marvel,
also that to which I can commit myself—
the preparation and anticipation,
the discipline and the work,
that culminates in formal
commitment to love in and through time.

Because that’s what love does—
faces all that is—the best and the hardest,
and works through it.
Circumstance can be redeemed.

And God, it seems to me,
has always been less interested in what God can do that we can’t,
and so much more interested in what we can accomplish together.

Even the ancient alchemists,
so identified with the transmutation of matter into gold
and the philosopher’s stone,
or the elixir of life that offered youth and immortality,
even the alchemists acknowledged the equally significant
transformative possibilities to redemption.

John suggests this is the first of Jesus’ signs.
But, of course, we know that’s not the case.
Because Mary knew, right?
Knew to state the obvious
with expectation of transformative possibility.
Mary had already seen signs.
Who Jesus was indicated what was to be,
and so Mary trusted Jesus with what was.
May I repeat that?
Who Jesus was indicated what was to be,
and so Mary trusted Jesus with what was.

Our writer knows, as writers do, that indicators
without indication are frustrating.
And so we indicate here at the outset of gospel
that on a perfect day, it’s the presence of Jesus
that represents the culmination of all the hopes of all the years—
all the prayers and all the work,
all the waiting and all the preparing.
And furthermore, we’re offered
here at the beginning,
before the story really gets underway,
the affirmation that what is indicated in Jesus
will not disappoint—will not frustrate,
but will face all that is and is to come
with the assurance of redemption—
with the conviction that there is nothing—
no circumstance love cannot redeem.
And, furthermore, that such blessed assurance can be ours.

And the wedding party,
in Cana on that long expected third and seventh day,
did get even better—
in the richer, deeper experience of relationship and community and love
that transcended threat and stress and fear.
And as the wedding party and guests
feasted and remembered and told stories and laughed
and offered toasts
and whirled across the dance floor
to collapse on the other side
in another configuration of friends and family
and more conversation and laughter,
more memories and more hopes,
they looked to their cups in wonder
and wondered, “What’s in this stuff?”

For experience was transformed,
as it still is,
in the intoxicating presence of the divine—
the rich, complex tasting of the God who is good—
full bodied—fully incarnate,
crisply complex and complete
with edgy powerful definition.

The best is at hand—
has come to us
transforming what is
and all that is yet to be—
just as we can—
ever into possibilities of love.

So pass the vino—the kind that never runs out.


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