'.......... wherever Jesus went and whenever he came into lives it was like turning water into wine. '
Where to start with a story like this? It's a happy story, a feelgood story and a complete story with a beginning, middle and climax. But of course it's much more than that, because John tells us that here, in the relaxed surroundings of a simple country wedding Jesus performed his first miracle by turning water into wine.
Strangely John is the only gospel writer to include this incident, and several others which come towards the start of Jesus' ministry on earth. What was it about this story that John felt was so important that it should take prominence, as the first sign of the true nature of Jesus after the calling of several disciples just a few days earlier?
If we just scratch the surface of this story then we have a family occasion. Mary had been invited to a wedding at Cana of Galilee, a small village just a stones throw from Nazareth. It's possible that Mary had been asked to do some of the organizing, because it was she who started panicking about the lack of wine.
According to one of the apocryphal gospels Mary was actually a sister of the bridegroom's mother, and that might well be the case as it fits in quite nicely with her involvement with the general organization of the event. Interestingly there's no mention of Joseph, and it might well be that he was dead by this time, which would explain why Jesus stayed at home supporting his family until perhaps his sisters and brothers were able to look after themselves.
Now, I must confess that I'd never even thought of that until I read a commentary on this passage. In Luke's gospel we read that Jesus spent three days in the temple as a twelve year old coming to terms with his destiny, while mum and dad searched frantically for him.
He then returned to Nazareth and was obedient to his parents, growing in wisdom and stature. He was learning a trade as a carpenter in his father's workshop. Now we have him older and with a real sense of his true purpose, as his words to Mary indicate.
So there's our context for the story. A simple village wedding taking place one Wednesday afternoon as laid down in the Jewish Law. It certainly wasn't like my wedding, and I guess it probably wasn't like yours because it went on for days.
The actual ceremony took place after the feast and at the height of the festivities. Then the happy couple would be escorted to their new home using the most tortuous route possible. They'd be illuminated by the light of flaming torches, so that everyone in the village could share in their happiness and presumably throw the 1st century equivalent of confetti.
It didn't end there either, because there was no sneaking off for a honeymoon. Oh no, for the next week the newly weds would have to hold open house, still dressed in bridal clothes and with crowns on their heads. They were treated like King and Queen and for that glorious week their word was law. In a land where there was poverty and constant hard work to scrape a living from the soil, this was a week to remember for the rest of their lives.
Of course, for such a happy occasion it was so vital that everything went like clockwork. Mary is scurrying around making sure everything's going well. Jesus is also invited. But Jesus doesn't come alone, he brings five disciples with him, five more mouths to feed and five more glasses to fill.
Maybe that's where the well laid plans started to go wrong and Mary suddenly realized that there wasn't going to be enough wine.
"Without wine," said the Rabbis, "there is no joy!"
It was such an important part of the festivities. Not that people got that tipsy, because that was considered a big disgrace, and anyway the wine was diluted 2 to 3 with water. But to fall down on such a simple thing as the provision of an essential ingredient of the wedding feast would have been a terrible humiliation for the young couple.
What did Mary think Jesus could do? Or was she simply turning in desperation to her son for any suggestions he might have.
What a spot Jesus finds himself in. What does he do? He's in the middle of a happy family occasion in an ordinary home in a small Galillean village. Does he do nothing and watch the party dissolve into disappointment and humiliation, or does he reveal something of his true nature in that carnival atmosphere?
Let's face it, and maybe you haven't realized this yet, but God has a sense of fun. There's a famous picture called Laughing Jesus. It's an image full of expression, and you can almost hear the sound of laughter coming out from the open mouth, but to some the thought of the Son of God laughing out loud seems almost heretical.
I can't see why. God certainly has a sense of humor. Look around the world at the strange creatures we share this planet with. If you don't want to look that far look around at the people sat around you. This world was not created by a God who is a killjoy, a God who wants his creation to go around looking glum. It was created by a God who wants his creation to enjoy this world.
There are some that think religious life should be somber, devoid of laughter and joy. I'm sorry, but in this story we have Jesus in party mood. If he'd wanted to he could have done nothing, and we'd never heard any more about this incident.
"My time has not yet come" he said to his mother, but that didn't stop him from acting. It didn't stop Jesus from showing compassion, kindness, sympathy and understanding to ordinary people on an extraordinary day. It didn't stop him from making a public demonstration of his power through the first of what would be many miraculous signs.
Mary turns to Jesus, and somehow knows that if he wants to, Jesus can do something. She tells the folk serving at table to just do whatever he tells them to do. She had confidence in Jesus, confidence to know that whatever he would do it was going to be the right thing.
There's a sermon it itself. Having the confidence to put our trust in Jesus even when our faith is not up to the task, when everything looks black, when we're staring to panic and don't know where to turn. Having the confidence in Jesus to know that whatever he will do for us is the right thing at that moment in time.
How many times have you had in your life when all has seemed hopeless, when the wine has run out and there's nowhere to turn? Mary knew a moment like that. She didn't know what was going to happen, but she gave the problem to Jesus and left it there in his capable hands and got on with life, confident that all would turn out well.
But there's more in this story if we scratch beneath the surface, and it relates so well to the point I've just raised. John's gospel is a theological gospel, there's symbolism within this story that wouldn't be lost on the early readers. It was a gospel written for Jews that would also speak to Greeks.
There were six stone waterpots within which the water turned into wine. According to the Jews seven is the complete and perfect number, six is the number which is incomplete and imperfect. In John's symbolism it seems likely that those 6 waterpots stood for all the imperfections of the Jewish Law. Jesus came to do away with all the imperfections and instead put in place the new wine of the gospel of Grace.
Now, if each of those waterpots held between 20 and 30 gallons of water, as they might well have, then Jesus gave the party 180 gallons of wine. Now, I don't think it's very likely that when Mary worried about the lack of wine she was thinking about a shortfall of 180 gallons, that's a veritable wine lake.
What John is trying to say here is that when the grace of God comes to men there is not just an adequate supply but an abundance, an overflowing of grace.
There is no need that can exhaust the grace of God.
John also had a message for the Greeks. They had similar stories, including an ancient legend about Dionysos, the Greek god of wine, and a ceremony that involved three empty kettles being placed inside a building, which was then sealed in the presence of the people. The following day when the seals were broken the kettles were found to be full of wine.
Perhaps John was saying to the Greeks "You've got stories and legends about your gods, but they're only that - stories. Jesus came and did what you've always dreamed your gods could do… but this is reality, not the stuff of dreams and legends."
But John also wants to tell us something else about Jesus. Not that he can turn six waterpots of water into wine, but that whenever Jesus enters into a person's life he can turn the imperfect perfect, bring a new quality into that life. It is like turning something ordinary such as water into something special like the finest wine.
When we read a history book or a biography about a particular person, what we're reading about are incidents that happened once and probably never again, they are fixed in time however wonderful they might be, and how fondly they might be recalled. What John is talking about here not just something that Jesus did in a small village in Galilee one day at the start of his ministry on earth but something that he continues to do today.
Without the presence of Jesus in our lives they are stale, flat, uninteresting. With Jesus life becomes colorful, sparkling and exciting. Jesus continues to turn water into wine, but the waterpots he transforms are bodies and souls.
The story is told that when Sir Wilfred Grenfell was appealing for volunteers for his work in Labrador, he said that he couldn't promise them much money, but he could promise them the time of their lives. And this is what Jesus promises us.
John was writing this story down some 70 years after Jesus was crucified. He'd had a lot of time to meditate on the life of Jesus and the effect that it had had on the people around him. What he's saying to his readers and to us is simply this.
That wherever Jesus went and whenever he came into lives it was like turning water into wine. Wherever lives were flat and lifeless, he brought sparkle and color. Into lives that were imperfect he breathed his perfection. For lives that were incomplete he brought wholeness.
It's a story that we need to keep reminding ourselves about. In those periods of our lives where we seem so far from God, when the everyday cares and worries of life seem to get on top of us and so easily distract our thoughts. Those are the moments that we need to remember Mary. She had a moment like that but knew instinctively who to turn to, into whose hands to place that burden. She wasn't too clear what the outcome might be but was confident enough to know that they were reliable hands at work, and whatever Jesus would do it would be the right thing.
I wonder if even Mary was surprised at the end result. But then that's part of the excitement of the Christian faith - the unpredictability of our God. When we come to him with open hands and open hearts rather than a wish list, then his response may not always be the one that we expect, but it will always be the right one.
But we have to be honest enough to go to him, admit that maybe we've miscalculated, made mistakes, whatever the problem might be - and hand it over to him totally and completely just like Mary was able to do. That's often the hardest part, the handing over. Natural inclinations are to hang onto something because human beings generally do seem to enjoy wallowing in self-pity, have you noticed that?
But we have to hand these things over, as Mary did.
Only then can he take those waterpots and turn water into wine.