This is a reflection by Pastor Elisabeth Johnson, missionary serving as a professor at Lutheran Institute of Theology in Cameroon, that was published as gospel commentary on the Working Preacher website. I adapted these words to better suit being preached out loud and added the title, but the content, organization, and most of the words are Rev Johnson’s and I’m grateful for her excellent essay.
Whenever we think of Jesus performing miracles, we usually think of him helping people who are in desperate need: feeding the hungry, healing the blind and the lame, delivering the demon-possessed, or even raising the dead. And it’s true that most of the miracles we see Jesus perform in the gospels are exactly that: they are acts that relieve suffering, that restore life, and that bring health and wholeness and reconciliation.
And so it’s perhaps a bit surprising that, in the Gospel of John, the very first miracle of Jesus’ ministry is one that seems almost frivolous by comparison. There is no desperate, life-threatening need in this story, no crisis of hunger or illness that moves Jesus to act. Rather, the crisis in this story is that the wine has run out at a wedding banquet. It is a problem which threatens to cut a wedding celebration short and to cause considerable embarrassment to the hosts, but it certainly poses no immediate danger to anyone’s life or health.
When Jesus’ mother tells him about the situation, Jesus himself seems to dismiss it at first as not worthy of his concern. He says to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” – How is this my problem? – “My hour has not yet come.” The “hour” of which Jesus speaks is, of course, the event of his death, resurrection, and ascension to the Father. Certainly Jesus has a lot more on his plate to be worried about than a shortage of wine. But his mother seems to know better. She says to the servants standing there: “Do whatever he tells you.” She seems to know already that, even though Jesus responds dismissively, he will do something to resolve the problem.
You have to wonder: what is it that Jesus’ mother knows about her son? Why is it that Jesus decides to perform a miracle after all? And why such an extravagant one at that? The scale of the miracle that Jesus performs in this story is truly staggering. John tells us that there were six stone water jars sitting there, each of which could hold between 20 and 30 gallons. Jesus commanded that all six of them be filled with water – which he then turned to wine – for a whopping total of somewhere between 120 and 180 gallons of wine. If anyone went home sober from that wedding, it was not Jesus’ fault!
Not only was this wine great in quantity, but it was also high in quality. The chief steward comments to the bridegroom, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk, but you have saved the good wine until now!” The chief steward has no idea where this supply of good wine actually came from. He has no idea that Jesus is responsible for all this abundance – but Mary knows; the servants who filled the jars and drew out the water know; and of course, we the readers of this story know. Yet still, the question remains: why such an extravagant miracle?
The truth is that there is more to this story than miracle. In fact, John doesn’t even use the word “miracle” to describe this act of Jesus turning water into wine. John recognizes what Jesus does as a sign. It is the first of seven such signs in John’s gospel. Signs point us to something beyond themselves, like road signs that alert us to something coming up ahead of us. The sign of Jesus changing the water into wine at the wedding in Cana points us toward something far more valuable than the wine itself, as fine as the wine may be. It points us to the source of all life and joy.
The image of the wedding banquet is used frequently throughout scripture as a picture of the restoration of Israel, and wine is frequently used as a symbol of the joy and celebration associated with salvation. For example, the prophet Amos speaks of the day when “the mountains shall drip sweet wine and all the hills shall flow with it.” Isaiah speaks of the feast that God will prepare for all peoples, “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines … of well-aged wines strained clear.” The abundance of fine wine is a symbol of the abundance of joy that awaits not only Israel, but all peoples on the day of God’s salvation.
Jesus’ extravagant miracle of changing the water into wine is a sign that in him, life, joy, and salvation have arrived. At the beginning of John’s gospel, the narrator told us that “in him was life, and that life was the light of all people.” And later on in this gospel, Jesus himself will tell us, “I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”
Abundant life. It’s much more than merely existing or surviving; and it certainly means more than an abundance of material things. Abundant life is to know and to be known by the One through whom all life came into being. Abundant life is to have an intimate relationship with the One who loves us so much that he doesn’t know how to stop giving. This is the kind of life that Jesus is pointing to with the abundance of fine wine in this story.
It should be noted that abundant life does not always mean a life of ease, comfort, and luxury; nor does it always mean an absence of sorrow and suffering, especially while we live in this broken world. But what it does mean is that, in Jesus, we have an abundant, extravagant source of grace to sustain us – grace that is more than sufficient to provide where we fall short and to give us joy even amid sorrow and struggle. Abundant life means that in Christ we are joined to the source of true life, life that is rich and full and eternal, life that neither sorrow, nor suffering, nor death itself can destroy.
The Gospel of John doesn’t use the phrase the “reign of God” or the “kingdom of God” very often – but it very clearly shows us what the reign of God is like. It is like a village wedding celebration to which everyone is invited and at which the guests are surprised by the abundance and quality of the wine. This first of Jesus’ signs in John’s Gospel shows us that the true bridegroom has indeed arrived, and he is truly the life of the party!