“Water into wine” … When we just hear the phrase, “Water into wine”, whatever it is that pops into our heads, Jesus is probably in the middle of it. It’s the famous first miracle of Jesus, after all. “Water into wine”: It’s dramatic. It’s provocative. It’s packed with meaning. It’s the kind of thing that made Jesus famous.
But you know who’s the real hero of this story? Mary. Mary, Mother of Jesus.
And it’s not just that Mary gets the assist when you look at the post-game stats. I’m saying Mary is the miracle-worker here. Now, yes, of course, Jesus performed the miracle. But it’s Mary who did the work to make it happen. She was the author of the miracle. Yet somehow Mary isn’t even in the mix of what comes to mind when most people think about the miracle of “water into wine.” This omission just seems part of the whole “Mary, Meek & Mild” nonsense. The truth is that Mary is never meek and mild in the Gospels. She has an active, strong, bold, passionate role in the gospel stories of divine revelation. And in this story in particular, this Water into Wine story, Mary is the opposite of meek and mild. This is the story of, I just have to say it, a mother schooling her son, who happens to be Jesus.
I’ll confess before you all, God help me, that I have a fondness for the stories where Jesus isn’t perfect. There are a couple-few. (And come to think of it, more than one are stories where it’s a woman who schools Jesus.) I have a fondness for these stories because it gives me something to relate to, the flaws, the getting schooled. And I’m going to venture that we’re all imperfect here, we’re all getting schooled one way or the other. So seeing a little of this in Jesus is helps us connect with Jesus as a fellow human being. Jesus can be for us a doorway to the Divine only if we find that doorway approachable. What’s the point of God being incarnated as a person, if there isn’t some grit and imperfection shot into the mix. That’s where the saving power gets through. That’s what helps us trust that there is mercy and grace at work.
Okay, now for the story of “Water into Wine.” Mary and Jesus are at a wedding party, in Cana which was a town north of Nazareth. In the ancient middle eastern culture here, when we’re talking about a wedding party we’re talking about a week or more of festivities, most of which are the responsibility of the parents of the groom.
During this particular party, there’s a problem brewing. The wine is starting to run low. There’s still wine, it’s just not going to last. And most people probably don’t notice at this point – everyone’s still carrying on having a good time. And Jesus is among them. He doesn’t notice the approaching need – he’s busy, you know, being Jesus at a party. But his Mom, Mary, she’s got her radar out for what the mother of the groom is worrying over. Mary is used to taking responsibility for planning a party, preparing a party – cooking, coordinating – and she’s used to working during a party, worrying over keeping everyone happy while they’re busy having fun. And she’s probably used to cleaning up after the party too. (By the way, how is that kind of like God? The one who throws the party and has to clean up afterwards?)
Anyhow, at this party it’s Mother Mary who notices – “Oh no, the wine is getting low.” And she cares enough to do something about it. And you have to wonder why there wasn’t enough. Maybe this was not a wealthy family, or there was poor planning, or the party just got crashed by the whole town and they had a much bigger crowd than expected. Whatever the reasons, if the wine did run out, if we’re real about it, most partygoers would receive the news with good deal of grouchiness and judgment. The hosts would be made to feel ashamed. But Mary doesn’t blame the family. Rather, she wants to save them from shame. And she just wants to make sure everyone has a good time and the celebration of the marriage keeps on rolling. (And how is that also kind of like God? Or like the Realm of Heaven on earth? How is this like mercy and grace – our shortcomings are overlooked for the sake of a bigger and better party.)
Mary tells her son about the coming wine shortage. And Jesus basically says, “Why should I care? What’s it to you?” Then, I imagine Mary giving him a look, like “C’mon you know you should care about this, I raised you better than that. And don’t act like you don’t know what you should do about it.” There has to have been some kind of look like that between the mother and her son. Because it’s clear there’s more going on here than what’s written down. If we read between the lines: Jesus clearly understands without his mother having to say anything that she wants him to use his spiritual powers to save the party and bring about an abundance of wine. Because immediately after Jesus says “Pssh, why should I care?” he switches to an excuse, “Mom, c’mon, I’m not ready to do that kind of thing.” In the Bible of course it sounds more grandiose, he says, “I haven’t come into my power yet. My time has not yet come.” That’s how the young Messiah makes an excuse to not become the Messiah quite yet.
What happens next is wonderful. Mary doesn’t answer. Instead she acts like she didn’t hear Jesus and walks away. She goes right to the servants and says – “See that guy over there? The one there, trying to play it real cool? He said he’ll take care of the wine. So, go to him and he’ll give you instructions about what to do.” You can imagine the servants coming to Jesus and Jesus for a moment having this a stunned look, then rolling his eyes and slumping his shoulders and sighing like “Aw c’mon mom. Fine, okay I’ll do it.” And only then does he get over himself and step into his higher purpose. Mary sets up her son. She makes him grow up. She sets a trap that forces Jesus into activating his God-given potential to manifest the Realm of Heaven on earth. The first miracle is thanks to the intervention of a smart and tough-minded mother.
In the Gospel of John what we usually call Jesus’ miracles are not called “miracles” but “signs.” These are signs that show how God is at work through Jesus, signs full of rich meaning about the nature of the Realm of Heaven on earth. There is so much to explore about what it means that the first “sign” of the Realm of Heaven on earth, is turning water into wine at a wedding party that’s about to sputter out. It is a sign that the Realm of Heaven is a realm of outrageous hospitality, a Realm of ongoing celebration of love and commitment, full of delirious abundance. And these kinds of images follow Jesus around through his life and throughout the Resurrected life: images of weddings, of open feasts of plenty, pouring out abundance for all comers, indiscriminate in its generosity. There’s a lot more to explore there about this Sign. But for now, I want to just focus on the comment at the end of this story, after Jesus turned the water into wine, when someone tasted the wine and said, “Wow! People usually start with the fine wine. But you’ve saved the best for right now!”
The best of the abundance of the realm of heaven came as a surprise, right at the point where there was greatest need.
This is what Mary taught Jesus when she made him come into his own and do this good deed for the sake of the people. He did not think he was ready. He was holding tight the abundance of his gifts. He was saving the best for later, sometime later. But Mary, the hardworking miracle-worker here, saw the need and set the trap that sprung the abundance of the Realm of Heaven on Earth.
May this be a model for us all.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered Sunday February 2, 2019, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)