2nd Sunday of Epiphany, 2016
Lectionary Text: John 2:1-12
The Grape Juice Miracle
My childhood church told the story of Jesus turning water into wine more like Jesus turning water into grape juice. That church was opposed to all drinking of alcoholic beverages. They considered drinking sinful and we were not to hang out with people who drank because we might become sinful drinkers if we did. We were told that if Jesus did turn water into wine, it was of very low alcohol content, nothing like the wines of today. This never made sense to me because verse ten reads:
“Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk.” John 2:10
Now, I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but even as a young boy I knew you couldn’t get DRUNK on Welch’s. (I tried) But the fact that Jesus made maybe 150 gallons of GOOD wine for a bunch of people who were already drunk just didn’t fit our church’s stance that all drinking was sinful. And our “Bible Believing” church’s position wasn’t going to be swayed by something as inconsequential as …THE BIBLE!??
We all know the dangers of alcohol addiction, and I’m certainly not encouraging anybody to drink in excess, or to drink at all if that’s your conviction. But if we don’t deal honestly with stories like this, I don’t think we will glean from them all that we can. In fact, if you only understand this story to be about the physical transformation of water into wine, you won’t see the deeper meaning of what Jesus was doing.
Signs Point to Something
If you were taking your family to Disney World, and stopped at the first road sign that said “Disney World Ahead”, then set up your lawn chairs, got out the cooler and watched the traffic go by you would never actually experience Disney World.
John’s gospel describes the miracles of Jesus as signs. Signs are meant to direct us to something, but the sign itself is not the thing we are directed to. We often focus on the physical miracle of water being turned into wine and stop there, but the physical miracle is only a sign pointing us to something of even more importance.
In the 1990’s, social psychologist, Paul Rozin, did an experiment he called the “Hitler’s Sweater” experiment. Dr. Rozen showed people an old, tattered sweater. He said that the sweater had belonged to Adolf Hitler, and that Hitler had been wearing the sweater the week before his suicide. The sweater had not been washed, and you could see Hitler’s perspiration stains on the sweater. He then asked people if they’d like to try it on. Most people refused to try the sweater on. Many people even reported discomfort at being in the same room with the sweater.
Psychologist, Richard Beck writes of this experiment: “What studies like this reveal is that people tend to think about evil as if it were a virus, a disease, or a contagion. Evil is an object that can seep out of Hitler, into the sweater, and, by implication, into you if you try the sweater on. Evil is sticky and contagious. So we stay away.” This belief is not logical, but it is very powerful. Keep this experiment in mind as we work through Jesus’ first “sign”.
Mary and Jesus
There is an interesting short conversation between Jesus and his mother, Mary in this story. Mary brings to Jesus’ attention the fact that there was no more wine at the wedding. N.T. Wright’s translation reads like this:
The wine ran out. Jesus’s mother came over to him. “They haven’t got any wine!” she said. “Oh Mother!” replied Jesus. “What’s that got to do with you and me? My time hasn’t come yet.” KNT
Wright’s translation infers a kind of playfulness between Jesus and his mother-like they knew something the others didn’t. I don’t know, perhaps Jesus had been practicing back home in Nazareth??? I’ve read lots of commentaries about this conversation but I think Wright’s translation may have captured the essence of what’s going on, because Mary’s next statement seems to indicate that she knew Jesus was up to something.
His mother spoke to the servants. “Do whatever he tells you,” she said.
That “something” begins in verse 6.
Six Stone Jars
“Six stone water-jars were standing there, ready for use in the Jewish purification rites. Each held about twenty or thirty gallons.” John 2:6
These jars contain clues to what the physical sign is directing us to. These were not jars for drinking water; they were jars for use in Jewish purification rites. Ritual purity was very important to some Jewish people at this time. We see it when the Pharisees question Jesus about his disciples eating without washing their hands in Mark 7. They weren’t thinking of personal hygiene here, but religious purity.
Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites when they ask this-not because Jesus was against personal hygiene, but because these purification rituals had become a way for some religious people to see themselves as more righteous than others, causing them to keep themselves separate from people that didn’t practice the same rituals of purification.
Again and again, Jesus would challenge and cross these purity boundaries that the religious leaders thought kept them holy. Let’s think of these six stone jars that represented ritual purity as containers that Jesus, in his coming ministry would transform and fill with something better.
One Stone Jar
According to the Law, if you touched a leper, you risked becoming unclean.
But when Jesus touched lepers, the lepers became clean! People stayed away from lepers for fear of becoming contaminated, similar to what Paul Rozin found in his Hitler’s Sweater experiment.
In the 2nd Temple period in which Jesus lived, rabbi’s interpreted leprosy as divine punishment for evil. So when Jesus healed lepers, it put the Pharisees in a difficult position; Jesus appeared to be going against God’s divine punishment for the evil the leper had supposedly done, but the healing was so obviously a work of God that it was very difficult to argue against it.
Two Stone Jars
According to the law if you came in contact with a menstruating woman, you were made unclean. (Lev. 15:19) Many believe that the woman with the issue of blood suffered from some kind of uncontrolled menstrual bleeding. When the woman with the issue of blood touched Jesus however, Jesus didn’t become unclean, but she was healed! Jesus sensed that power had gone out from him, but he wasn’t alarmed about this. He commended the woman for her faith and sent her away healed. This desperate woman dared to cross a purity boundary and Jesus commended her for doing it!
Three Stone Jars
According to the law if you touched a dead body, you would become unclean for seven days. (Num. 19:11) But when Jesus touched the dead body of Jairus’ daughter, she came back to life!
Four Stone Jars
According to Jewish tradition, if you ate with tax collectors and sinners, you would be defiled. This was the kind of thinking my childhood church had, but when Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, they were made clean. Jesus even said the tax collectors and sinners were entering the Kingdom of God before the religious leaders that were so concerned about their own purity.
This was so concerning to the religious leaders that we find them repeatedly confronting Jesus about it. The Pharisees thought Jesus must have been a drunkard and sinner because of who he ate with. One theologian has gone so far to say that ultimately, Jesus was crucified because of whom he ate with.
Five Stone Jars
According to the law if a prostitute touched you, you would risk being considered impure. But when Simon the Pharisee questioned Jesus about the sinful woman washing his feet, Jesus forgave the woman and rebuked Simon!
Six Stone Jars
Perhaps the most significant example of Jesus crossing purity boundaries was on display in his Passion. The Jews were looking for a Messiah like King David-a warrior who would violently overthrow the Romans. So, for Jesus to go to his death, even death on a Roman cross was unimaginable for the Jewish Messiah. In many people’s minds, the way in which Jesus died was proof that his life was a failure, his teachings were invalid and any claim to him being the Holy One of God, utterly false. Even their own Scriptures declared, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” (Deut. 21:23).
But it was in Christ’s enduring all the indignity and impurity of his arrest, false accusations, trial, scourging, crucifixion, abandonment and death-all things that were seen as anathema to being righteous and holy, that Jesus enters and identifies fully with the human condition-all of it, in order to redeem and transform the human condition-all of it, even the most impure of conditions…death.
What Is A Wedding?
“Fill the jars with water,” said Jesus to the servants. And they filled them, right up to the brim.” John 2:7
By filling these ritual containers with water, and then transforming the water into wine, AT A WEDDING, Jesus is giving us a sign.
What is a wedding? A wedding is a place where two separate people become one. A wedding is a place where two unrelated families find a place of unity and relationship. A wedding is a place where friends of the bride, and friends of the groom who may have had nothing in common, now have a common connection.
By transforming water into wine, using ritual purity vessels, Jesus was transforming the ritual that these stone jars represented; a ritual that had previously been about segregation and separation; a ritual that had created an “us-versus-them” dynamic.
Using jars that represented ritual purity at the expense of relationships, Jesus was seeking not to transform just water into wine, but attitudes of exclusivity based on fear of contamination. Jesus didn’t empty the jars…they were already empty. Jesus filled and transformed rituals that spoke of separation into wine that speaks of celebration and unity.
This sign of turning water into wine is about something more than a physical miracle. This sign, and all of Jesus ministry to follow, is meant to reorient our thinking about clean and unclean people. Jesus is asking us to rethink the entire system of holiness codes that these six stone jars represented; and by doing this sign at a wedding, we’re invited to begin seeing all of humanity like Jesus did.