“When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from, the steward called the bridegroom and said, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’” (John 2:9-10)
It’s a curious story – turning water into wine. Most of us don’t know what to make of it, so we joke about it instead. I like the one about the priest who is pulled over for speeding. The officer says, “Father, you were going 10 over the limit back there. And is that alcohol on your breath? Have you been drinking?” The priest says, “No, just sipping on some water here,” pointing to a container on the seat beside him. ‘Let me see that,” says the officer. He opens the cap and smells the contents and says, “Father, this isn’t water, it’s wine!” To which the priest says: “Oh, my Lord, he’s done it again!”
Turning water to wine is a miracle indeed, although that’s not what the writer of the 4th gospel calls it. John calls it a sign, because it points to the identity of Jesus - he is the Messiah who comes to bring us abundant life. And John’s hope is that his readers will come to believe this after reading his gospel - that Jesus is Lord and we receive life in his name. (Jn 20:31) So, here in chapter two is the first of first of seven “signs” that reveal the identity of Jesus and his purpose.
But why this sign? Why change water to wine at a wedding feast? Why not do something more spectacular like part the Sea of Galilee, or heal a colony of lepers? What is the meaning of this particular sign? And to answer that we must look more closely at the text itself.
First, we aren’t told why Jesus and his disciples are at the wedding. Were they invited? Do they know the family of the couple getting married? Or are they wedding crashers? We aren’t told, but given the fact that Mary is there - Jesus’ mother - it’s likely that this is the wedding of a family friend or relative. And in those days, weddings would go on for days! They were never a single-day event like today. No, weddings had to be celebrated fully by everyone in order to be considered complete, and so it is with this one. And that’s when it happened - they ran out of wine.
Now running out of wine might not be such a big deal at a Baptist wedding, but at a Jewish reception, this would have been cataclysmic. Where do you get enough wine to keep the party going? It’s not like you can “pop” down to Trader Joe’s and pick up a few bottles of Chablis. No! And just think of the stigma attached to this mistake – people would be talking for ages thereafter. “Hey, remember that wineless wedding we went to? What was the family thinking? Disastrous!”
So, Mary goes to her son, Jesus and tells him the problem. “They have no wine.” Jesus says, “Woman, what concern is that to you and me? My hour has not yet come.” Jesus is on a timetable set by God, not by his mother, so he doesn’t think it’s up to him to fix the wine problem. But his mother does! So, she dismisses his objection with the wave of a hand and says to the nearby servants: “Do whatever he tells you.”
So, Jesus instructs them to fill six stone water jars full of water. They do it – drawing over 150 gallons of water from the well. No small feat! Then Jesus instructs them to draw some out and take it to the wine steward. (Because only the wine steward could determine what was fit to serve the guests.) They do as they are told, and when the steward tastes it, not knowing it used to be water, he is elated, because this wine is superior in quality!
The wine steward calls for the bridegroom and says to him:
“This is not the way things normally work – we normally serve the good wine to the guests first, and when they are all too tipsy to know better, we break out the Baby Duck... but you have kept the good wine until now.” And the passage ends by reminding us that this is the first sign of Jesus.
So, the good news of God’s glory in Jesus Christ today is this: He serves the best wine last! When the wine of life gives out... when the best life has to offer seems to be over, remember that Jesus serves the best wine last!
So, when you graduate from college and get all the same responses back from the companies you applied to: “Thank you for your interest in our company but we are looking for someone with experience. Feel free to re-apply again in the future.” Or, when your husband comes home and says, “Honey, it’s over, I’m leaving.” Or when the doctor says, “Better sit-down cause there’s no way to put this gently – it’s cancer.”
When the wine of life gives out and it looks like the party is over... it’s not... because the first sign of God’s glory in Jesus Christ is that he saves the best wine till last. In the kingdom of God, the future is brighter than the past or the present so keep your eyes focused forward!
Now, why do we have such a hard time believing that truth? Because that’s not the way the world has taught us to look at life. We see life the same way the chief wine steward does... the best is always served first. The best tickets to the concert always go first so you better get on the phone with Ticketmaster as soon as they go on sale or you’ll be sorry. The best years in life always come first ... oh, better enjoy your youth because 40 is coming and it’s all downhill from there! The best wine is served first. That’s why we run to get in line – he who hesitates is lost.
There’s a story later in John’s gospel about a paralyzed man lying by the pool at Bethsaida. They brought him there every day because when the water stirred, the first one into the pool was healed. Every day he was brought there for 38 years but still no healing. Why? Because only the first one in gets healed and he was always the runner up and the way it works in the world, the runner up only gets honorable mention and that’s all. But Jesus says to him, “Do you want to be healed?” And he says yes. So, Jesus tells him to take up his mat and walk... and he does! In the Kingdom of God, the best wine is served last!
Now there’s a rumor circulating in the Church and I imagine you’ve heard it. Maybe you’ve even perpetuated it. It goes like this: the best years of the church are over. The glory years of the church were back in the 80’s and 90’s, things were really humming around here – pews were full, big Sunday school, children’s choir, the youth program - huge. And we were teeming with young families, but those days are gone. It’s all downhill from here. The wine has given out and the party is over. Ever hear that sort of old talk?
That’s how Israel talked while living in captivity in Babylon. Remember the glory years when David was king of Israel? Oh, those were the days! But the word of God comes to Israel from the prophet Isaiah who tells them that the best days lay ahead for them. All nations will be drawn to your glory. (Isaiah 55) And it was so! The Persian King Cyrus defeated Babylon and freed all the Israelites. They returned home, rebuilt the temple, and eventually Jesus was born – the glory of God’s own Son and all nations have been drawn to him!
So how do we get this wine today? Christ continues to provide it – the zesty, joyful, thirst-quenching libation of life is still provided by him. Just as he provided more than 150 gallons of wine at that wedding, so he provides it to us in abundance today. Christ continues to move us from existence to abundant life.
It means the best days for Hidenwood are still ahead of us - in the future. How do we access it? We just need to listen to him and do what he says. That’s the key. That’s what the servants did at the party. Mary said to them, “Do whatever he tells you,” so they do. They fill the jars, all six, up to the brim with water from the well. Then they draw some off and take it to the wine steward... as instructed. So, listening to Jesus and being guided by him is key!
So I hope you are listening for that Word during this time of discernment - as you read the scriptures each day in your devotional and ponder what our Lord might be saying to you and to us. Be expectant and hopeful as we move forward because we are moving forward with Christ by our side! We are not alone on this journey. And if Christ is with us, we will find bread for the journey and drink that satisfies. And that bread and wine will attract others too, because others are hungry and thirsty for it!
Eileen Lidner is a Presbyterian pastor and renowned speaker serving up in New Jersey. She was on to speak at a conference once out west and had to switch airplanes in Denver. Her connecting flight required her to walk from one terminal to another and it took forever. She arrived at her gate and sat down exhausted in a chair and opened her book to do a little reading. The woman beside her was elderly. She looked at Eileen and said, “You’ll have to speak loudly, I don’t hear too well.” Eileen wasn’t planning on talking at all, but the woman persisted. She said in a loud voice. “I can’t hear the announcement in here. Could you tell me all the announcements?” So, she repeated them all at 100 decibels to the woman.
Finally, it was boarding time and she helped the lady to the kiosk to pre-board and Eileen figured that would be the last she’d see of her. But when she boarded the plane guess who had the seat right beside hers? Yep! She sat down figuring she would get no time to read on the flight... but the lady was quite quiet by this point. The flight attendant started doing her seat belt and emergency exit spiel when the woman beside her tapped her on the shoulder. She said in a loud voice: “I don’t care about all that safety stuff, but if they say anything about wine, could you tell me?” Eileen smiled and said “yes.”
And isn’t that what ministry is all about. There are people we come across who have needs – they are thirsty and looking for a drink that satisfies. They may not know exactly what they’re looking for, but they know they are thirsty. And we know where they can find drink... don’t we? Jesus feeds our hunger, quenches our thirst right here at this table. Come, all who hunger and thirst, take the bread, drink the wine and be satisfied. It’s available even now.