Grace to be Tasted

January 16, 2022

John 2:1–11

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So, they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘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.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. ***

Wine is big in America. Americans consume more wine by volume than any other other nation in the world. We enjoy wine in more ways than ever before. No longer is wine chiefly reserved for wedding receptions and fancy dinner parties. Today, wine is recreation and entertainment. We attend wine tastings and dinners, pairing classes, tour wineries and even design worldwide travel around wine.

In today’s reading from John, wine is the substance comprising the first of seven “signs.” A sign was not simply a miracle. While other gospels use miracles to reveal Jesus’ divinity, John’s signs aim to point beyond the event to something much greater. In changing water into wine, we not only see Jesus’ powerful divinity but we see what God’s grace looks like.

Grace is one of those words central to our theological identity. Yet, grace is often difficult to define or describe in concrete ways. We read in Romans 3:24 “They are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Through the gift of grace, God puts us in right standing out of the sheer generosity of grace.

Today’s biblical story makes grace touchable, visible and taste-able. John uses the setting of a wedding to show forth the first sign.

In this time, a wedding was an all-week event and usually the entire village was invited to come throughout the week.

As this wedding celebration proceeds, suddenly disaster looms. The hosts are out of wine. Perhaps the guests who did not return the RSVP actually showed up and consumed more than their share. We are not given an explanation but the result of running out of wine was not simply a faux pas, it was a disaster.

In these celebrations, wine was more than a libation or elixir to ensure the guests would enjoy the party. Wine was a sign of the harvest and God’s abundance. So, when the wine runs out, the sign of blessing runs short, too.

In the mix of guests are Jesus and his mother. Jesus’ disciples are also present, attesting to the fact that Jesus was considered a Rabbi by this point, and he had his own disciples (some of whom we see him calling in the previous chapter). There is some thought that Mary is related to the groom’s parents and has some behind the scenes knowledge about the pending humiliation the hosts are facing. She is worried and turns to Jesus.

The exchange between mother and son is quite funny. Mary notes that the wedding hosts have run out of wine. Jesus’ response is that they should have hired a better wedding planner. You can picture him walking away from her. But then, Mary tells the servants to do whatever Jesus says.

Jesus is now implicated and tells the servants to fill large jars of water as full as they can. These jars commonly held water, enough to fill a Jewish immersion pool used for ceremonial purification (similar to a modern baptistry in some churches today).

Although they filled these large jars with water, they drew out wine from them. Then they took it to the master of the banquet or wedding planner, who was responsible for the affair.

When the new wine is taste tested, the chief steward is surprised at the quality. This is not Two Buck Chuck! He calls the bridegroom over to complement him on the wine, “usually people serve the good wine first and save the cheap wine for the end of the party when it is less noticeable, but you have saved the best for last… well played!”

Jesus performs this sign because this is what grace is like: abundant, overflowing joy, blessing. Jesus’ first divine act is to save the wedding party from disaster and provide more blessing than the hosts could have imagined or deserved.

Think about it. Jesus could have provided just enough wine for the party to go on. Given that the guests have already been drinking for days, even a pedestrian bottle would have been gratefully received. But he went far beyond expectations to provide more and better wine than they ever could have expected. This is what grace looks like.

Grace is like six jugs of water becoming 180 gallons of wine which should move us beyond the free gift and generosity sense of grace to show us that grace also means abundance. As in unbelievable, more-than-you-can-possibly-imagine, abundance.

There is another thing to note. Changing water into wine is not chiefly about Jesus revealing his divinity. This is no parlor trick Jesus does to attract attention to himself. He does it reluctantly, and the miracle is hidden even from the master of the banquet.

It is worth noting the role of Mary in this first sign. After Jesus has rebuffed her concern about the wine running out, I see Mary, like any mom, encouraging her child to get on the school bus for the first time: “Come on, you can do it! I know you can!” Mary saw something when the wine was running out and she had confidence to know that whatever Jesus would do it was going to be the right thing.

There is a lesson in itself. The quest for us is having the confidence to put our trust in Jesus even when the wine is running out, when our faith is not up to the task, when everything looks bleak, when we are starting to panic and unsure where to turn.

Have you ever been in a place when it seems the wine has run out? When hope is thin and solutions seem remote.

It seems unlikely that when Mary approached Jesus about the lack of wine ruining the party, she expected it would result in a veritable lake of wine, 180 gallons! Which makes me even more grateful for this first “sign.” In it we learn that grace is not only about making up for something we lack, but also providing more than we’d ever imagined or deserve.

Jesus could have provided just enough wine for the party to go on, and, given that people have already been drinking a few days, even a pedestrian bottle would have been gratefully received. But he went far beyond expectations to provide more and better wine than they ever could have expected.

Why? Because that is what grace looks like. There is no need that can exhaust the grace of God.

As we come toward the two-year mark of a global pandemic with no clear view of when this will end, our spirits are weary. The losses we have experienced are known in every dimension of our corporate life and much of our individual lives, too. Some are so keen that we will never fully recover.

As you push forward, when God seems far away and the weights and worries of life distracts our thoughts and tarnishes spirit and soul, remember this story of water changed to wine. Because this is what God’s grace looks like.

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Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.

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Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.