Because very few of us regularly sit down and read entire books of the Bible from start to finish in one or just a few readings, we don’t often think about why the author of a particular book put a story where it is in the narrative. For example, Matthew says that Jesus’ first public act was the Sermon on the Mount. Mark says his first public act was an exorcism. Luke writes that Jesus’ first public act was to return to his hometown. And today in our Gospel reading, John tells us that Jesus’ first public act was at the wedding in Cana where he turned water into wine.
Now you could conclude from all this that all four gospels are untrue because they don’t agree with one another. Or you could realize that none of these Gospel writers were trying to write a factual news report about Jesus that could be verified and fact-checked. No, what they were each trying to do in their own particular way, was to tell us something about Jesus, his nature, his ministry and by extension to tell us something about God. There were many other gospels that the early leaders of the church could have included in the canon of Scripture. Or they could have chosen to include only one Gospel. But these four particular Gospels were chosen because they each had something very important to say about the nature of Jesus and the nature of God, even if they don’t each tell the story of Jesus in exactly the same way.
So, we go back to the question then, why did John choose Jesus’ actions at the wedding in Cana as his first public act? What is John trying to tell us about Jesus and by extension about God? Well, let’s take a closer look at the story.
Jesus, his mother, and his new followers have been invited to a wedding in Cana. Cana is in the region of Galilee, a region that was known best for being the land of thieves, rebels, and Gentiles. Indeed, King Herod the Great, on more than one occasion, had to clear the region of thieves and bandits. Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown was also located in the region of Galilee. Not a holy place or a holy land. Perhaps this is why Nathanael asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” when Jesus’ calls him to be one of his followers.
So, Jesus performs his first public sign, not in Jerusalem or Judea, places deemed holy by his fellow Israelites, but in the land of thieves, rebels and Gentiles. And notice that I said “sign” and not miracle. John does not refer to the supernatural acts that Jesus performs as miracles. He always refers to them as signs. It seems that these acts of healing, and winemaking and so-forth that Jesus does in the Gospel of John are not important in and of themselves, but are only important because they reveal something about Jesus and something about God. They are signs of God’s kingdom breaking into our world right here and right now. They give us a glimpse of God’s love, God’s grace, and they give us a glimpse of the world as God intends it to be. This isn’t a fantasy story, this is theology, this is a story about the nature of God.
So, anyway, let’s get back to the story. Jesus, his mother, and his new followers are attending a wedding in Cana, the land of thieves, rebels, and Gentiles. Weddings in Jesus’ day were multi-day affairs and copious amounts of wine were served each and every day. It was the expected and accepted thing that the good wine would be served at the beginning before everyone got drunk and lost their sense of taste, and then the increasingly cheaper and less tasty wine would be brought out and served. It was also not the done thing to run out of wine. But this is exactly what happened at this wedding in Cana. The wine gives out.
Mary turns to Jesus and points out the lack of wine. Jesus is not particularly concerned, he says to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” But Mary is not put off. Apparently, she knows what her son is capable of, so she simply says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” And Jesus does not argue with his mother. He simply tells the servants to fill six large stone water jars with water, and voila the water turns to wine. And not just any wine, but very fine wine, perhaps the best they’ve ever tasted. And this wasn’t just a little bit of wine. I was reading a blog written by a Lutheran pastor, Karoline Lewis. She took the time to figure out exactly how much wine Jesus made—I’ll spare you the mathematical details and just give you the final total—she estimates that he created 1000 bottles of wine!! I’ll say it again, 1000 bottles of wine!!! That’s a heck of a lot of wine.
So, what on earth is this very strange story revealing to us about Jesus and about God? Why would John begin his story about Jesus’ actions on earth with a story about Jesus saving a party by creating 1000 bottles of wine from water? Well, I think John is trying to tell us something about God’s grace. He could have used words, but instead he is showing us through Jesus’ actions how abundant, extravagant, and excessive God’s grace is. And this grace is found in the most unlikely of places—not in the Temple, not in the home of the High Priest, not in the palace of King Herod, not in the homes of the Pharisees or the Saducees. This extravagant, abundant, and excessive grace is found in the land of the thieves, the rebels and the gentiles. It is found in the last place that anyone would ever think to look. And what exactly is grace, God’s grace? Well, it is quite simply love. God’s love is abundant, extravagant, and excessive and it permeates everything and is found in the most unlikely of places.
I’ll give you an example from a few years ago when I experienced this kind of grace myself. It was when I was living in Connecticut. The town I lived in held a Community Thanksgiving Service every year. Now, I will be quite honest with you. I didn’t always look forward to this service. I was usually trying to get ready to leave for Maine so I could spend the holiday with my family. Often this service was something I simply took part in out of a sense of duty. But that year, the service hit me in a very different way, even though it was really the same service we had every year.
The service itself was held only a short time after the terrorist attacks in Paris, so that was somewhat on my mind. Every year the participants in the service came primarily from the mainstream protestant denominations in town, the Jewish congregation, St. Dominic’s Catholic Church and from members of the Sikh Temple. It was an ecumenical service, but was tilted toward Judeo-Christian traditions. That year, however, the participants from the Sikh Temple didn’t only play music as they usually did. A young woman, a member of their community, also got up and spoke a little bit about her community. Also, the preacher for the evening, a member of the Congregational church who was in seminary, made an intentional effort to include theology from the Sikh and Jewish traditions in her sermon.
I began to think about the prejudice that the members of the Sikh community, particularly the men with their uncut hair and turbans, must face every day as they are mistaken for being Muslims. And I had a real sense of the miracle it was that we had all come together for one evening in a small church in a small town in the middle of Connecticut. A town that is not known for its ethnic or religious diversity. A town in which many of the residents will never travel to places such as India or the Middle East. And for a moment I experienced the world as I think God intends it to be—a world in which there are no walls between us. A world in which religion, ethnicity and race do not matter. A world in which we simply come together from our various traditions to love one another and to help those in need. Not a world in which we all believe the same thing, think the same thing, and look and act the same, but a world in which we see our common humanity first and respect our differences as being something that makes the world a livelier and more interesting place to live in. A world in which love and hope come first, and fear has no place.
I didn’t expect to encounter God’s grace that evening. I didn’t expect to get a glimpse of the kingdom of God. But you see, God’s abundant, extravagant, and excessive grace can never be confined by our expectations. God’s abundant, extravagant, and excessive grace will always show up in the places and at the times we least expect it. God’s abundant, extravagant, and excessive grace will always turn the world as we know it on its head. For God’s kingdom is not of this world. God’s kingdom, the world as God intends it to be, is not a world in which walls are built, people are labeled and divided by religion, ethnicity, and race. God’s kingdom, the world as God intends it to be, is a world in which we come together in our diversity to make sure that everyone gets to experience God’s grace, to make sure that everyone has enough of what they need to live.
So where and when have you experienced God’s abundant, extravagant, and excessive grace? You may have experienced it and not even realized it, because it appeared in a place and in a manner you never expected it to be. Amen.