"Water into Wine"
John 2:1-11
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
January 20, 2013

Last weekend our family descended on Tulsa for our third child's wedding. Our older two have been married for years and given us our grandchildren, whom I modestly call "The Fabulous Five." For the past decade, our youngest, Alex, has been focused on school and jobs, but that all changed when she met Dan.

Her cousin had used a computer matching site and found the love of his life, so Alex gave it a try. The first potential match was a non-event. She met a young man in a coffee shop; they talked for an hour and then went their separate ways. The second match was a repeat of the first - no sparks - and she began to wonder if it was a waste of time. However, on the third match, Dan's name surfaced. They agreed to meet at Starbuck's at 4:00 p.m. for a cup of coffee and conversation. It turned out to be a "We don't want this day to end" kind of evening. The last employee finally shooed them out the door as he was locking up at midnight.

From the moment she met Dan, we have noticed a change in Alex. She has been happier than we can remember. So, it was no surprise when they announced their engagement.

Last weekend our family, as well as the groom's family, gathered in Tulsa for the big event. It was a wonderful celebration.

Things got rolling at the rehearsal dinner where the families of the bride and groom enjoyed a feast together. During the evening family and friends toasted the couple with humor and sentimentality.

The wedding ceremony was on Saturday evening, so the day was spent swimming in the hotel pool, the women getting manicures and going out for a family lunch. When the time for the wedding arrived, everyone looked their finest.

Our daughter and her fiancé were relaxed and happy throughout the ceremony. Their eyes filled as they made their pledges of love and devotion, and fortunately, the father of the bride was able to get through the service without choking up.

Following the ceremony there was music, laughter, smiles and hugging. We ate and drank and danced. It was especially fun to drag the grandchildren onto the dance floor. At first, they were reluctant and self-conscious, but eventually they gave in to the music and festivities. The weekend went off without a hitch - three days of fun with the family!

But, as you know, not all weddings go as smoothly. I've had a bride faint in the middle of the service. A well-meaning friend had suggested she take a valium for her nerves. Then there was the time the maid of honor forgot the groom's ring. I turned to her and put out my hand for the ring - talk about a deer in the headlights!

Then there were the outdoor weddings driven indoors by a downpour and mothers of the bride dictating orders to everyone. There have been couples who insisted on memorizing their vows and experienced total brain freeze and unable to mutter anything intelligent.

Weddings have a million details, so it's fairly common for something to go awry. In today's passage from the Gospel of John, we hear the story of a wedding celebration that nearly came to an embarrassing halt long before it was due to end.

In first century Palestine, weddings lasted a full week. Following the ceremony, the bride and groom were paraded through the streets to their new home. Instead of taking off for a private honeymoon, for the next seven days the couple entertained their family and friends. In a small community, that meant just about everyone in town plus cousins from nearby villages. This wedding in Cana was still going strong when disaster nearly struck. No fainting brides or forgotten rings, but someone badly miscalculated how much wine the guests would consume.

We're never told whose wedding it is, but Jesus, his disciples and his mother are among the guests. Mary discovers that the supply of wine has nearly been drained and she alerts Jesus of the looming faux pas.

Nearby are six large water jars. The servants gather, and Jesus instructs them to fill the jars with water. Once they have all been filled, Jesus tells them to draw out some of the water and take it to the chief steward so that he may taste it. When the steward takes a sip, he gets a gleam in his eye and shouts to the groom, "Magnificent! Most people serve their finest wine at the beginning of the celebration; then after everyone has had a few drinks, they cart out the cheap brands. But you have kept the best until now. Fabulous!" An embarrassing moment is averted, and for the first time the unique impact of Jesus is felt.

But doesn't it seem odd, if not embarrassing, that the author of John would draw attention to Jesus changing water into wine as the first of his powerful signs to reveal his nature? The storyteller says there are six jars, each holding 20 to 30 gallons. So after this celebration has been going on for some time and the guests have had plenty to drink, Jesus creates between 120 and 180 gallons of wine. What is going on here?

For those who preach total abstinence and equate alcohol with the devil this passage is surely a nemesis. However, it's not a justification for excessive drinking. Alcohol abuse results in countless automobile deaths, domestic violence and heart attacks. Some people can drink responsibly while others dare not take the first sip.

This passage is not about alcohol consumption - who should and who shouldn't, how much and at what age. This story points to something else. Surprisingly, the gospel writer uses this event to declare the overriding theme of Jesus' ministry.

The writer makes a point of telling us that the six water jars are not just any clay containers; they are jars for the Jewish rite of purification. As such, they represent the old order.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus had constant confrontations with the religious leaders because they had corrupted the faith. God had given the Hebrew people the Law in order to live abundant lives. The psalmist called the law a light to guide one's path. It was given so that all could experience justice and everyone had opportunities to thrive.

However, over time, religious leaders had turned faith into a list of lifeless laws. It all seemed to come down to: Do this, don't do that. They had forgotten that the laws were not to be followed for their own sake, but were given to enrich life. A prime example is the occasion Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath and rather than rejoicing that the man had been healed, they accused Jesus of breaking the law not to work on the Sabbath.

The religious leaders turned God into a harsh judge and twisted faith into following rules. Jesus overturned their ideas, spoke of God as a loving parent and pictured the life of faith as caring for one's neighbor.

There are multiple layers of meaning in this story. For one, God blesses joyful celebrations. Life can be difficult, people can disappoint, and our health can disintegrate. We need occasional breaks from our normal routine to celebrate life by laughing and dancing and feasting with family and friends. We need personal celebrations like weddings, birthdays and anniversaries, and we need national celebrations such as presidential inaugurations and remembering great leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Old Testament prophet, Amos, said that when God's kingdom breaks forth on earth, there will be an abundance of good wine. Today's story serves as a sign that Jesus initiates the new age and he launches it with an act of grace. He turns a potential disaster into a blessing. This becomes a recurring theme in his ministry. When an adulteress is about to be stoned, he forgives her and gives her a fresh start; when the prodigal son drags himself back home after burning through half of his father's wealth, a grand party is given in his honor; Jesus heals the lame, gives sight to the blind and raises the dead.

Turning water into wine becomes a metaphor for his ministry. Whenever he encounters a problem, he envisions the new possibilities that could arise if touched with grace.

The story is told about an incident that happened in the thirties in New York, on one of the coldest days of the year. The country was in the grip of the Great Depression, and all over the city, poor people were close to starvation.

A judge was sitting on the bench, hearing a complaint against a woman who was charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She pleaded that her daughter was sick, and her grandchildren were starving, because their father had abandoned the family.

However, the shopkeeper, whose loaf had been stolen, refused to drop the charge. He insisted that an example be made of the woman, as a deterrent to others.

The judge was reluctant to pass judgment on the woman, but had no alternative. He said to the woman, "I'm sorry, but I cannot ignore the law. I sentence you to a fine of ten dollars, and if you cannot pay it, I must send you to jail for ten days."

The woman was heartbroken, but even as the judge was passing the sentence, he was reaching into his pocket for the money to pay the ten-dollar fine. He picked up his hat, dropped the ten-dollar bill into it, and then addressed everyone in the courtroom: "In addition, I'm imposing a fine of fifty cents on every person present in this courtroom, for living in a town where a person has to steal bread to save her grandchildren from starving. Mr. Bailiff, please collect the fines in this hat, and then give them to the defendant."

The accused woman went home that day from the courtroom with forty-seven dollars and fifty cents - fifty cents of which had been paid by the red-faced grocer who had brought the charge against her. As she left the courtroom, the gathering of petty criminals and New York policemen gave the judge a standing ovation.1 Faced with water, the judge turned it into wine.

It was the mission of Jesus and it is the mission he gives us. You can transform a bad situation into something extraordinary by touching it with grace.


  1. Margaret Silf, 100 Wisdom Stories from Around the World, (Oxford, England: Lion Publishing House, 2003).