When Jesus’ mother comes to him during the wedding at Cana and tells him that the hosts have run out of wine, Jesus says, “What concern is that to you and me?” It’s really kind of funny to think of Jesus saying this to his mother. “What does that have to do with us, Mom?” I don’t know about you, but sometimes that’s how I feel when I read certain stories in the gospels, especially miracle stories. My first thought at first glance is often, “Okay…but what does that have to do with you and me?”
Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana is often described as his first miracle. But that’s not the word that the Gospel of John uses. John’s gospel says it was the first of his signs. Signs point to something. Signs tell you that some kind of action is required or they alert you to something up ahead. If you see a red octagonal sign, you put on the brakes. If you see a sign that looks like a pointy-headed snake, a fat line that curves back and forth leading to a triangular arrowhead, you slow your roll because the sign has told you that you’re entering a stretch of road with tight curves.
We refer to the sacraments as signs. They are not symbols. They don’t represent something else or invite us to think of something else. The sacraments are signs of God’s presence and grace here and now. They require action. They require us to experience something. Take and eat. Drink this, all of you. Put your head over the font or under the water and receive the Holy Spirit, then begin a whole new life in Christ and in the community of faith. Right here. Right now.
When Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding at Cana, John’s gospel says it was the first of his signs. The miracle itself, miraculous as it is, is not really what we’re supposed to looking at. It’s pointing to something else. So what are we supposed to see? What action is required in response? What is being revealed about Jesus, and what deeper reality is Jesus revealing? And is there maybe something about us being revealed, too, in this miracle, this sign?
The word grace appears only four times in the gospels, all four times in the prologue to the gospel of John. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1.14) “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (1:16-17). Why does the word grace appear only in the prologue and not anywhere else in John’s gospel? Professor Karoline Lewis suggests that if we take the Incarnation seriously, then once the Word becomes flesh, “the rest of John’s gospel shows you what grace tastes like, looks like, smells like, sounds like, feels like.”
Jesus’ signs don’t just tell us what abundant grace is. They show us. Turning water into wine is a revelation, a revealing, of grace.
In Jesus’ time wedding celebrations usually lasted a week and were essentially drinking parties. There would be lots of food and lots of wine. Friends and family might contribute food, but the wine was provided by the families of the bride and groom. Running out of wine would be a huge embarrassment. It would indicate poor planning or poor finances or both.
We can guess from little details that Jesus probably had some kind of family connection with the couple being married. Jesus’ mother and brothers were there (2:12) and Mary seems to be comfortable giving orders to the servants, so maybe she was acting in some kind of semi-official capacity. Maybe she was the wedding coordinator. Whatever her relationship may have been, she was concerned for the reputation of the couple and the family. For the couple, running out of wine would mean that their married life was off to a bad start. The family would become the talk of the town, and not in a good way. Jesus literally saved them all. From embarrassment.
The guests were almost certainly poor people. At least the majority would have been. Most of the people Jesus knew were poor people, especially at this stage of his ministry. These were people who worked in fields and vineyards, or fished, or tended livestock, or cut and hauled stones for Roman buildings. These are folks whose lands have been plundered by ancient Palestine’s version of Big Agriculture—absentee landowners who did none of the work and kept most of the money. Weddings were one of the few times these people could put all their troubles behind them and celebrate life. A wedding was a time to drink, and sing and tell stories and dance. But it would all be cut short if the wine ran out.
The celebration was in full swing but it was all about to crash like a balloon being popped. And then Jesus stepped in. Grace stepped in. Six stone jars full of water suddenly became wine. One hundred twenty gallons of wine. The best wine. Exquisite wine. Wine that would have cost them years of their wages. Jesus turned water into wine so the celebration could continue.
There was enough wine for everyone and then some. There was abundance. And everyone shared in it. It wasn’t Pinot Noir for the better dressed and Rosé in a box for the rest. Everyone, from the most prominent guest to the most humble was served the best wine.
This sign from Jesus doesn’t just tell us what abundant grace is, it shows us. “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.” Abundant grace—it tastes like the best wine when you’re expecting the cheap stuff…or even just water. Abundant grace feels like being suddenly rescued from the worst kind of embarrassment. Abundant grace looks like all your favorite foods spread out at a banquet. Abundant grace sounds like music that gets in your bones and moves you with its happy rhythm and makes you dance before you even realize your body is swaying and your feet are tapping. Abundant grace smells like baking bread and cake and wonderful sauces and fresh strawberries spread out at the buffet.
Abundant grace fills you so full of life and joy and relief that you want everyone to have it. You just have to share it. Taste and see the goodness!
“Grace,” said Robert Capon, “is the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is a floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its cassations to every window, pounding at every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears.”
In the eleventh chapter of 1 Corinthians, St. Paul scolds the Corinthians because when they gather together for their Agape feast, some of the more well-off persons are treating it as if it’s their own private picnic. They have plenty of food and drink for themselves but they’re not sharing it. Paul tells them that if they think their gathering is just about eating and drinking, then they should eat and drink at home because they’ve missed the point. Then Paul reminds them that Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, broke bread and passed it out to everyone, then did the same with the wine. When he said, “This is my body,” he was indicating that everyone who was sharing that bread with him was united to him, that they now would be the Body of Christ. It’s not just the eating and drinking. It’s also the sharing. It’s the connecting of your life to mine and our lives to his. It’s the unity. So chew on that for a bit.
Jesus turned water into a copious abundance of wine. Embarrassment was averted. Joy was refueled. That is what grace looks like.
What do the signs of Jesus point to? Resurrection. Life in all its fullness. Joy—Christ’s joy in us so that our joy may be complete. Light. And Love. Grace upon grace.
And what does that have to do with you and me? Well… we are the ones who get to drink this all in. We are the ones who are still at the wedding, drinking the wine of celebration. The best wine. From his fullness we have all received—and are still receiving—grace upon grace… so much grace that it has to spill out of us and overflow to others. We are the ones who get to invite others to the abundant feast where the table is always full and the wine never ends. That’s what all the signs of Jesus point to.