Water into Wine: How Jesus Moves us from Scarcity to Abundance

January 20, 2019, Second Sunday after Epiphany

Readings: Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

In August 1964, a young man from bustling city of Columbus, Ohio traveled to the home of his fiancé in a country ‘hollar’ (a valley), of northeastern Kentucky to be lawfully wedded at her family home. She wanted a church-wedding, like in the city… but in those days, it was still unheard of in the country. A “preacher” would come to the house and marry the engaged couple.

It was a “shoestring budget.” Only his parents and sister came down from the city. Her father was less delighted about the marriage, and they wondered if he would even participate when the moment arrived. His mother did her best to help make the day memorable for her new daughter-in-law.

They made a make-shift aisle to walk down and they bought a decorative wedding bell with a music box inside. It played the Bridal Chorus, and that was the music to which she “walked down the aisle.” The only problem was that they wound the bell all the way up, and the chorus lasted longer than expected. The living room provided a rather short aisle, so they waited at the other side of the room anxiously until it stopped.

This is the story of my parents’ wedding. In Lawrence county Kentucky, August 1, 1963. They have been married 55 years, and their marriage and life together have been a blessing to so many over these years.

Mom in the home they were married in

Marriage as an Image for Christ and the Church

In John’s Gospel we find a similar story, a family wedding in the village of Cana in Galilee. Similar to my own parents wedding, the groom and bride were engaged (or betrothed) for a period, during which the groom would prepare their home. At the end of the engagement, the groom would go to the bride’s family home to be married (to become one) after which, he would take her to the home he had prepared.

In Scripture, marriage is also the image given for the covenant relationship between Christ Jesus and the Church. At the end of John’s Gospel, we find Jesus using the wedding metaphor to prepare his disciples for his death and resurrection. Jesus comforts his disciples by telling them, “I am going to my father’s house to prepare a placefor his disciples (or church), and that he will come back to take them with him so that they can be together.”

It is not obvious in the text, but Jesus is using a very precise phrase that a Jewish bridegroom would say to his bride in between the engagement and the wedding. When Paul gives instruction on marriage, he says, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery, but I am talking about Christ and the Church.”[1] Theologically, this puts the Church in a betrothal period of promise and awaiting Jesus’ return to take us to his Father’s house or dwelling where he has prepared a place for us.

Water into Wine, Crisis and Hope

The miracle at the wedding at Cana is an interesting passage to interpret. Jesus is at a wedding, his mother is there, and probably many other family members. It wasn’t terribly far from Nazareth, and the families probably knew each other through various social connections. Jesus’ disciples are also invited, 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).

A wedding was an all-week event and many people were invited to come throughout the week. Running out of wine would have been a real crisis in this cultural context. It would have been embarrassing, bringing shame on the newlywed couple, and an event that wouldn’t be easily lived down (people would have remembered it for some time).

It could have been a lack of planning on the part of the hosts, or it could have been a lack of generosity of the attendees. People were happy to come to the party, but maybe they did not contribute appropriately to celebration. Mary, a woman, is aware of this crisis before the men, and brings it to Jesus.

Jesus is now implicated and tells the servants to fill these really large jars of water as full as they can. These were very large jars. They held enough water to fill a Jewish immersion pool used for ceremonial purification (similar to a modern baptistry).

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 to make sure everyone was having a good time. In fact, one of his jobs was make sure people weren’t having too good of a time and drinking to much wine (maybe a source of the problem).

Upon tasting the wine, the master of the banquet 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!”

The wedding, the couple, and perhaps especially the wedding planner, are saved from disgrace. The disciples evidently became aware of this miracle and believe in Jesus as a result. This miracle is the first “sign” of seven signs in the John’s Gospel. A sign was not simply a miracle. A sign especially “pointed” someone to a higher reality. The miracle wasn’t about the wine; it was about Jesus’ identity and glory.

Moving from Scarcity to Abundance

Beyond Jesus’ identity and glory, what understanding, or encouragement can we draw from this story? Ultimately, this story is about scarcity and abundance. Jesus intervened at a moment of scarcity and brought about abundance.

Quaker Author Parker Palmer tells a similar story, albeit a smaller crisis, of a flight from Saskatoon to Minneapolis. The flight was delayed and ultimately took off without coffee and refreshments because of a problem with the supply truck. Passengers were understandably frustrated and grumpy.

Once in the air, the flight attendant came on the intercom and addressed the passengers. “We’re sorry folks, we didn’t plan this and there’s not much we can do about it.” After empathizing with the passengers she went on to propose that she pass a bread basket around and that everyone contribute what they had… a bag of peanuts, some candy or gum, etc. When the baskets were full, they would pass them back around and let people take what they needed. She added that they could put in a business card or a picture of family to make it more fun.

A small miracle of loaves and fishes ensued. The problem was adverted and people who were focused on the scarcity were transformed into people focusing on abundance.[2] When we read about Jesus’ chaning the water into wine, we might miss the same principle. Jesus out of his abundance and ability, and provided for those in need. This is nothing short of a perfect model for God’s people to follow.

The Myth of Scarcity

Consider the Israelites, the Children of God who escaped from slavery and went into the wilderness. In captivity they lived in a world where drought, low production, and famine, had produced what theologian Walter Brueggemann calls the “myth of scarcity,” the belief that there is not enough to go around. This causes people to keep what they have from others and even create systems that allow some to take more at the expense of others.

God delivered his children from this corrupt economic system and brought them into the wilderness to form them into people reflecting his own image. There too, was a crisis of food. They had to learn to share, to trust one another, and not to hoard. They had to learn to live together in a way that promoted the well-being of the community, and every personin the community.

Brueggemann states, “Sharing in covenantal solidarity is what distinguishes Israel from the ‘atheists of scarcity’ who turn to neighbors into competitors for bread and finally into enemies with whom there must be endless wars for control of the bread supply.”[3] How they countered scarcity with abundance of generosity, as was the image of their creator. It was a test of their identity and calling!

This especially included how they treated the most vulnerable among them. Moses singles out three vulnerable groups: widows, orphans, and foreign workers (Deuteronomy 10:17-18). These people were without resources or social leverage to meet their own needs.

Going back to our Gospel reading, maybe had the community around them contributed generously to the wedding festivities, there wouldn’t be this crisis to begin with! It is an example of our broken human nature that they didn’t have enough wine. But Jesus stepped into humanity’s scarcity and out of his abundance provided for a solution.

The Lyric of Abundance

And Jesus continues to give his abundance to us in our times of need and scarcity today. He steps into our human problems, and provides for us. But he also expects us to follow his pattern. He calls us to live in the same way… to manage our abundance, to share, to see the vulnerable, and to find creative solutions with the resources that we do have.

This is what Bruegemman calls the Lyric of Abundance. And it is the melody of God’s people because we also live in the world where the economy fails people. We find ourselves in a a financial desert of joblessness or insufficient income. We find ourselves in communities where people drink too much wine without contributing to the celebration of living and working together. We have to turn the Myth of Scarcityaround into the Lyric of Abundance.

Functional Atheism

Jesus is working unnoticed, behind the scenes. He is using even our ceremonial and sacred pots, and turning them into functional vessels of his grace. So, we must do two things: (1) draw from him to be our abundance, and (2) model and live God’s abundance towards others.

Drawing from God as our abundance means confronting the hypocrisy of saying we belief and trust in God, but living as if ultimately everything rests with us.

Parker Palmer call this “functional atheism,” the “unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen—a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God.”

He goes on to say, that it results in us imposing, “our will on others, stressing our relationships, sometimes to the point of breaking. It often eventuates in burnout, depression, and despair, as we learn that the world will not bend to our will and we become embittered about that fact.”[4]

We must repent, or change, this way in and among us. Secondly, we must model and live God’s abundance towards others. Our church has been concerned about our finances and properties, and we want to be good stewards of these earthly blessings… but of much greater importanceis that we develop: charity, trust, generosity, and gratitude.

And the way that we live these things out in a world captive in the myth of scarcity, will glorify God and be a sign, pointing people to God. When we these things happen among us we can say what is recorded in this Gospel of John: “Jesus did this among us and it was a sign pointing us to see his glory, and we believed in him.”

[1] Ephesians 5:32.

[2] Parker Palmer, “Loaves and Fishes Are Not Dead,” On Being accessed at https://onbeing.org/blog/loaves-and-fishes-are-not-dead/January 17, 2019.

[3] Brueggemann, Walter. The Covenanted Self: Explorations in Law and Covenant(Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1999), 117.

[4] Palmer, Parker. Let Your Life Speak. Chapter 5.

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