As we make our way through a sermon series focusing on water stories in the gospels, I’m aware that today’s story is rather different from the others. We started with a seaside account of Jesus’ breakfast on the beach with his disciples following his resurrection, then looked at Jesus’ baptism by John, and last week considered the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. The Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River, and a well supplying a whole community with water were our settings for those other stories. Today we’re suddenly talking about containers full of water, not to mention their transformation into something that isn’t even water. So if we were singing, “one of these things is not like the others,” as they did on Sesame Street when I was a kid, this would be the story not like the others.
But as water stories go, you’ve got to admit this is a fun one. And if one of the things we’ve been taking away from all these water stories in the gospels is that Jesus is all about defying expectations, turning worrisome situations around, bringing life and joy and abundance wherever he goes, then perhaps today’s story isn’t all that different after all.
I just love the wonderfully down-to-earth way John talks about Jesus in the role of wedding guest, at the marriage of this couple in Cana. A completely anonymous couple, so they probably weren’t wealthy or powerful or well-known. Just a regular bride and groom getting married in a regular setting. It’s for such as these that Jesus intervenes. And the story is all the more delightful because Jesus’ mom gets in on the action. The text places us in the middle of the wedding banquet, actually – by the time we tune in, the wine has already given out.
Weddings in the ancient world were large-scale celebrations – they often went on for several days, and it would not have been uncommon for a whole town to be invited to join the party. Plenty of hard-earned cash was spent to ensure that in addition to tables loaded down with food, wine would flow in abundance. And if the wine were actually to give out partway through, it would have been nothing short of “social disaster.”
It’s precisely at the brink of such a social disaster that the narrator allows us to listen in on the conversation between two of the wedding guests, Jesus and his mother. It’s classic, isn’t it? “Son, they’ve just run out of wine.” No answer. “Jesus, did you hear me say they’d just run out of wine? Out of wine, of all things. And this a wedding feast. What a shame. . . A shame, I said, Jesus. . . Isn’t it a shame, I said.” “What was that, Mom? I couldn’t hear you. But these folks sure know how to throw a party, don’t they?” “Son!” “What?” “I said, THEY HAVE NO MORE WINE.”
You could argue that she wasn’t making a request exactly. . . At least no more than I am when I mention to my husband or daughter over the phone that we’re out of peanut butter at home. . . We can also tell from Jesus’ response that he knew what she meant. Her words said “they have no more wine” but something in her tone of voice or the way she looked at him must have said “take care of it, would you, sweetheart?”
So what’s with Jesus’ reply? In the English translation we heard this morning he says “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” He seems to have been using a common Hebrew expression, “ma li leka” – literally ‘what to me to you?’ And as you might imagine, biblical commentators love to weigh in on stuff like this – Was Jesus being rude to his mama, as it first appears in the English? Was he just trying not to draw attention to himself and away from the happy couple? Was he simply having too good a time at the wedding to be bothered, (as I suppose I’ve implied in my somewhat irreverent paraphrase)? Eugene Peterson has fun with this line too in his take on John 2 in The Message: “Is that any of our business, Mother?”
But of course whatever explanation we choose also has to account for the second part of what Jesus says: “my hour has not yet come.” This is loaded theological language in John. Among other things, it implies here that Jesus is free from all human controls, even from the directions of his own mother. His actions, he seems to be explaining, are to be governed by God’s timing alone.
Now interestingly enough, Mary doesn’t seem particularly put off by either part of his response. She just turns to the servants and says “Do whatever he tells you.” Much as I love her spunk here, I imagine the author would also have us note the tremendous faith this woman has in her son. Her son who, as she knows, but few others do at this point, is also God’s Son. You see, Mary knows that if her Jesus takes this on, the problem will somehow be resolved. And so she acts as a catalyst for the very first of Jesus’ miracles in the gospel of John. It’s a story of mother-as-“model disciple: she trusts that Jesus will act and [then] allows him to act in freedom.” And what he does, of course, knocks the socks off the servants, wine steward, bridegroom and disciples alike. Turning water into wine, “turning scarcity into abundance,” and kicking off an earthly ministry which will be all about defying expectations and bestowing “grace upon grace” (John 1:16). For notice that the wine Jesus comes up with here isn’t just any wine, but the best of the lot. And were you listening to those measurements given in the text? We’re talking whole bathtubs full of excellent wine.
Incidentally, the only other place in John’s gospel where the mother of Jesus is mentioned is at his death. And there too, at the foot of the cross, we find an intimately human portrait of Christ. With his dying breath he takes pains to make sure mom is well cared-for after he is gone, saying to her: “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple whom he loved, “Here is your mother.” A single act that emphasizes his humanity and at the same time makes clear that his visit here on earth, in an ordinary human family, has now come to an end. The Word had become flesh and dwelt among us, but now it was time for the Word to return from whence he came. Jesus’ mother is present in that final scene of his life, just as she is present when the curtain first rises on his earthly ministry here in Cana.
And one more quick note about those two Mary stories in John - at Cana and the cross. I like to play around with little linguistic details in the text sometimes, and I love the fact that John introduces the wedding scene at Cana as one that takes place “on the third day.” I realize it may be a throw-away line. This may have all just happened to take place a few days after the first disciples were called. But “on the third day” is such a rich phrase for those of us who know the full story of Mary’s son. That it would be “the third day” on which this beautifully extravagant wedding feast takes place reminds me of other biblical texts that talk about the kingdom of God itself as a great wedding banquet, a feast of abundance to which all are invited.
A communion Sunday is the perfect time to look ahead to that feast to come. For if over the last few weeks we’ve seen that God’s amazing grace brings with it empty fishing nets suddenly full to bursting, and living water pouring into the parched places of our lives, here in this wedding feast at Cana we also find a foretaste of an abundant heavenly banquet.
So when we celebrate communion this morning, I invite you to remember the divine gift we were given on the day Jesus’ own mother had to watch him hanging on the cross. The Word-become-flesh allowed death, which ultimately claims all human life, to claim him as well.
But remember, too, that on the third day after Jesus spoke those parting words to his mother, the stone was rolled away from the tomb. And then this mother’s son, who always enjoyed a good party, knocked the socks off death itself, inviting us to join him in the most extravagant celebration the world has ever known.
As his first disciples were learning on that wedding day in Cana, as disciples like us keep on learning - when you hang around with Jesus, abundant, overflowing grace is just the name of the game!
 Frances Taylor Gench, “Women and the Word: Studies in the Gospel of John” 2000-2001 Horizons Bible Study, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), p. 11
 O’Day, p. 295.
 O’Day, p. 295.