Water, wine, wedding banquets; these all have powerful resonance in the Bible. Water is the primordial stuff, which is separated at the creation right at the beginning of the book of Genesis (chapter 1). It is a gut feeling that water is the foundation of life and there was great excitement when the probe on Mars discovered the presence of water back in September. With water life is possible. Without it, it is not. Noah found that you can have too much water when the flood overwhelmed everything around him and his floating boat provided a rescue ship. There have been many in the north who have felt the same recently. Water in the story of Noah becomes the agent of a new start and a hope based on the promise that God treasures his creation so he won’t let go of it. The people of Israel are rescued from Pharaoh’s oppressive grip by passing through the waters of the Red Sea and 40 years later they cross the Jordan to enter the Promised Land. It is at that same river that John the Baptist announces the Kingdom of God and baptizes as a preparation for it and a sign of their willingness to embrace it. Water has become the symbol of our new birth in Christ, passing through the waters of death, of Noah and Pharaoh, and emerging as children of the new covenant in Christ in baptism.
Wine is the fruit of the vine. It is the sign of settlement, of celebration, of fruitful harvest and God’s bounty. Wine is also a sign of the Kingdom of God because it is drunk at celebrations and occasions of relaxation when there is security and peace. It is a symbol of status. The image of the vine and the vineyard is an evocative one in the Old Testament. Isaiah used it as a symbol of God’s nurture of his people and also of his expectation that the people would live faithfully and in justice. Healthy branches are fed by being connected to the vine. Unfruitful branches are pruned away by the vinedresser. The image is one of judgment and being called to account. So a drink of celebration is the result of faithfulness and honouring the covenant. When that is not present there is no party. Wine celebrates being in harmony with God, it celebrates nurture giving rise to his Kingdom.
There is a story in the Old Testament of a dispute over a vineyard. Land was held as part of a family inheritance. It could be bought and sold but the king had no power to take it off someone without good reason. To do so was to damage the identity of a people of promise, of covenant and their chosen status. When the 9th century BC king Ahab took a fancy to a vineyard belonging to one Naboth, it bought him into direct conflict with the prophet Elijah. The king had acted unjustly and not in accordance with a people of promise. It uses colourful language. ‘The dogs will lick up Ahab’s blood in the place where they licked Naboth’s.’ And sure enough it does indeed happen. (1 Kings 21)
So wine brought settlement, promise and celebration. It brought a relationship founded in their identity which in turn required lives of faithfulness and justice.
The wedding banquet is a symbol of heaven. It is the union of two people which in many cases and for a tribal society leads to the continuity of the line. There is a future to celebrate. The bride and groom union is a symbol of Christ and his Church joined together. The commitment is total. The bringing together is a covenant relationship, one that cannot be broken without significant disruption to who we are, our identity and our place. The wedding brings families together, one of those moments when scattered people gather and realize their affinity and the family group expands to incorporate new members, the family tree entwines with another and the bonds of humanity are strengthened – at least in part. It is therefore a symbol of openness and union, of bringing together through the power and inescapable force of love. Love is what moves us forward and stabilizes who we are.
These allusions and images are present in our Gospel reading (John 2:1-11). It brought us water, wine and a wedding banquet. The water was in the stone jars of purification. Water to wash with, water to be symbolically clean through a rite of purification. It is these jars that are used to solve a catering problem when the wine runs out. Had they not bought enough, had the guests turned out to be more thirsty than expected or were there more of them than anticipated? The old wine runs out and the symbol is that the old covenant is about to be superseded. In Christ a new order is about to be let loose. The miracle of the water being transformed into wine of a far superior quality also uses the stone water jars for purification, which belonged to the old covenant and practices. These too are transformed through Christ’s redemption, his salvation, his fulfillment of their promise with a new promise. The old rites disappear because they are replaced by something more effective; they are trumped.
The setting is a wedding banquet and Jesus is a guest with his mother and his disciples. It is his mother who sets him up. She knows he can sort the problem. You can hear the humour in the text.
Mary to Jesus: ‘Do something, they have no wine left. There will be a scandal.’
Jesus to Mary: ‘What’s it got to do with me? It’s not time for me to make a splash yet. Leave it mother.’
Mary to the servants: ‘Do whatever he tells you’. In other words, Jesus is owned, his mother reminds him that while she’s in the room he is still her child! Poor man.
This story is the moment in John’s gospel when Jesus reveals who he is through the sign that is performed. It is not merely a catering trick, and we have no way of knowing if it really happened or if John is using one of his literary devices to make a point. The symbolic value of the constituent parts being the point he makes and all the allusions it touches.
Water, wine and a wedding banquet. This first of the signs that Jesus performed, at which who he was made known, brings us the foundations of the universe, of life. It connects us with new life in the waters of baptism, of liberation from all that oppresses. God’s bounty is affirmed in the wine and the fruitful nurture which comes through him. Justice is required and issues its challenge to how we live. All of these are set in the context of a wedding banquet, where the power of love is affirmed and seen to triumph.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 17th January 2016