When the Wine Runs Out
Have you ever been in that awkward position where a party has been planned, it’s not your party, but you know that something has gone wrong, and you know someone who can fix it. Like when someone tells me that they are panicked because the DJ for their teenager’s birthday party has had to cancel…I immediately go into “who do I know” mode. Or, if someone tells me that they had ordered a cake, but the decorator has gotten sick, I immediately mentally start down the list of other bakers I have used or known through the years I’ve lived in Memphis. You do it, too…if someone is having a party catered and the caterer all of a sudden has to go out of town, what do you do when your friend calls you in a panic?
Well, Mary, the mother of Jesus, along with Jesus and the disciples are at a wedding in Cana, a small town in Galilee, presumably not far from Nazareth, where Jesus grew up. We aren’t sure exactly where Cana was. There are 3 possible modern towns that might have been ancient Cana, somewhere 5-9 miles from Nazareth. There are all kinds of guesses for why Mary went to Jesus when she finds out the wine runs out. Could it mean his brother was the groom? Maybe. Could it mean that Mary wanted everyone to know who Jesus really was? Maybe. Here’s what makes sense to me that is based on what we know happened. Mary found out that the wine had run out. A wedding celebration lasted 7 days, and to run out of wine before it was over was an embarrassment to the host – some say it could even bring dishonor on the family name – at minimum it meant that all of a sudden the host was stressed – like a dance party with no DJ or a wedding with no cake or a catered event with no caterer. And Mary knows what is going on…and she knows Jesus can do something about it.
“Jesus, they are out of wine.” “Woman, what does that have to do with me? My time has not come yet.” A lot has been made over Jesus calling his mother “Woman.” The word is actually the word for addressing “my wife or my lady,” Jesus is saying “ma’am.” He is showing respect, but he is also not willing to make a show of himself or overshadow the bride and groom or embarrass the host. He is not going to suddenly be the benefactor of the party. Now, some have considered that maybe, since Mary is coming to Jesus with this problem, the wedding was a family wedding, one of Jesus’ brothers perhaps. Maybe. Nothing in the text suggests that it is. It’s not in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, or even the town he adopts during his ministry as hometown, Capernaum. So, I think this comment may actually be to confirm for us that this is NOT someone that Jesus is related to…what does that have to do with me? The wine is out. The party is over. I have no obligation to act. And, he says, “My time has not come yet.” Mary knows Jesus is from God. She sees that he could reveal himself here. And he says, “No. This day is not about me. This is a wedding. I’m not going to overshadow it. It’s not the time yet.” It has nothing to do with what Jesus can or can’t do, or what Jesus cares about, or even what Jesus will do because of his heart, his compassion, and Mary knows it.
Mary turns to the servants, the seen but not heard, the present but not acknowledged. “Do whatever he tells you.”
Pause right here. Why does John record this event? It’s a wedding, and they are out of wine. The other Gospels don’t include it. It’s certainly not one of only a few miracles Jesus performed – he healed people everywhere he went, he provided meals for multitudes multiple times… Remember John wasn’t written until 60 or 70 years after Jesus’ lifetime. It’s the end of the first Century. Life expectancy in that time was not as long as life expectancy today. Very few, if anyone, was still alive from the time of Jesus. So, it had become important to be more clear about the meaning of his life as it is passed down. John’s Gospel is more concerned with the theology of Jesus’ life than Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John lays out: these are the stories of Jesus’ life and this is what they mean. The last verse of John says, “Jesus did many other things as well. If all of them were recorded, I imagine the world itself wouldn’t have enough room for the scrolls that would be written.” So, why does John preserve this story?
First, notice that John begins with “on the third day” – he is cluing us in that he is going to use this story as a foil to reveal more to us about the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection. The other clue is that Jesus’ mother, Mary, is here. The only other time John includes Mary in a story about Jesus is as she stands at the foot of the cross. It is the bridegroom who supplies the wine, and here Jesus is identified as the bridegroom of the church, his bride. Jesus uses the traditional, Jewish purification water jars used for ritual washing, identifying himself with the Jewish tradition and hope for a Messiah. John is cluing us in that in Jesus, God is doing a new thing from within the old. Jesus is the one for whom Israel has been waiting. Just look at his glory, says John, 6 purification jars that each held between 20 and 30 gallons of water turned into wine. They are hand-hewn limestone, so they are not exactly the same size. Some are bigger than others. Most are close to 25 gallons. So Jesus turned somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 gallons of water, that’s about 757 bottles or 63 cases, into wine. It takes a ton of grapes to make that much wine. That’s a lot of wine. And when the headwaiter tasted it, he was impressed. He called over the groom and commented on the quality. “Everyone serves the grand vin, the reserve, first and then they bring out the second wine, the wine made from grapes from the second harvest or from young vine. But you’ve saved the best wine for last!
John is not making a statement about alcohol. It was an everyday part of life. John is making a statement about abundance and a statement about timing. The wine ran out, and Jesus provided not just enough, there was SO MUCH wine. And yet, it was only 6 jars full. John utilizes the numeric symbolism of the day. The number 6 is the penultimate number, 7 is the number of completion, so 6 is just shy of fulfillment. John is revealing to us, the reader, that Jesus’ time had not come yet, the best will come at the last, God’s glory will be revealed in Jesus at last, and it is close, but not yet completely fulfilled.
The only people who know what happens at the time of the miracle are Jesus’ inner circle – Mary and the disciples – and the servants. It was not time yet for him to reveal himself to all. Notice, the first to know were the least who were there.
Mary turns to the servants and says simply, “Do whatever he tells you.” She knows Jesus will not turn his back. He will do something to make sure the party goes off without a hitch.
What about us, when the wine runs out? When the end of the rope is just about to slip through our hands? When we just don’t have any more to give? When we are overwhelmed and underequipped? When we have failed to plan and prepare? When we face embarrassment? When we feel like we just aren’t enough?
First, Jesus cares. Jesus cared about the host’s embarrassment. He had compassion for their situation, and Jesus cares about ours. No situation is trivial. No pain or struggle, or party gone awry, is less than what Jesus cares about because Jesus cares about you.
Second, Jesus knows we can’t transform our lives on our own. Jesus saw their empty purification jars and knew they weren’t enough. The rituals for purification washed your feet and hands, but they were more than that. They were confessional; the wedding guests had washed with these jars as they arrived to be ritually clean for the wedding. The water was poured to cleanse not just the outside, but the inside. To not just refresh, but restore. Jesus could have had the servants fill the empty wine flasks with water and turned that into wine. It isn’t Jesus’ hour yet, but John is recalling this interaction and seeing the deeper meaning in it. Jesus transforms our purification. We are no longer left trying to make ourselves ritually pure. It is Jesus who brings transformation, and that transformation is to wine.
Wine is a sign of blessing in the Hebrew Scriptures. The prophets talked about wine as a sign of the age to come. Isaiah had foretold, “On the day God swallows up death forever and wipes away every tear, the Lord “will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, or aged wine will refined” (Isaiah 24:6). Amos had spoken of the day that God will again be God to all the clans of Israel, He will restore their fortunes, “they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine” (Amos 9:14), Jeremiah says “they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil” (Jeremiah 31:12). And Joel assures that God promises to restore to Israel the threshing floors will be full of grain and “the vats shall overflow with wine and oil” (Joel 2:24-25).
Jesus turning water into wine is not a parlor trick, or a convenient use of extraordinary power to save face, it is a sign that God is doing a new thing with their old ways. God is transforming and blessing.
The promise for us is that God is still transforming and blessing whenever we follow Mary’s instruction, “Do whatever he tells you.” The teachings of Jesus are not the ways of this world. But they are the way of transformation. They are the way of blessing. They are the way to God’s Kingdom.
Unfortunately, we often have to have run dry before we are willing to turn to Jesus for help. We live life, throw parties, …until something happens. And all of a sudden, the party is over. Or maybe you are like Mary and you know someone whose party has come to a sudden halt, the wine has run out. Who do you know, who can fix it? Jesus. Do whatever he tells you. Over the coming months, we will be focused on encounters with Jesus. What happens when people encounter Jesus? What does Jesus tell the people he encounters to do?
Love your enemies. Forgive seventy times seven. Pray in faith. Feed my sheep. When you feast, call the poor, the hurt, the crippled, the blind to join you. Be a servant. Love the Lord. Love your neighbor. Follow me and you will gather in people. Abide in me and you will bring forth much fruit – maybe even a ton.
Do whatever he tells you. And your life will be transformed. And you will be overwhelmed by the abundance of joy! Amen.