What does John’s account of turning water into wine mean for us today?

A sermon based on the story of the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11).

As I was sitting in church last week my eye was caught on one of the slides shown before the service. It was publicising the topic for today’s service: “What does John’s account of turning water into wine mean for us today?” I was intrigued and looked forward to that service. Unfortunately the following morning I had a phone call from Mandy to say that she wasn’t going to be able to take the service and asking if I could stand in for her. I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t going to hear her answer, but decided I’d keep her theme and have a go at answering the question myself.

This quesion relates, of course, to the set lectionary reading for today, the very familiar story of Jesus at a wedding in Cana. The wine runs out at the party and, reluctant but urged on by his mother, Jesus rescues the situation by turning water into wine. It is fundamentally, of course, a miracle story. A miracle story that marked the start of Jesus’ ministry (according to John’s Gospel). The final verse of the reading makes it clear that this is why the author considers it important, “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” For almost all of Christian history this is how Christians have found meaning in the story. Jesus performed a miracle and by doing so revealed who he was.

The question Mandy posed though isn’t “What has this story meant for generations of Christians in the past?” It is “What does it mean for us today?” How do we, in the modern world, respond to miracle stories? How do we respond to this story?

We can try and respond scientifically. I’ve managed to find a scientific paper that looks at the physical chemistry behind turning water into wine. The fundamental difference is that wine contains alcohol (let’s assume about 12% of the total 20 gallons). This alcohol could have come through a chemical reaction between water and carbon dioxide in the air in the room. When you do the sums, you find out that this takes energy, which is why it doesn’t happen spontaneously and why you can’t just leave a glass of water out and wait for it turn into Shiraz (or Prosecco depending on your preference). When you calculate how much energy it turns out to be equivalent to boiling a standard kettle about 500 times. Where did all that energy come from?

Alternatively, assuming that the carbon dioxide has come from the air but knowing that it is only present in the atmosphere in very small quantities, you can ask how much air would have been needed? It turns out you’d need all the carbon dioxide from a room about 25 times the size of this church. Where did it come from?

When we mix modern science with ancient miracle stories, we conclude that those stories are even more mind-blowing than our ancestors have ever appreciated. The ancients would certainly have seen this miracle as an amazing feat but one amongst so many other things they didn’t understand about how the world functions. We see it as something that is simply not possible, even non-sensical, given our current understanding of how the physical and chemical worlds behave. Some people will say, “Well of course, this just shows how God is more marvellous, more powerful, more awe-inspiring than previous generations could possibly have imagined”. If you are one of them, then that is fine. Others will want to ask, “Are there other ways of reading this story which might bring out a different meaning?

The story is one about how Jesus fulfils a need. People are at a party, they are having a good time. They’re eating and drinking, they are singing and dancing, they are catching up and sharing news and jokes. They feel good about themselves and the lives they are leading. All the world seems rosy and then … the wine runs out. Let’s put aside Methodist concerns that alcohol shouldn’t be a pre-requisite for having a good time, and accept the host’s concerns that this is a disaster. The bubble risks being burst – the party will be over.

Jesus doesn’t want to act, but he does. He turns the water into wine. Not any old wine, not the wine that had been served earlier in the evening but a wine that the guests recognise as the best wine they have ever drunk, and in huge quantities, (20 gallons is about 120 bottles). The need has not only been fulfilled but it has been fulfilled completely and extravagantly. Later in John’s gospel (John 10:10) Jesus says he has come so that other people may have life, life in all its fulness. In John’s gospel this is the first story of Jesus’ ministry, and it is a story of Jesus bringing life in all its fulness.

This story speaks to the modern world. For the last hundred years at least, those of us in the affluent west have partied. We’ve seen wonderful scientific and economic advances. Our standard of living has improved generation upon generation, decade upon decade. In the last twenty years we’ve even seen these advances spill over to the Global South. There also standards of life have been increasing, maternal and child health has been improving, education, particularly for girls and young women has become more widely available. We’ve felt good about ourselves and the lives we were leading And the world has seemed rosy and then … the wine has run out.

The biggest issue that confronts us is climate change and the simple realisation that we cannot continue living on a finite planet as if we had infinite resources. More immediately we are confronted with a pandemic. Early on this seemed to be something we could all face together united, but we now watch fearfully as that robust coalition dissolves and we feel left to fend for ourselves. There is political instablility in the Middle East and between Russia and the west. Within our own country and throughout the world there is a growing division between those who have much and those who have little. The growing power of amoral multinational corporations leave us feeling we have little control. We recognise our deteriorating mental health not as an illness of individuals but as the inevitable response to the society in which we are all living. It feels to me at least as if the bubble is going to burst – that the party is coming to an end.

Maybe what this story means for us today is that we need to look for new wine The current wine, the wine that leaves a sour aftertaste and an awful hangover, is running out. We need to replace it with something altogether different that satisfies deeply and permanently. Jesus came to bring life in all its fulness, and we need to drink from that cup of life. The good news for us is that that choice is open to us today. All we need do is love our God and love our neighbour as we love ourselves. The even better news is that whatever experiences confront us in life, however our lives are transformed by factors beyond our control, there will always be opportunities to love God and love each other – to live life in all its fulness in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.

It’s a simple choice but not necessarily an easy one. Each of us will feel confronted by different barriers. As I write this, I reflect on myself living in a large house which seems empty now the children have left but venturing out of it less and less. I’m spending even more time in it now I’m trying to concentrate on writing a book. I find myself having invested a lot in earlier career choices and having quite a limited pool of friends who I want to spend time with now. I feel myself shrivelling up and maybe even having lost the skills to engage with and love others.

One thing is clear as I reflect upon this story, new wine, however wonderful, will satisfy very little if it is not shared. You cannot party alone. In a world in which Christianity has become more and more focussed on individual salvation, this story reminds us of the importance of community. The new wine was not offered to an individual, it was shared by all. Maybe the meaning of this story for me today is that I need to seek out a new, more satisfying wine, to relearn how to engage with others and rediscover what loving my neighbour really means. It’s not magic, but putting it into practice might just work a miracle.

We are all different. The barriers that prevent me drinking this new wine that will be different from those that prevent you drinking from the same cup. So as I finish this sermon I want to offer a few moments of silence in which each of you can reflect on what it is that is holding you back from drinking the new wine.

What is it that is holding you back from loving your God and loving your neighbour?

What is holding you back from living life in all its fulness?

After a few moments of silent reflection we then joined in singing this song:

An aside

In preparing for the sermon I watched a number of clips of filmed versions of the story on YouTube. It interested me that each bought out quite a different aspects of what I thought was quite a simple story:


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