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When The Wine Runs Out

John 2:1-11

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them,
“Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”

Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

 

 

 

“When the Wine Runs Out”

 

I have three siblings. Some years ago I realized that I had “go-to” stories
that I used to describe each of them to strangers. I had subconsciously selected what I thought was most important for others to know about my sister and brothers. Nine times out of ten, I used the same well-worn tale to begin any description of the ones who shared my childhood. I needed my listeners to know that Kathy is a trailblazer, and John is a homebody, and David has an artist’s heart.

I suspect that a similar process shaped the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. When Jesus’ followers organized the stories of his life and ministry into written form, the narratives they placed first expose their assumptions about what matters most. Mark, the earliest gospel, starts his account of Jesus’ ministry with an exorcism—Mark says the most important thing to know is that Jesus came to confront evil. Matthew begins with the Sermon on the Mount—he suggests that we think of Jesus first as a teacher. Luke places Jesus in his hometown synagogue, reading ancient promises of liberation, and offending his neighbors in the process. Luke’s Jesus is the Messiah no one expected.

But John? John begins his description of Jesus’ ministry with a wedding. John is the gospel writer who most insists that Jesus is intimately involved in the lives of his friends, and that through him, we all are intimately involved in the life of God. John begins with a wedding. But the wedding is troubled. In order to understand the nature of the trouble, we need to know more about weddings in Jesus’ day.[1]

Weddings were enormously important events in the life of community. They symbolized not only the uniting of two individuals, but the joining of families. The whole village would be involved, and if it were a first marriage, the celebration would last for seven days. Scholars tell us that on the first day of the celebration the women of the village gathered to bathe and dress the bride. Then there was a grand procession, a dance, to the home of the groom, where the bride was symbolically introduced to the groom’s family.
Festivities would continue there for the rest of the wedding week.

Invited guests, especially close friends, sent gifts of food and wine ahead of time to help the groom’s family make the celebration possible. Social obligations dictated such support. To run out of food or wine at a wedding then, suggests not only a lack of material resources, but a lack of friends. In a culture where honor and shame were at stake in every public interaction, such a deficiency would shame the whole clan. So it’s more than a casual observation that Jesus’ mother makes when she says to him: “They have no wine.”

And then we come to one of the most human moments of the story.
Jesus hesitates to get involved, saying “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” Jesus’ resistance makes me wonder what is at stake for him here.

Were we to read ahead in John’s gospel, we would realize that Jesus’ hour can refer to any moment when the power at work in him is revealed; but ultimately, Jesus’ hour signifies the approach of his death, resurrection and ascension. By allowing others to glimpse his identity at the wedding, he takes his first step toward the cross. I suspect that Jesus resists because of all that waits beyond this threshold.

If that linkage seems forced, it may be helpful to know that Jesus’ mother only appears in two scenes in John’s gospel: here, at the wedding; and then again, at the foot of his cross. She is the bookend to her son’s public ministry. She will spur the beginning, and she will witness the end.

She says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” And so Jesus steps up and provides what is needed for the feast.  He uses what is at hand. The water intended for washing becomes wine that delights the senses and proclaims God’s extravagant love. In the process, the prospect of shame is turned to joy.

But what has this to do with us?

I found myself thinking this week about all the ways that the wine can run out in our lives: when we find ourselves just going through the motions in relationships, when we cannot find meaningful work, when we lose our health, when anxiety or depression overwhelms, when addiction isolates,
when a loved one dies, when God seems absent. When the wine we banked on runs out, we need a solution we cannot manufacture for ourselves.

 

I find it an interesting conjunction that we encounter this story on the same weekend during which we give thanks for the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Like Mary, Dr. King saw the poverty, the lack, that brought shame upon this country. Like Mary, he trusted that something could be done. Like the servants at the wedding, like the water jars standing ready, Dr. King made himself available for God to use.

The late Kayla McClurg wrote this about Dr. King:
“When I reflect on the life and witness of Martin Luther King, Jr., one thing that strikes me is obvious: he didn’t start out to be who he ended up being. He didn’t set out to be a visionary leader, intent on making an impact on the country and culture of his day. He allowed himself to be created. Slowly, layer by layer, choice by choice, he became himself. He didn’t choose “leader of a mass civil rights movement” from a list of vocational options. His identity emerged gradually from within as he yielded to the guidance of the community and listened and prayed and read and participated and took the risks of creativity that were uniquely his to take.….Martin Luther King, Jr. was the minister of a local church, husband and father, a dedicated preacher who devoted hours to preparing sermons that were theologically sound and probing. This was a good fit for him. He wasn’t searching for a new identity. But he found himself interested in Henry David Thoreau’s writings about civil disobedience and Gandhi’s thoughts about nonviolence. He became interested in some folks who were questioning the color barriers in their town and were beginning to devise ways to stand up to them. He didn’t have answers, only questions. He followed the questions, exploring the hints that came layer by layer, thus becoming more of himself.

Thus it was surprising, and yet not surprising at all, that within hours after a seamstress named Rosa Parks had “sat down for what she believed” he had been named spokesperson for a fledgling resistance movement. When he got home and told Coretta what had happened, he said he knew at a gut level that he was being asked inwardly to move beyond words and ideas and to put theory into practice. He said he knew he could no longer stand by and do nothing because to do so was to be a perpetrator of the evil he deplored. Twenty minutes later the same young man who had a reputation for giving sermons only after hours of preparation was standing before a crowd of … 4,000 … speaking extemporaneously of the challenges and opportunities that lay before them.

Part of what he said was this: ‘Sometimes a person gets tired…. We are here this evening to say to those who have mistreated us so long that we are tired—tired of being segregated and humiliated, tired of being kicked by the brutal feet of oppression….We come here tonight to be saved from the patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.’

King knew he had a calling—to be a preacher and a father and a citizen. What he discovered little by little was that these dreams would be fulfilled far beyond his imagination.”[2]

 

Following the pattern set by his Lord, Dr. King’s radical obedience brought his own ‘hour’ closer. His faith did not save him from suffering—we are not promised that—but suffering and death do not get to be the last words about his life or any life.

Friends, sometimes observing that the wine has run out is the beginning of new life, of salvation, of healing, of call. When the wine on which we have counted runs out—in our marriages or workplaces, in doctors’ offices or sanctuaries—when that wine runs out and the plans we have made come to naught, John suggests that’s the moment Jesus is most likely to reveal himself. That’s the moment we are called to disavow the power of shame and to make ourselves available for God’s use. In the process it may be that we will discover a depth of purpose and joy beyond our imagining.

John’s Jesus says that he has come that we may have life, and have it abundantly. Let that be the story people tell about you.

[1] see Bruce C Malina and Richard L Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998, 70-71 for summary information

[2] I believe I first encountered this quotation on the Church of the Saviour’s InwardOutward website, which has been reconfigured since Kayla McClurg’s death. It’s currently available on multiple other sites.

Margaret LaMotte Torrence , Interim Pastor

Email: margaret@upcch.org

Phone: 919.929.2102 ext. 111

Bio:

Margaret came to serve as UPC’s interim pastor in September, 2017. She expects to remain in Chapel Hill until a new pastor is called, likely in 2019. She grew up in Sarasota, Florida, living across the street from the church her father served. Margaret met her husband, Lee, when they were first-year students at Davidson College. She did not sense a call to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament until she was in her 30s. By that point their family also included a son, Nate, and a daughter, Hanna. They all moved from California to Princeton—to begin seminary, kindergarten and preschool respectively—while Lee worked to make it all possible. In the intervening years, Margaret has served churches in New Jersey, North Carolina and Florida. She and Lee live near Asheville, in a home they share with Margaret’s parents. Margaret considers it a great privilege to serve in community with others who are seeking to hear God’s voice and to follow that leading. She is grateful for the many sisters and brothers who have shared their lives and stories along the way. When she is at home in the mountains, she finds particular joy in hiking, gardening, stacking stones, and volunteering with a remarkable ministry known as the Haywood Street congregation. Margaret frequently leads conference worship in Montreat.