The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
Six Stone Jars Sermon by the Rev. DWHinkle Epiphany 2: Year C January 20, 2019
Lectionary Text: John 2:1-12
“On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ 4And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ 5His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ 6Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. 8He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. 9When 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 10and 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.’ 11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
12 After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there for a few days.“
The Grape Juice Miracle and All Things In Moderation
I grew up Episcopalian because my Mother was Episcopalian. My family of origin, though, is mostly Protestant, with a few Roman Catholics, and even Jewish, atheists and Native American spirituality thrown into the mix. My Dad grew up Methodist and Grandfather rarely drank. Welches grape juice was all we got for communion when we attended Protestant Churches. And the Roman Catholics only got the Bread. So, I liked that we Episcopalians always used real wine for communion and received in both kinds. Dad might have an occasional cold beer to cool off during the dog days of summer. (I still have a couple of his Pilsner glasses.) Other than this, alcohol was generally frowned upon as unnecessary and probably sinful. You shouldn’t hang out with those who drank because, if you did, you might become one of those sinful drinkers yourself.
I remember my Protestant relatives and friends insisting that the story of Jesus turning water into wine was really more like Jesus turning water into grape juice. If Jesus did turn water into wine, it was “new wine” and of very low alcohol content, nothing like the wines of today. The famous American evangelist, Billy Graham, was cited as saying something like this, too. But I just didn’t buy it, because verse ten in our Gospel lesson for today reads:“Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk.”
Now, even as a young boy I knew you couldn’t get drunk on Welch’s grape juice. (I won’t tell you how I knew that.) The fact that Jesus made about 150 gallons of good wine for a bunch of people who were already drunk just didn’t fit the argument that all drinking was sinful. But my “Bible Believing” relatives and friends weren’t going to be swayed from their beliefs about alcohol even by the Bible itself! So, I took comfort in a wise old saying, “All things in moderation,” including alcohol, which I’m pretty sure I picked up from my Episcopal Church, although it’s not necessarily Christian and probably goes back to the Ancient Greek poet Hesiod circa 700 B.C.
We all know the dangers of alcohol addiction and substance abuse in general, so I’m certainly not encouraging anybody to drink in excess, or to drink at all if that’s your conviction or necessity. But if we don’t deal honestly with stories like this, I don’t think we’ll glean from them all that we can. In fact, if you only understand this story to be about the physical transformation of water into wine, you won’t see the deeper meaning of what Jesus was doing. In other words, signs point to something.
Signs Point to Something
Let me illustrate it this way. If you were taking your family to Disney World, and stopped at the first road sign that said “Disney World Ahead”, then set up your lawn chairs, got out the cooler and watched the traffic go by, you’d never actually experience Disney World, would you? John’s gospel describes the miracles of Jesus as signs. Signs are meant to direct us to something beyond themselves. The sign itself is not the thing we are directed to. In this first miracle of Jesus, we often focus on the physical miracle of water being turned into wine and stop there, but the physical miracle is only a sign pointing us to something of even more importance.
I need to side track here for a moment. In the 1990’s, social psychologist, Paul Rozin, did an experiment he called the “Hitler’s Sweater” experiment. Dr. Rozen showed people an old, tattered sweater. He said that the sweater had belonged to Adolf Hitler, and that Hitler had been wearing the sweater the week before his suicide. It hadn’t been washed, and you could even see perspiration stains on it. He then asked people if they’d like to try the sweater on. Most flat out refused. Many people even reported discomfort at being in the same room with the sweater.
Psychologist, Richard Beck writes of this experiment: “What studies like this reveal is that people tend to think about evil as if it were a virus, a disease, or a contagion. Evil is an object that can seep out of Hitler, into the sweater, and, by implication, into you if you try the sweater on. Evil is sticky and contagious. So, we stay away.” This belief about evil being something you can catch from someone else isn’t logical, but it is very powerful. Keep this experiment in mind as we work through Jesus’ first “sign”.
Mary and Jesus
There is an interesting short conversation between Jesus and his mother in this story. Mary brings to his attention the fact that there was no more wine at the wedding. Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright’s translation reads like this:
“The wine ran out. Jesus’s mother came over to him. “They haven’t got any
wine!” she said. “Oh Mother!” replied Jesus. “What’s that got to do with you and
me? My time hasn’t come yet.”
Wright’s translation infers a kind of playfulness between Jesus and his mother, like they knew something the others didn’t. I don’t know, perhaps Jesus had been practicing back home in Nazareth? I’ve read lots of commentaries about this conversation but I think Wright’s translation may have captured the essence of what’s going on, because Mary’s next statement seems to indicate that she knew Jesus was up to something. “His mother spoke to the servants. “Do whatever he tells you,” she said.” That “something” begins in verse 6.
Six Stone Jars
“Six stone water-jars were standing there, ready for use in the Jewish purification rites. Each held about twenty or thirty gallons.” These jars contain clues to what the physical sign is directing us to. These weren’t jars for drinking water; they were jars for use in Jewish purification rites. Ritual purity was very important to some Jewish people at this time. We see it when the Pharisees
question Jesus about his disciples eating without washing their hands in Mark chapter 7. They weren’t thinking of personal hygiene here, but religious purity. Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites when they ask this, not because Jesus was against personal hygiene, but because these purification rituals had become a way for some religious people to see themselves as more righteous than others, causing them to keep themselves separate from people that didn’t practice the same rituals of purification.
Again and again, Jesus would challenge and cross these purity boundaries that the religious leaders thought kept them holy. Let’s think of these six stone jars that represented ritual purity as containers that Jesus, in his coming ministry would transform and fill with something better.
One Stone Jar
According to the Law, if you touched a leper, you risked becoming unclean.
People stayed away from lepers for fear of becoming contaminated, similar to what Paul Rozin found in his Hitler’s Sweater experiment. But when Jesus touched lepers, the lepers became clean!
In the 2nd Temple period in which Jesus lived, rabbis interpreted leprosy as divine punishment for evil. So when Jesus healed lepers, it put the Pharisees in a difficult position. He appeared to be going against God’s divine punishment for the evil the leper had supposedly done, but the healing was so obviously a work of God that it was very difficult to argue against it.
Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when the AIDS epidemic was at its height and we were debating the full acceptance of the LGBTQ community in the church, I remember folks refusing to receive communion with a gay or lesbian person or to drink from the common cup with them. It didn’t matter that I had consulted communicable disease experts who reassured us that it was highly unlikely that we could catch aids or any serious disease from the common cup. Folks were unreasonably afraid they might be somehow contaminated by their LGBTQ neighbors.
Two Stone Jars
According to the law, if you came in contact with a menstruating woman, you were made unclean. (Lev. 15:19) Many believe that the woman with the issue of blood suffered from some kind of uncontrolled menstrual bleeding. When she touched Jesus however, Jesus didn’t become unclean, but she was healed! Jesus sensed that power had gone out from him, but he wasn’t alarmed by it. He commended the woman for her faith and sent her away healed and restored to community. This desperate woman dared to cross a purity boundary and Jesus commended her for that!
Three Stone Jars
According to the law, if you touched a dead body, you would become unclean for seven days. (Num. 19:11) But when Jesus touched the dead body of Jairus’ daughter, she came back to life! And when he touched the bier carrying the woman’s dead son, her son also came back to life.
Four Stone Jars
According to Jewish tradition, if you ate with tax collectors and sinners, you would be defiled. But, when Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, they were made clean. Jesus even said the tax collectors and sinners were entering the Kingdom of God before the religious leaders that were so concerned about their own purity. Scandalous! This was so concerning to the religious leaders that we find them repeatedly confronting Jesus about it. The Pharisees thought Jesus must have been a drunkard and a sinner because of his table companions. One theologian has gone so far as to say that ultimately, Jesus was crucified because of whom he ate with. This small thing really upset the apple cart.
Five Stone Jars
According to the law, if a prostitute touched you, you would risk being considered impure. But when Simon the Pharisee questioned Jesus about the sinful woman washing his feet with her tears and hair, Jesus forgave the woman and rebuked Simon!
Six Stone Jars
Perhaps the most significant example of Jesus crossing purity boundaries was on display in his Passion. The Jews were looking for a Messiah like King David, a warrior king who would violently overthrow the Romans. So, for Jesus to go to his death, especially death on a Roman cross was unimaginable for the Jewish Messiah. In many people’s minds, the way Jesus died was proof that his life was a failure, his teachings were invalid, and any claim about him being the Holy One of God, utterly false. Even the Scriptures declared, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” (Deut. 21:23). Does this mean that all of our African American brothers and sisters who were lynched throughout American history were also cursed by God?
It was in Christ’s enduring all the indignity and impurity of his arrest, false accusations, trial, scourging, crucifixion, abandonment and death, all the things seen to be anathema to being righteous and holy, that Jesus enters and identifies fully with the human condition, all of it, in order to redeem and transform the human condition, all of it, even the most impure of conditions…death.
What Is A Wedding?
“Fill the jars with water,” said Jesus to the servants. And they filled them,
right up to the brim.” (John 2:7) By filling these ritual containers with water, and
then transforming the water into wine, AT A WEDDING, Jesus is giving us a sign.
What is a wedding? A wedding is a place where two separate people become one. A wedding is a place where two unrelated families find a place of unity and relationship. A wedding is a place where friends of the bride, and friends of the groom, who may have had nothing in common, now have a common connection.
By transforming water into wine, using ritual purity vessels, Jesus was transforming the ritual that these stone jars represented, a ritual that had previously been about segregation and separation, a ritual that had created an “us-versus-them” dynamic. Using jars that represented ritual purity at the expense of relationships, Jesus was seeking not to transform just water into wine, but the attitudes of exclusivity based on fear of contamination. Jesus didn’t empty the jars…they were already empty. Jesus filled and transformed rituals that spoke of separation into wine that speaks of celebration and unity.
This sign of turning water into wine is about something more than a physical miracle. This sign, and all of Jesus’ ministry to follow, is meant to reorient our thinking about clean and unclean people. Jesus is asking us to rethink the entire system of holiness codes that these six stone jars represented; and by doing this sign at a wedding, we’re invited to begin to see all of humanity like Jesus did.
Meeting Place Blog by Russ Hewett for
2nd Sunday of Epiphany, 2016