There’s an old saying that goes: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” We know the truth of this, which is why children get sent to the first day of school to meet their new teachers with new clothes and fresh haircuts. For the same reason, we go to job interviews with carefully selected outfits, our shoes shined, and having looked over once again our resumes and the information we have about the job and the company – so those details will be clear in our minds. Even in our personal lives, a first date or meeting our sweetheart’s family for the first time will cause us to be a little nervous and take extra care with the way we present ourselves. First things matter.
At the same time, there is also the saying: “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” meaning, of course, that a person’s outward appearance, the way we first see them, the external circumstances of their lives, may often be misleading about their personality, their dependability, their character or truthfulness, whether or not they have a good sense of humor, whether they are people of justice and loving-kindness. This truth is what Martin Luther King highlighted so eloquently fifty-two years ago in his “I Have a Dream” speech: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” The truth of a person will, given time and opportunity, be revealed.
Both of these truths are operating in our Gospel reading this morning. This is an odd story in many ways, and it’s meaning is found on several different levels, as is usually the case with the way John tells things (as opposed to Matthew, Mark, and Luke). It is very early on in Jesus’ ministry: he has just been baptized by his cousin John (with very different details than the other three versions); John has identified him publically as the Messiah, the Lamb of God and pointed him out to some of John’s own followers; Andrew, Peter, Philip, and Nathanael have become Jesus’ followers; and they have all travelled together a few day’s journey from the site on the Jordan River where John was baptizing, to the town of Cana in Galilee, where they met up with Jesus’ mother who was a guest at a wedding – perhaps Jesus had been invited, too.
Jewish weddings, in the ancient world, were three day affairs – and, truth to tell, many weddings of all different traditions in New Jersey have become the same, at least for the wedding party. The feast went on, under the management of the steward (banquet manager), and the wine for the party must not run out. That would have been a major faux pas and embarrassment to the groom and his family. But that is exactly what happens – and this is where the story starts to get odd.
Mary, although not mentioned by name, tells Jesus that the wine has run out. Whether the guests were enjoying themselves too much or the wedding budget was very limited, we don’t know. Mary says to Jesus: "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." Woah, that’s a bit rude! And Mary’s response is to say to the servers working the party: "Do whatever he tells you,” putting any decision or refusal squarely back on Jesus. What we don’t know is what took place between Jesus’ protest and Mary’s directive to the servers. I wonder if Mary gave him “the look” – that wordless communication that often happens between parent and child that can say so much; in this case meaning: You may not think you’re ready, but you are; don’t let feeling uncomfortable hold you back; you have an opportunity to help these folks and now would be a good time to act; I love you, I trust you; It’s time for you to be who you are.
Jesus then tells the servers to fills the huge stone jars with water, serve some out and take it to the banquet manager, who samples it and then congratulates the groom on having in reserve some wine of exceptional quality. And we’re not talking about a little extra tucked away, but the equivalent of a thousand bottles of wine, a super-abundance, grace upon grace!
Because that’s what this story is all about – God’s grace revealed in and through Jesus. John takes the time to tell us that this was the first of the signs that Jesus did, his first miracle (again, different from the other three Gospel accounts). This is the first impression of Jesus that John wants us to have; the first thing that he wants us to know. What is revealed here is that Jesus is filled with God’s creative power and energy. We first know God in Scripture as the Creator and John makes it plain that Jesus is intimately involved with creation, enough that at his word the water becomes wine, just as at God’s word the universe came into existence. Another part of that first impression of grace is that this sign takes place at a wedding reception – an event of joy, celebration, love, and life. That tells us that God cares deeply about our human joys; and that every celebration of a family, a wedding, a birth or birthday, the Eucharist is a prelude, a foretaste of the celebration, the banquet that God will host when his Kingdom comes in all its fullness. The quality of the wine is a measure of God’s goodness - no stinting here; there is no end to the love and mercy and grace God longs to lavish upon us. The image of a banquet communicates that so clearly!
God’s grace - his goodness and favor towards us which we have done nothing to earn or deserve – comes first. That’s what John wants us to see and to know first about Jesus. He is both the agent and the embodiment of grace. And in this portion of Jesus’s story, that quality of grace is revealed by his mother pushing him along a bit. How often do we need a parent, or spouse, or someone we trust to push us along, to hold us accountable for being the best that they know we can be, even when we feel hesitant? God’s grace can come to us in many different forms and ways. There are times when we will feel God’s grace directly in our heart or soul; there are other times grace comes to us through a word or look or gesture. What matters is that God’s grace always “precedes and follows us”, as the Prayer Book says; and that is the first thing we need to know about the God who came among us in the person of Jesus, and is with us still, even unto the end of the age.
Let us pray.
Lord God, we thank you for your goodness, mercy, love, and grace as revealed in Christ our Lord. May your grace live and grow in each one of us, and be revealed in all that we say and do, so that your Kingdom may be fulfilled, and that we may give glory to you. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Second Sunday after Epiphany
January 17, 2016