If you were going to start writing a memoir today, what story would you put first?
Assume, for the moment, that you aren’t going to start by listing where and when you were born, giving a strictly chronological account of your life.
Maybe you’re going to use a theme of some sort to choose the stories that you’re going to tell: songs that played an influential role in particular periods of your life, or cars that you’ve driven, or animals that you’ve met, or classrooms you’ve taught in.
What story would you put first? It would depend, of course, on the larger story that you wanted to tell. The first story in a collection sets the tone for the rest of the book, so it’s chosen with care.
The same is true of each of the Gospels: the first story about Jesus’ ministry sets a certain theme. In John, that’s the story of a wedding in a little town called Cana. John shows Jesus’ ministry starting off surrounded by friends, saving the day behind the scenes.
Weddings in Jesus’ time were week-long affairs, and here’s the important bit — the wine had to last the whole week. So, of course, the unthinkable happens: the wine runs out.
Jesus’ mother is the one to let him know about the problem, explicitly, although surely he noticed the ripples of whispers over shallow-poured cups.
Why her? Mary represents Israel, and the jars of purification represent the old way of becoming holy enough to be in God’s presence. His mother, representing his heritage of faith, informs him of the problem, and he responds by breathing new life into old depleted ways.
That’s one theory. Here’s another — she was Mary from Nazareth just down the road, and she was probably related to half the residents of Cana anyway, and I bet she was helping in the kitchen. That may not be the kind of symbolism that John is intending here, but it makes sense to me.
The wine ran out and the steward was panicking, so Mary of Nazareth wiped the flour off her hands and onto her dress and told Mary of Cana and Mary of Cedar Holler and Mary of Sheep Lick and the one woman who wasn’t named Mary that she was going to go have a word with her son about this.
Jesus says, “What’s that got to do with you and me? My time hasn’t come yet.” Mary doesn’t even dignify this with a response. She tells the servants (that’s us, in the story) to do whatever her son tells them to do, and then she disappears (back to work, I assume).
So there are these six stone water jars, standing there. Each one held 20 or 30 gallons, so they’re roughly the size of the plastic garbage bin that you wheel out once a week if you live in Wilmington.
That’s a lot of trips back and forth to the well, for whichever servants got saddled with that task, filling those jars all the way to the brim. And then they’re not even in on the joke, as they take a mug of the water they’ve drawn over for the steward to taste test.
Normal practice, of course, was the serve the good wine first when the people could appreciate it, and save the bottom-shelf wine for when the people had been drinking for four or five days and probably just needed the ancient Galilean version of Gatorade.
But what this bridegroom had done, in the steward’s estimation at least, was save the good stuff for last. That’s because Jesus didn’t just make passable wine, like some Two Buck Chuck messiah. He made six garbage bins full of mighty fine wine; that’s how Jesus displayed his glory in the first of his signs.
The point here isn’t that the sign itself is amazing — John already established that Jesus is the embodied Word of God who was with God in the beginning, so finding out that he can do parlor tricks with pantry supplies isn’t a big reveal.
The big reveal is in what this says about who God is. Jesus displayed his glory, in this sign, so the next reasonable question is what is glorious about this story?
We’re trapped, so often, in this myth of scarcity. There’s not enough to go around. We’re about to run out of … whatever it is that we’re hoarding.
So, it’s only reasonable to hold tightly to what we have, whether that’s wisdom or compassion or cake or wine. It’s reasonable to make sure that our own cups are full first, and then share out of our excess.
The myth of scarcity turns every encounter into masks falling from the ceiling of a plane. In that situation, you have to put your own mask on before you can help anyone else — you’re no good to anyone if you’re gasping for oxygen while trying to fit another person’s mask.
That’s true on planes, in that one situation, but we live like people who can’t catch our breath. Don’t contribute too much to charity until your retirement account is looking healthy. Save the good china for the special occasions. Play your cards close to your chest.
When Jesus comes into Galilee with all the grace and truth of the Word of God, making signs to show us what God is like, what we see first off is a way of living that isn’t reasonable at all.
What Jesus is doing here is revealing the face and the love of God. What we see, when we look at Jesus, is a God who comes into a human experience of joy and celebration and unleashes a stunning abundance.
What we see is God the First-Blesser, God who puts on the finishing touch and says now it is very good.
When, in your walk with Christ, have you seen that power of blessing unleashed?
And what do you think would change, for you, if you saw it unleashed more often?
Julie Rudd is Pastor of Wilmington Friends Meeting and member of the Wilmington Area Ministerial Association.