Reflections on John 2:1-11, delivered at St Paul’s Episcopal Church, Seattle.
“You give your people drink from the river of your delights.”
Imagine you’re on your way into church and feeling just a little parched — would you pause for a sip of water … from the baptismal font?
Let’s make it a little more appealing. Let’s say, one day, that the font was emptied of its usual water and filled with — whatever brings you joy: apple juice, Diet Coke with Lime, pinot noir, whatever — then would you drink from it?
This may seem like a strange hypothetical with which to begin a sermon, but today’s gospel is a strange miracle that begins Christ’s ministry. At a wedding, Jesus takes water, the sustaining elixir of life, and transforms that water into wine, a substance associated with rare celebrations of joy; the psalmist notes that wine makes glad the heart. Weddings were one of the rare times that people would have the opportunity to drink wine, where it is offered as a display of the new couple’s hospitality, and this must have been some wedding, because they ran out early. Jesus, being made aware of the problem, tells the servants to fill the nearby jars with water, which becomes wine — that the steward, not knowing where the wine had come from, says is good, and the celebration continues on.
What a strange miracle. Strange, certainly, because the creator of all that is, the creator of oceans and rain and grapes, the divine force behind growth and fermentation and metabolization, makes his first ever in-human-form display of power … in the corner of a wedding … where the only people who notice are the disciples who were already following him, and a small number of servants … and all for the seemingly insignificant cause of a party’s continuation.
Not only is this miracle strange, but there’s something strange in the narration of the miracle, because John makes sure the audience knows this detail: that nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used for Jewish purification rites, the kind used for ceremonial washing.
Now, when the text says “ceremonial washing” here — this is not simply a matter of washing one’s hands before getting in line for the buffet. Purification, for the Jewish people, for the guests at this wedding, was a highly spiritual matter, tied to holiness and sanctity. So while the stone jars are acceptable vessels for holy water and wine is acceptable at a celebration, you just wouldn’t put wine in the jars meant for ceremonial washing. It would be impure, unholy. Sacrilegious.
So when Jesus tells the servants to draw from the jars and bring it to the steward — I have to imagine that in their minds, it’s still water. Because you just wouldn’t give a man wine from a stone jar. I imagine their shock … when the steward puts it in his mouth, “not knowing where it had come from” and names it the best wine of the celebration.
It is shocking that Jesus seems to prank the steward into drinking unclean wine — worse, pranks him into enjoying unclean wine. Equally unnerving is the realization that he seems to violate his community’s ritual norms and customs on purpose. At a celebration of this size, wine would be stored in long clay jars with handles for easy pouring. Presumably, since there had been wine, there would have been some empty containers around, ready to be refilled.
But Jesus chooses the container for ceremonial washing, large jars with thick stone walls — actually, picture a slightly taller version of our baptismal font, remove the polish, and you’re pretty much there. Jesus chooses these vessels, these jars for ceremonial washing, knowing that the steward wouldn’t drink it if he knew where it came from.
We don’t hear about the rest of the party, but because the jars were basically immovable, the servants wouldn’t be able to circle with them to fill people’s cups. I imagine the guests, dressed in their best, faithful observers their religious customs, their cups running low, coming in pairs and small groups in search of more wine only to find themselves standing before the ceremonial washing jars … debating … would they accept this hospitality, would they imbibe of the wine that makes glad the heart, would they continue their joyful celebration —- or would they maintain their sanctity and purity?
Would you drink wine from a font in order to participate in celebration?
Because there is always freedom. It’s a choice. Jesus provides the wine in the ceremonial vessel, but we are always free to not drink it, we are free to prioritize our sanctity above it. But, at least as seems to be implied by the symbols of this miracle — ceremonial jar as sanctity and holiness, the wine inside as hospitality that leads to joy– to prioritize sanctity requires the rejection of the hospitality and subsequent joy that are being offered.
On the other hand, to drink the wine from the ceremonial container does not abolish sanctity. Jesus does not smash the ceremonial jars, does not condemn their use. Rather, he combines their symbolism with the symbol of wine in an unexpected way. You might say: Jesus does not abolish the law by breaking the jars, but rather fulfills the law — by filing the sacred with the joyful, by connecting holiness and hospitality.
By serving good wine from the stone jars for ceremonial washing, Jesus mixes symbols in a way that shows how the separation of the holy vessel from the liquid of celebration tempts us to privilege the spiritual, the clean, the holy — over and against the worldly, the bodily, the everyday joys that make glad the heart. By choosing to serve good wine from ceremonial jars, Jesus seems to suggest that it is not separation that is sacred, but what is sacred is participation in hospitality. What is holy is accepting hospitality. It seems to be right where our sensibilities and values want us to maintain separation that Jesus’s values invite us to hospitality as part of a larger celebration. We might even interpret the mixing of these symbols to mean that hospitality is holy.
Some decades ago, this parish chose to extend holy hospitality when others chose sanctity. The city was in the midst of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and many churches refused to bury those who had died from the disease, choosing the safety of sanctity above such potentially risky hospitality. By offering services to those in need, this parish participated in Christ’s holy hospitality.
We continue to participate in hospitality when we share food and drink each Sunday at coffee hour and each month at the Fatted Calf Cafe, carrying food and conversations across social and economic lines, across generational and political barriers, across football team loyalties.
And momentarily, we will be invited to share bread and wine with one another. While there is no one way to understand the Eucharist, today we might contemplate what it means to participate in sharing the cup, to participate in the holy hospitality to which Christ invites us.
Here, we are all guests at the celebration. Jesus has provided the bread as well as the wine. And it is good. Will you drink?
Questions: What hospitality is Christ offering that the Church not participating in? Where have we placed sanctity above hospitality — as a community or individually?
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