New wine (and lots of it!)

Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Isaiah 62:1-5

Psalm 96

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

John 2:1-11

Why is it that the language we use about our relationship to God is not nearly as vivid as the language used by the authors of the scriptures? The prophet compares the relationship between God and God’s people to that of a newly wed bridegroom to bride. Of course, we have to be careful of the androcentrism of the prophet, but the relationship described is one of joy and ecstasy. We tend not to be so vivid. For us, our relationship to God often seems one of duty. Too bad.

I love this passage from John’s Gospel. It is so rich — layer upon layer. You can read many layers of the life of the community as you peel back each layer. To start off, it begins, “On the third day.” If one stops right there and asks, “which third day,” it becomes clear that this is a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus. It captures some moment in the life of the post-resurrection community, some shift made by John’s community, at which Jesus showed up to help them make the transition.

The next phrase is “A marriage happened in Cana of Galilee.” Marriage recalls all of the language of God and God’s people married from Isaiah, Hosea and the whole Hebrew tradition. John probably wants us to be thinking in terms of the restoration of God’s people. Marriage was also problematic for the early christians. There were many groups who eschewed marriage altogether, as being too deeply implicated in the surrounding society. Such groups also tended to eschew drinking wine. They had water in their chalices at the eucharist. I wonder if John’s community was originally one of these communities. That would account for Jesus’ rather abrupt remark to his mother when she points out that wine has failed — “Woman, what is that to you and to me?”

She goes on to tell the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them to do. He instructs to fill six (empty) stone water jars “according to the purifications of the Judeans” standing by. Stone makes them pure enough for the ritual ablutions (Lev. 11:33). Jesus tells the servants to fill them to the brim (20 to 30 gallons each according the NRSV). Then he tells them to draw some off and take it to the architriklinos, the person reclining at the head position of the three couches, the master of the feast. It was the job of the architriklinos to keep the feast moving, to make sure entertainment was appropriate, to mix the wine with water (if the architriklinos was the same as the symposiarch) and to keep everyone happy. He remarks to the groom that he has kept the beautiful wine until last.

This could be a reference to the good wine of the christian community — God has kept the best of God’s plan and promises until now. There is also an element of the wine of christian community replacing the purity designations of (some) Judean identity. It also seems to me that there is an element of wine in the chalice replacing water — John’s community at some point made the shift from being marriage denying to marriage embracing (a sacrificial understanding of the eucharist) and found this better. Or maybe they are saying to other christian communities, “Our water is way better than your wine.”

In all events, this story has been used to narrate any number of miraculous shifts within the life of the community, any number of “new wines” that won’t fit in “old skins.” The test of the transformation is whether it produces good wine. As the church faces many transformation even now, “on the third day,” to which Jesus once said, “Woman, what is that to you and me,” the question we must ask is does this new mode of identity (rites of cleansing) produce really good wine, or does it keep people (the unclean) out? Conservatively, Jesus made 120 gallons of wine. That makes for quite a party. Are we having fun yet?

One thought on “New wine (and lots of it!)”

  1. Hi Kristin,

    I watched the news on Friday, like many others, in disbelief. I didn’t think Ben Owenby was still alive, and when Channel Five confirmed they had word that Shawn Hornbeck was alive, too, I couldn’t believe it. Now for Shawn, the long process of healing will have to begin. I suppose the disciples had a hard time living into the reality of the resurrection — it probably took work. I hope Shawn gets all of God’s grace he needs to come back to life.

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