January 20, 2019 – Epiphany 2 C
1On 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.
Beginnings are very important. As someone who has had a lot beginnings in the last year or so, I can tell you from personal experience that beginnings are important. When I began college down the road in Waverly at Wartburg College (U-rah-rah-rah), the incoming class was knighted. We, the incoming class, were being welcomed into a new chapter of life and a new community. Every year at the beginning of the academic year, Wartburg Seminary gathers in the campus lawn and begins Opening Worship with a commissioning for students, families, faculty, staff, and the community before processing into the chapel. And when I began my life as a pastor, I was ordained by the our Bishop Ullestad and given my stole, a sign of the office of ministry and a reminder of the responsibilities I now have. Some beginnings are very official, but some beginnings are unexpected, subtle, and unassuming.
I read the story in our gospel differently than I used to, because each beginning I’ve had offers color and nuance to the story as I experience it. This is a beginning for Jesus – in this miracle, found only in the gospel of John, we find the start of his ministry. He is now embarking on a new chapter of his life and he does so by accepting an invitation to a wedding.
He attends this wedding, likely with the whole community, but it is not the ceremony, the joy of the bride and groom, or the awkward reception antics that capture our attention. But rather, we see an interaction between a confident mother and a reluctant son, an obedient servant and a confused wedding planner, and large jugs of unclean water with the best wine they had tasted.
First thing’s first, I love to see the interaction between Mary and Jesus. Mary knows her son, somehow she knows what he’s capable of in that moment, and, despite his protests, she kicks off his ministry. He protests, saying that it is not his time yet, but a mother knows things. She turns to the servants, without wavering, and says, “Do what he tells you.” Not wanting to disappoint or disobey his mother, Jesus relents, but he does so with a twist that I wonder if even Mary saw coming.
What makes this miracle so, well, miraculous is not the wine, but where the wine comes from. The jars that Jesus uses would have been used for purification, meaning that people would come to wash their hands there. But that also means that, once they had washed, people would have considered that water unclean. A quick refresher on the Jewish cleanliness laws: things that were considered unclean were to be avoided. Once you washed, you were clean, but the water that received the dust of the road and daily living would be now off limits. You wouldn’t touch it and you certainly wouldn’t drink it. It would be unexpected for this unclean water to be any use again. It would later be dumped out, likely in an area where it would not make any people or livestock unclean again.
But it is precisely this unclean water that Jesus uses to make, as the steward or wedding planner calls it, “the good wine.” We don’t really know if the steward ever finds out where it came from, but we know where it began. What started as unclean becomes good, and I can’t believe it’s a mistake that John places this at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. That is, after all, what Jesus does. He takes the unclean and, not only makes it clean, but makes it good. Or, maybe better put, reminds the unclean that it is good. Last week, I mentioned the creation story in Genesis 1, where God names each and every created thing as “good.” But life happens and we forget. We forget that we are good. We forget that other people, the world, and nature are loved and called “good.”
That leads to so many breakdowns. When we forget the goodness, the image of God, in ourselves, the people around us, and the world we inhabit, it allows us to hate and fear without question. We abuse. We fear. We begin to villainize and demonize those we disagree with, who bear an image differently than us. We begin to expect the worst. We begin to assume that nothing good can happen because it all seems so unclean. We find ourselves despairing and wondering where, if ever, our hope will come.
But we do not follow a God who gives us what we expect. We follow a God who gives us unexpected results. In place of unclean, we find good. In place of “the other”, we find a brother and sister. In place of death, we find life. In place of wages, we find grace.
This is the truly confusing part for the steward. The wine that was paid for, the wine that must have cost a small fortune, wasn’t enough and it wasn’t as good. The hosts would be responsible for providing food and wine enough for the multiple day reception, but it wasn’t enough, which would have shamed them. Not a great start to a marriage. But this wine of grace, the gift they weren’t expecting, was better than whatever they could have paid for. The same is true for us. In a culture that tells us we must pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, to earn our own way, that nothing good comes free, we find that grace interrupts those voices. The grace we receive is not only unexpected and unearned, but far greater and more abundant than anything we could earn. Grace, not just for you and me, is for all people; yes, even those we would consider unclean.
This marks a new beginning. A new start. But it is not a new vision. This new beginning, this new future, is founded in what has already begun. God has created and called good the whole cosmos. Jesus is simply reminding us. The future God is creating and participating in finds its roots in the belovedness we profess in baptism and the image of God we bear. The future God is creating finds its root in the present moment, where we experience anew the redeeming work of Christ. In bread and wine, we see God’s sacrifice “for you”. In water, we hear words of adoption and naming. In our neighbors, we can begin to feel the community of Christ coming together. We are reminded that, while the world is not what it will be, that it is enough, right now, to experience the grace of Christ in profound ways.
Christ used the unclean to be a blessing, to surprise and astonish, and Christ is still doing that. That is a promise. This is the beginning, where we find ourselves witnessing the unexpected results of grace, not just for ourselves but for all of creation. It has begun and each day begins anew with grace, with a reminder of our belovedness, and with Christ’s presence. This daily renewal is the life of the baptized. It reminds us that, no matter what you face, no matter how clean or unclean, you are loved and, by God’s grace, you are good. May we live with eyes open to see how else God is working today. New beginnings are all around us. Amen.