It’s interesting that the first miracle Jesus performed happened at a wedding, even if it also seems that Jesus didn’t exactly plan it that way. A wedding in Jewish culture wasn’t just a great social occasion, it was also an image of the relationship between God and his people. A Jewish wedding, I should say, involved the whole community. The ceremony itself would take place late in the evening after a time of feasting. The father of the bride would take his daughter on his arm, and with the rest of the wedding party following, they’d parade through the village streets, and people would come from every house to bless the bride.
The procession would eventually arrive at the home of the groom, and that’s where the wedding itself took place - in the entrance way or the ante-room of the house, followed by festivities that lasted for days. The bride and groom would walk from the groom’s house accompanied by flaming torches, and attendants would walk with them through the streets holding a canopy above their heads. This would be a long walk, winding through all the village streets, giving everyone the chance to wish them well.
And then the couple would keep open house for a week, and they’d be treated like royalty. And all the refreshments for the week would be provided and paid for by the groom’s family. The wine especially was expected to flow freely.
But on this occasion, at some point within these days of celebration, the wine had ceased to flow. This was more than an inconvenience. It was a social disaster of the first order!
We see Mary realize how seriously wrong things are. “They have no wine,” she said. Imagine the horror in her voice. Wine in Jewish tradition was a symbol of joy. The writer of Psalm 104 thanks God for “wine to gladden the heart of man”. And there is a rabbinical saying that “without wine there is no joy.” So you could say that at this wedding the joy had run out! And that would be more than embarrassing for the groom and his family.
John describes this first miracle as “a sign”. Like much else in his Gospel, it stands for things beyond itself. The lack of wine and of joy can stand for the emptiness of life without the saving love of the Lord. Whoever and wherever we are, there’ll be times in our lives when the wine runs out, times when there’s no sense of joy. That’s how life is. There are highs, but there are also lows. Bright and colourful turns to grey and dismal.
Anyway, Mary comes to Jesus to tell him of the problem, and she seems to have caught him on the hop - “It’s not my time, yet,” he replies. But she simply goes across to the servants, and tells them to do whatever he says. I love that! John seems to be saying that the Word of God was pushed into performing his first miracle by his mother. But Mary seems to have known from the beginning just what her firstborn son was born to do.
What Jesus does do is to turn to the stone pots filled with water for guests to wash their hands on arrival, something everyone would do as an act of ritual purification; to eat with unwashed hands would be disgraceful, to do that would be to defile the whole feast. These were not small pots, so Jesus turned the water in them into something like 180 gallons of wine.
John specifically mentions those water pots; and perhaps he wants us to contrast the imperfect external cleansing of the old rituals with the perfect sacrifice Jesus will offer to cleanse the heart and soul. Certainly the size of the pots and the huge quantity of wine stand as a sign of the abundance of God’s love. In this miracle Jesus doesn’t just meet the immediate need of the wedding party, he gives in overflowing abundance.
And this wasn’t just vin ordinaire. We see the steward at the feast remarking that the very best wine has been saved till now. Jesus doesn’t just produce something good enough to save the day. He transforms the water in those pots into the best wine the folk there had ever tasted.
So what we have here is a miracle of transformation of not just water into wine, but ordinary into extraordinary. And it stands as a sign because that’s what the whole ministry of Jesus will be. “Come with me, and I will make you fishers of men;” that’s what he said to his disciples. Jesus is in the business of transformation, of changing lives, of changing people.
And God never gives just enough, he gives in abundance. Wine that was only water is poured out and shared, and everyone there is amazed at how splendid a wine it is. Usually you’d give people the best wine early on, because later on when people had had a fair bit to drink they’d be less bothered about how it tasted. So it surprised the steward, and others as well I should think. This miracle is a sign of grace. Grace is unexpected, it doesn’t stick to the rules, it doesn’t just dole out what we deserve.
And the Gospel of Jesus will be the story of grace. Grace can’t be measured out: it’s love that’s unearned, unmerited, and so freely given that there’s always more than enough to meet our needs. And nothing we do will ever diminish that love, for love is of the very nature of God. Love is how the world is made and you and I made as part of it. On the first Day of Pentecost, the disciples of Jesus were accused by some people of having got themselves drunk on the new wine, Pentecost being the grape harvest festival. But what had actually left them bubbling over with joy was an intense and personal realisation of God’s love, the Spirit of love coursing through them.
So Jesus is revealed as the bringer of joy, transforming lives, changing hearts. When the wine in our own lives runs out, we can turn to him. “Do what he tells you,” says Mary to the servants. So should we. Mary’s instruction led to a miracle that not only met the immediate need of the people there, but gave abundantly more. So in what ways are our lives lacking the joy only Christ can give? And how can we his Church be new wine to transform barren lives and joyless situations where we are today?