The Change Within

When 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. —John 2:9
Introduction, Part A: ‘Woman’ 
Two things about this passage get talked about a lot. The first one sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s when Jesus calls his mother Woman. The wine runs out, and Mary tells Jesus to fix things. His reply? Woman, what concern is that to you and me? Seriously, who talks that way to his mother—and right in front of people?

This is the third sermon in a row I’ve talked about Mary, but I think it’s noteworthy that Mary’s only mentioned twice in John’s gospel. Here, when she is present for the first of Jesus’ signs—something that she really wanted to see happen—and at the end, at the foot of the cross—the last thing in the world a mother would want to see.
But why did Jesus call her Woman? There are two schools of thought here. Well three really, because one of them is to simply mistranslate it and have Jesus call his mother Mother.[1] But we have to let it stand as it is. And so it’s possible that calling your mother Woman in first century Palestine was similar to a respectful address, such as Ma’am. This explanation is strictly linguistic.
The second explanation is much more theological. But there might be something to it. It points to a change in Jesus’ relationship with his family. Distancing himself from his mother as he’s beginning his ministry is a clear indication that his focus has changed and his people are no longer just the people he grew up knowing.
Whatever happened, Mary obviously didn’t take offense at Jesus’ words. And Jesus clearly didn’t intend to actually distance himself from his mother. Because (not unlike a lot of mother/child relationships) Jesus tells his mother that he doesn’t have to do what she says, and then he does what she says.
Introduction, Part B: ‘The Discoverer’
pwhaSo that’s the first thing that gets a lot of attention: The fact that Jesus called his mother Woman. The other one a little less compelling, but it’s the kind of thing experts like to talk about. Namely, when and for whom did the water become wine? It’s a question kind of like “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” isn’t it? In fact it reminds me of one of the old novels I like to read from the early 1900’s. The one I’m thinking of is juvenile fiction by Percy Keese Fitzhugh. It’s about a boy scout troop in the fictional town of Bridgeboro, New Jersey, and there are about a million of these novels. This particular one is called Pee-Wee Harris Adrift, and in it Pee-Wee (his real name’s Walter) looks out on the river he’s very familiar with and sees something new: An island that had never been there before. On the island is a lone tree. But the island isn’t stationary; it’s moving upstream with the tide.

And so Pee-Wee heads out to the island and plants a sign on it as its discoverer and claims it as his possession. But lo and behold, Pee-Wee quickly discovers that he’s not alone on the island: there’s another boy there and he’s up in the tree, which happens to be an apple tree. The boy’s name is Roland Poland and his friends call him Roly Poly. And this is how he happened to be there:

Roly and his friends were climbing the trees in an orchard on the bend of the river soon after a storm when the river was running swiftly. Where the swift current had undermined the land underneath an apple tree right on the river’s edge, the tree and its root system gave way and ended up floating in the river. So naturally, since Roly was on the island before Pee-Wee, he’s got a point when he says that he’s the true discoverer. But, Pee-Wee points out, when Roly discovered the island it wasn’t an island yet.

Roly isn’t too bothered by this logic, and by the time his friends show up with camping supplies, they’re all glad to meet Pee-Wee and they happily refer to him as The Discoverer for the rest of the story. The question of who discovered Pee-Wee’s island ends up not being important in the end, because the real plot lies in the subsequent adventures.[2]
I. A Forest & Its Trees
Likewise, the workings of Jesus’ first miracle—the precise point in time that it happened, for whom it happened, the true purpose of the sign—are not really all that important to the plot of John’s gospel.
You see, when we dissect the miracles of Jesus, we’re looking for earthly explanations of the workings of the kingdom of heaven. But “the point is not that they are stories which couldn’t have happened in real life, but which point away from earth to a heavenly reality.”[3] I’m not saying we shouldn’t dissect the scriptures, but it’s always important to remember that the beauty of an individual tree is often less than that of an entire forest.

And here we have Jesus doing something—for the first time, according to John—which points to something very important about Jesus. N.T. Wright puts it this way: There “are moments when, to people who watch with at least a little faith, the angels of God are going up and coming down at the place where Jesus is. They are moments when heaven is opened, when the transforming power of God’s love bursts in to the present world.”[4]
This is why this passage has traditionally been interpreted as a sign of spiritual transformation—of the effect the Holy Spirit can have on those who experience God’s Word-made-flesh.

And please note here that those who experience this transformation—those who benefit from its goodness—are, for the most part, people who have no idea who is in their midst. The master of ceremonies knows only that excellent wine is unexpectedly being served. The guests—who may not even care at this point, having had their fill of the inferior stuff—also drink of the wine that had just been water a few moments earlier. The servants know what happened, as do Jesus’ closest followers (including his mother), but everybody else is clueless. And yet everybody else enjoys the fruits of Jesus’ transforming presence.
II. The Hidden Face
Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 3.57.32 PMThis all happened nearly 2000 years ago, but is there a better metaphor for the place of the church in today’s society? Fewer and fewer people acknowledge any rôle for religion in their lives, and it seems that when people do look at the church, they see a silly argument about some divisive point of doctrine founded upon some aspect of scriptures that seems unimportant to all but those involved.

And so when the world looks at the body of Christ and thinks it’s looking at the face, it’s often just looking at a single fingerprint. What the church is really up to is something people don’t see. It’s not that they can’t, but it’s simply not what they want to look at, or it’s not what they’re allowed to see. The real face of the body of Christ is turned in a direction that isn’t nearly so interesting to the world, because it doesn’t involve argument or scandal. No, the real face of the body is shining its transforming light on the lives of people who’ve gotten lost, people who are in need, people nobody else notices because they’re either too meek or too powerless or too poor to matter.

And many of these people—like the guests at that wedding—have no idea where the goodness is coming from. When people enter a church to pray or sing or learn or spend time with other Christians, then, yes, they know. But thirty little churches like ours pool our resources and feed and clothe tens of thousands of people a year. Though all of that’s done in the Name of Christ, it’s not done in a way that draws attention to the religious aspect of the outreach. It’s simple done because people are in need. The recipients of the wine don’t know the weakness of the water from which it came, nor do they know of the transformation that must have occurred before it ended up in their hands.
III. A Little Cracked
And so as important a point it is that the miracle of Christ’s transforming power is shared with people who neither know about it nor appreciate it, the most important aspect of it is the transformation of those who do know about it. I can’t put it any better than Charles Spurgeon did:
Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 3.59.20 PM
Behold his vats and his winepresses: six water pots of stone! You and I—what are we? Well, we are poor earthen vessels, and a little cracked at that, I fear. There is little enough in us to work with, and what there is is weak as water. But the Lord can bring forth from us a wine which will cheer the heart of God and our neighbor—words of faith which will please God and do good to dejected souls! The disciples would, in later days, know themselves to be nothing but earthen vessels and they would remember that their Lord could work miracles with them.[5]

Our church has a saying: No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here. We can say this because there’s no member of Christ’s body that is anything more than an earthen vessel, and there’s no earthen vessel filled with the mundane stuff of the world that cannot be transformed into something special by the One who turned water into wine in Cana so long ago. Some of our more evangelistic brothers and sisters insist that those who have been transformed be able to tell you the exact time and place when it happened. We tend to take a more scriptural view—at least I like to think we do. Just as at Cana, Jesus’ work was done quietly and the witnesses to it couldn’t say when it happened, the important thing is that the transformation occurs. Though Jesus let it be known that his time had not yet come, yet the time was indeed right for the Holy Spirit to work quietly and secretly in those earthen vessels.
Conclusion: From Cana to Calvary
Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 4.01.29 PMThis, the first of Jesus’ signs, required no faith to experience and appreciate. A celebration was held and everyone there—those who followed Jesus and those who’d never met him—enjoyed the fruits of what God was doing. His faithful mother and the ignorant MC are the prime examples of the response.

But in John’s gospel, the true glory of Jesus was achieved not in the wonderful miracles, but on the cross. And so the last of Jesus’ signs would have been the crucifixion—an event that would take all the faith in the world to appreciate; for who could possibly see God in the ugliness of the cross? And there at the foot was, once again, his faithful mother; but this time the other named witness was a disciple, and not just any disciple, but the one (according to John’s gospel) whom Jesus loved.

These two signs—the first and the last—should stand for something in our lives. They should stand for the carefree delight at God’s presence in our lives’ celebrations, the Spirit’s power to create change within us and transform us into someone who can find the glory in the beautiful things of God and the joy of human love. But we know that it doesn’t end there, that life does not consist solely of wedding feasts. No, the follower of Christ looks for the signs of his transforming power in all things, at all times, and in even the most difficult of places. And the true glory of being a child of God is knowing even in the face of the cross that God is love, that pain can be transformed, and that death is not the end.

Today is a joyful day for [newly baptized child] and her family, and the transforming Spirit is even now at work in this new daughter of God. But I know that there are others out there who are facing the cross and wondering if God can be found in straits, even as God was experienced in broad places. If we stop with Cana, then that answer might never be known. But the story doesn’t end there, and the joy of Cana leads in the end to the glory of Calvary. I know that it doesn’t always sound very glorious, that transformation from mundane water to wine, and from wine into blood, and from blood into the living water of new life. But that is the way of God, and in it we can find encouragement and hope for every stage of life and in every place we find ourselves along the path.

In good times and bad, change happens. And in Christ, that change can be for the better.
—©2016 Sam L. Greening, Jr.

[1] Though N.T. Wright offers perhaps the most accessible commentary on this gospel, he does mistranslate (intentionally, I assume) the 4th verse: ‘All right, mother,’ replied Jesus, ‘but what’s that got to do with you and ne? My time hasn’t come yet.’ See John for Everyone, Part 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), p. 20.
[2] Percy Keese Fitzhugh, Pee-Wee Harris Adrift (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1922). It should be noted that the earth of the apple tree’s root system didn’t disintegrate in the water because beneath the overhang on which the tree grew was moored a stolen barge, so that when the land gave way, it was supported by a boat which served to keep the earth intact.
[3] Wright, p. 22.
[4] Wright, p. 21, with reference to Genesis 28:12 (Jacob’s Bethel experience).
[5] Sermon preached in London on July 20, 1890.