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01.17.10 From Water to Wine, John 2:1-11 Sermon Summary

by on January 18, 2010

This passage falls in the “season of Epiphany” (though my Presbyterian tradition does not recognize Epiphany as a season). It is appropriate because Jesus’ changing the water into wine is one of three meanings of the feast of Epiphany celebrated on January 6.

To best understand this story as John has given it to us, we need to recognize some characteristics about the Gospel of John. (1) It is the last gospel written, probably sometime between 85 and 95. (2) There isn’t an account of either Jesus’ baptism or his celebration of the Lord’s Supper. So John de-emphasizes the particular sacraments. (3) The main section, divided into two parts (chapters 2-12 and 13-20) present a designated series of “signs” which are related to the generation of belief. John is explicit about this in 20:30-31, and the passage under consideration is the first of these signs.

In each Gospel, Jesus’ first public act of ministry foreshadows that particular Gospel’s presentation and understanding of Jesus. For John, it is Jesus’ changing the water to wine. So what is John trying to tell us about Jesus with this introduction?

To answer this question, we have to read John for meanings deeper than the literal. John expects us to do this, since John is written by believers for believers. It isn’t an evangelistic gospel (despite a rich but recent tradition of evangelicals trying to make it so). It is full of sophisticated theology and philosophy and insider language that doesn’t make sense except to a follower of Jesus. These signs are not supposed to awaken faith as much as they are intended to strengthen the faith of the weak in John’s audience, to keep them from abandoning the path to God revealed in Jesus.

Proof that John wants us to read this story at a deeper level is provided in the opening few words: “On the third day.” Literalists will have a difficult time squaring this chronology with the first chapter, where there are already four days tallied for us (John 1:29, 35, 43). “On the third day” is an example of insider jargon. It refers to the day of resurrection, the 8th day of re-creation, the first day of the new age. John plays loosely with the historical chronology because he’s not writing history, he’s writing testimony.

So we approach this passage looking for meaning deeper than the literal. There are two lessons to find. First, by changing the water to wine, John tells us that Jesus inaugurates something new. The prominent metaphorical application of water in religious circles is that of washing. This passage is explicit in that the water Jesus changes is used Jewish purification rites.

That he changes this water to wine is meant to indicate that God’s salvation has arrived in Jesus. Amos 9:13-14 is one example of the image of salvation God has given the people. Jesus represents the transition from former religious understanding to new enlightenment. In Jesus Christ, a new religious age has begun.

Second, wine foreshadows Jesus’ death. We know this, again, by the insider language John employs in this passage. Jesus tells his mother his “hour” has not yet come. In John 12:23-25, among other places, we learn that Jesus’ “hour” refers to his death and resurrection. Here, despite Jesus’ initial refusal to reveal his glory, we get a “pre-hour” revelation; water is changed to wine.

And John directs us to Jesus’ death in this first sign, for wine is a substitute for blood. Remember that John has no account of the Lord’s Supper. But he does have the most visceral description of it in John 6:53-56, after Jesus feeds the 5000. There Jesus says that drinking his blood is life.

In early Christian art, this scene at the wedding of Cana is often represented alongside the feeding of the 5000 of John chapter 6. In other words, the early church saw a relationship between these two signs. It suggests that we view the changing of water to wine as descriptive of John’s theology of the Lord’s Supper.

Jesus’ first public act of ministry in John is changing water to wine. We take three conclusions from this story. (1) Jesus is the new wine, and the new age has begun. (2) Jesus is glorified in the Lord’s Supper. (3) In the Lord’s Supper, we ourselves are called to be transformed from water to wine; from the waters of baptism, to our communion in the Kingdom; from the children of God as we are made in the waters of baptism, to the Body of Christ as we are made in the Lord’s Supper.

Questions for Further Reflection

  • What does it mean for you in particular to be transformed from water to wine?
  • How can this “reading for deeper meaning beyond the literal” enrich your favorite passages of the Bible?
  • How does this interpretation affect your appreciation of the Lord’s Supper, or of your baptism?

Eucharistic Prayer:

We give you thanks, Ever Faithful God, for you have sought us and found us. You continue to give yourself to us as in marriage. As Christ loves the church, so you love the world. You have prepared a wedding banquet where we will sit at table with you and with all those whose needs and hopes are satisfied by you.

There we will share the bread of heaven, and an abundance of wine to gladden our hearts. There we will join you with joy as a bride meets the groom. There the provisions never end, and we will enjoy the very best which you have prepared for us, and reserved for us in the culmination of your kingdom.

At this table, we remember these promises which you have made to us in Christ. And we remember the waters of his baptism by which he became one with us in death. And we remember the waters of our baptism in which we become one with him in death and resurrection. We remember the water of life he offered to the woman at the well, and we remember that same Spirit which he offers to us.

Fill us with that Spirit, Gracious God, and use these gifts of grain and grape, the fruit of the earth and the labor of human hands, to give us communion with Christ and all the saints, and to nourish us in the eternal life to which you call us, and which we experience now in conformity to your will.

Through Christ, in Christ, with Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor are yours, Almighty God, now and forever. Amen.

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