The Sign of the Wine

SJF • Epiphany 2c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The steward said, “You have kept the good wine until now.”+

Have you ever heard the expression, You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear? It’s one of those proverbial impossible tasks, like spinning straw into gold, herding cats, getting blood from a turnip, or sculpting with Jell-O. Today we come to the wedding feast at Cana, like uninvited guests looking on from the sidelines, and getting a glimpse of an interchange between Jesus, his mother, and what we’d now-a-days call the head waiter. In this little drama, we witness the first sign through which Jesus revealed his glory, changing water into wine.

Now, just as a sow’s ear is no place to start if you’re making a silk purse, or straw to make gold, or a turnip to get blood, or cats for a parade, or Jell-O for a sculpture, water is not what you start with if you want to make wine. What you need is the fruit of the vine: grapes. The only water that comes into it is the rain that waters the vineyard: it’s grapes that wine comes from, and all of the water from the Creation through the Flood would have done no good to Noah, when it came to making the first wine, if the ground after the flood had not brought forth grapes. Everybody knows that, and they knew it in Jesus’ day just as well as we do now. Perhaps even better: Because every town back then had its winepress, and wine was the everyday drink of just about everyone.

So they knew then as we know now, that water doesn’t change into wine. In fact, water doesn’t really change into anything, all by itself, does it? Left to itself, it evaporates! Even ice and steam have to be frozen solid or boiled up if they are to change into another of H2O’s three states: fluid, vapor, and solid. Let solid ice melt, or vaporous steam condense, and you’re back to plain old liquid water. (That’s our chemistry lesson for the day.) Fact is, you can try to change water all you want, but all you’ll get is wet.

Nor can you simply add things to water to change it into wine, at least not good wine. You may remember the story of the stone soup that I some years ago. Of course water can become soup if you add onions, barley, carrots, meat, and salt and spices. Even if you added “wine concentrate” to water — something to make any wine-lover cringe — you aren’t really making wine — any more than stirring a teaspoon of Tang into a glass of water “makes” it into orange juice! Remember Tang? Whatever you do, no human power can change water into wine all by itself.

So that’s why what Jesus did is a miracle, which isn’t just something to amaze, it isn’t some magic trick, but something to instruct: it is, as our Gospel calls it, not a miracle but a sign — a sign that points to some great truth about who it is Jesus is. It is a sign that doesn’t just amaze but also reveals something about Jesus; it reveals his glory and leads his disciples to greater faith in him. Only Jesus could take water and make it change its very being, its very substance, until it simply wasn’t water any more, but wine — and good wine at that!

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Of course, the sign that Jesus performed isn’t ultimately about wine, but about transformation, about the kind of transformed lives that Jesus calls us to live. The amazement may have been about the wine, but the sign is about the change — the change that begins in him, when he became one of us, and changed human nature.

Sometimes we think that transformation is modifying how we act in response to the world around us. But transformation isn’t about a change in external shape or state or form, like water changing to ice or steam in response to the changing temperature. All of us know, from how many years of new years’ resolutions that have dissolved themselves early in the year, that simply promising yourself that you’ll keep your cool under stress; or telling yourself to build up a head of steam to finish a project long overdue, or that you’ve postponed, just won’t work. The pressure (or lack of pressure) of a changing environment doesn’t really change us but instead reveals what we really are, just as changing temperature and pressure show what ice and steam really are: water.

We will lose our cool under stress, and get burned out when the heat and pressure of responsibility rises, and we do get lazy and unproductive when the pressure is off. So human transformation isn’t about changing how we act or react.

But then is transformation about adding something to ourselves? No, for as we saw with water, transformation isn’t about adding ingredients to make either soup or reconstituted wine, or the beverage of astronauts! That doesn’t change the water, it just flavors it.

Sometimes we think that if only we could add something to ourselves, if only we had more money, or a different job, or even different clothes, we’d become different people. But we all know that more money doesn’t really change a person or a personality. The winner of the lottery may turn out to be just as miserable as she was before, when she discovers all those “friends” she didn’t know she had. A new job may bring out hidden talents, or even perhaps help you develop new skills, but you will still be you. And in spite of the proverb, clothes do not make the man — and he can end up being all dressed up with no place to go! True transformation has to go deeper — right to the heart.

Some years ago, Adolph Coors IV, then heir to the huge Colorado brewing industry, was at a prayer service and believed he had undergone a conversion: so he swore he would give up the beer-brewing business and lead a new life. Shortly thereafter, however, he recalled how Jesus transformed water into wine, and decided it was OK to stay in the beer business after all! His conversion was short-lived and his transformation was superficial and temporary.

The long and the short of it is that on our own we can (for a time) change what we do but we can’t for good and all, and on our own, change who we be. If we aren’t transformed inour very nature, no outward addition or action, or subtraction or restraint of action for that matter, is going to make us something other than what we are.

That water at Cana of Galilee couldn’t do anything or have anything added to it to make it into wine. What it needed was a word spoken by Jesus, to be poured into jars, and to be ladled out and tasted and enjoyed. True transformation doesn’t happen apart from Jesus. Those jugs of water could have sat in Cana from the wedding day to the day of doom, and never would have changed to wine unless Jesus had chosen to do as his mother asked. And when he did, all it took was a word of command to the servants: fill up the jars with water, and then draw out the wine.

So too, we will not change — we can not change — unless we are open to Jesus and the word he speaks to us. Unless we hear his commandment to be filled with his love, and then to pour out that love to those around us, we will never be transformed. We cannot do it on our own. We will remain empty jars standing in the corner unless we are willing to let his love be poured into our hearts, where by means of his word he can transform it into the joyful wine of God’s Spirit, which we can then share in rejoicing and fellowship.

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All of us are keenly aware of the horrific tragedy that has struck the people of Haiti this past week. All of us are, I am sure, strongly hoping that this tragic situation can be transformed. And to some extent it can — as we too are inwardly transformed and empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, in a burst of generosity to send help as soon as we can to those suffering people. As you know, tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day, and we normally take up a collection to support the MLK Scholarship. I want to suggest to you today that we split what we would normally send to that scholarship fund in half, and send the other half to Episcopal Relief and Development for their coordinated push to help the people of Haiti. I think Dr. King would approve, and I hope you do, too. Do you? Through the transformation of our hearts, our offering too can be transformed into practical help — we can’t change water into wine, but we can change money into food, medical supplies, and feet on the ground — we can convert our dollars into life-saving help.

And so in our own small way, may we, who have died with Christ in the water of baptism, heard his word of command in the Gospel, and drunk the wine of his most precious blood, be inwardly transformed by him who died for us, and who lives in us, even Jesus Christ our Lord. +