Gallons Of Good Wine
Have you been to a wedding recently? Over the last twentyfive years I've done several hundred weddings and I've watched them change. At least it seems to me that twentyfive years ago when I began to do weddings, they were relatively simple and sedate events. At most the festivities lasted twentyfour hours even if you call it festivities. Usually a rehearsal and then, after a rehearsal, often a very simple gettogether of the families and folks in the wedding party. This rehearsal dinner was primarily just a hospitality, a courtesy to the folks who had driven to the wedding because they were bridesmaid or groomsmen or something. The next day was the wedding, generally followed by a reception in the fellowship hall of the church where there was cake and punch.
A good share of the weddings I've been to recently were more than that. I've been to rehearsal dinners that were like coronation festivities for royalty. It wasn't just the bride and the groom and their parents and siblings and the bridesmaids and groomsmen. I don't know where they found all those people that went to those rehearsal dinners. Then, I'm not sure how it is here in St. Louis, but in Columbia the day of the wedding there would be golf tournaments and all that kind of thing. They had the wedding and then they'd go to the Expo Center. It wouldn't be just cake and punch; it would be a buffet and a dance band. I have to admit that I've taken to urging couples to not let the tail wag the dog. Sometimes the party becomes more important than the vows, the festivities more important than the meaning, and the purpose of why they are together. So basically that's just an indication of what a nonpartying old grouch that I am at heart, I suppose.
But, as I think about the way weddings have gotten crazier and crazier and when I become a little concerned that the priorities are getting out of whack, I have to remember that in Jesus’ time in the little villages of Galilee their weddings make our biggest weddings look like nothing. Their wedding festivities lasted days and days, maybe even a week at times. You know weddings were about all they had to celebrate. They lived a very meager existence in these little villages. In Cana, the one that was the site of the story that we just read, maybe a hundred people—a hundred and fifty at the most—lived in this little village in Jesus' time. Life was hard and there weren't thirty or forty weddings a year like there are around this place. Maybe there was a wedding some years, but not every year. A wedding was a time when people could celebrate that their village had a future and often it wasn't altogether clear whether the village had a future or not. When there was a wedding they could celebrate the potential for tomorrow. It was much more than the celebration of this man and this woman, it was the celebration of the whole community's hope and the promise that was embodied in this wedding that there would be a tomorrow and with the wonderful ancient Jewish toast, "La Chaim," they toasted life itself. Oh, they had wedding parties.
According to John's gospel, Jesus and just a few of his first disciples, his mother and some others attended a wedding in this little village of Cana. Somewhere along in the many days of the wedding festivities a potential social calamity took place. The wine ran out! That was a calamity and an embarrassment, a terrible embarrassment, to the host at the wedding. Jesus' mother learns of the problem and one thing leads to another. We have this situation where we learn that there are six stone water jars, each holding twenty or thirty gallons of water. They are jars used in the religious ceremonies of the Jewish people at that time. Now my math isn't really terrific, but six times twenty is a hundred and twenty and if there were thirty gallon jars, one hundred and eighty gallons of liquid, according to the story, that Jesus made into wine. I'm thinking a hundred or a hundred and twenty people at this wedding party. That's a lot of wine.
Then the writer of the gospel of John makes the point that he has to make and the point is about the wine, but it's really about Jesus. The point is: this miracle is an indicator of who Jesus is, the first of the signs, John says. If you read the entire gospel of John, you discover that it is organized around a series of miracles that are signs of the true identify of Jesus. This is the one that takes that which is only barely adequate, this is the one that takes the water which is thin and weak and uninspiring and not very healthy even in that culture and time and place and this is the one that turns that which is unhealthy and weak and thin and ordinary and every day and, changes it into something sparkling, robust, lifegiving, joy enhancing. This is who Jesus is, the one who takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary. The one who takes the water and makes it wine. Jesus hasn't quit doing that.
In the middle fifties there was a Ph.D. candidate at Boston University. He had finished his course work and had everything done for his doctorate except his dissertation. Being the son of a pastor and a son of the south, now married and with a family coming, he needed a way to earn a living while he finished his Ph.D. So he looked for a church in the South who would accept him as their pastor. He got a job at a little church in Montgomery, Alabama, called the Dexter Baptist Church. There he went to hide out, to lay low, to do what he must to keep the church going while he wrote his dissertation. For this young man the greatest dream, hope and vision for his life was that he would be a scholar, that he would be a teacher, that, perhaps, someday either an administrator, a dean or a president of a university. His idea was that he would live a quiet life of scholarship. Not long after this young pastor came to Montgomery, there was an AfricaAmerican seamstress who was seated towards the front of one of the public transportation buses in Montgomery when a white man came along and asked her to move to the back of the bus so he could have her seat. Rosa Parks wouldn't move. That was the ignition of the Montgomery bus boycott where the AfricanAmerican community there in Montgomery refused to use public transportation until that public transportation was available freely and equally available to all of its citizens. This boycott needed a spokesperson and none of the long time black leaders in Montgomery was really willing to be in that position of real crisis and danger. They remembered the new preacher down the street at Dexter Baptist Church, Martin King, and they asked him if he wouldn't lead the boycott. Jesus Christ was taking the ordinary and the unhealthy of generations of discrimination and Jim Crow and changing it into the wine of hope and promise and possibility that was to lead, not just to the integration of public transportation in Montgomery, but to the voting rights act and the transformation of our country. The water turned into wine.
It's not just the famous and the extraordinary—Jesus does the same thing with ordinary people. I remember a farmer that was in the second church I ever served. His name was Elgean and in many ways he was the character, the stereotype of an ordinary conservative Kansas farmer. His life style, his values, were just that of his little rural community. But Elgean had a mind that was always going places where other people’s imaginations wouldn't go. One day Elgean came into the pastor's study and sat down. He said, "I've been listening to your sermons and reading the paper." I tell you that's a dangerous thing to do. He said, "I've been reading about those boat people, those IndoChinese refugees." You see, it was the late seventies. Thousands and thousands and thousands of people were escaping from IndoChina and Elgean had heard that many churches were sponsoring the resettling of refugee families. He said, "I think we should do that." I didn't have near as much faith as he did.
I said, "Elgean this is a pretty small community and a very conservative one, do you think that's a good idea?"
He looked at me and said, "Haven't you been listening to what you've been preaching?"
And he and some of his friends and others from the church sponsored what turned out to be a Laotian family—father, mother and about a dozen children. They had a job for the father when they arrived, English as a second language classes. They had everything ready including a house for them and it went swimmingly, it went beautifully. Six months or so after the family arrived, the father in the family went to Elgean and said, "You know, I have a sister who's a widow; her husband was killed and she has little children. Nobody will sponsor her because there is not a breadwinner in the family." So pretty soon sister and her kids arrived. Not long after that the mother in the original family remembered she had a sister too. Before it was all done there were twentytwo Laotians living in that little Kansas town and sitting in two or three pews all together there in that little church every Sunday morning. And the water became wine.
A few years ago I was at a mission conference of some sort and a man spoke. I don't remember his name, all I remember is his story. He was a dentist practicing his profession in the suburbs in Kansas City. He told how a few years before one of his friends had shamed him into doing something he never thought he would do. His friend drug him off on a Volunteer In Mission trip. He went to a central highland village in Mexico to this clinic, a Methodist clinic, for a couple of weeks, ten days really, to practice dentistry there. He said dentistry there was very different. He said, "Here in the suburbs my goal as a dentist is for all of my patients to keep all of their natural teeth for all of their natural life." He got to the third world and discovered that dentistry was a whole different thing there. The dental problems he confronted were ones that there were not resources to care for. There were dental problems that left people in pain day after day after day after day and he began to do the one thing that he never did in the suburbs—pull teeth. He spent the whole ten days pulling more teeth than he would in the entirety of his dental practice in the suburbs. Now he said, "every year I go back and as the years pass the time here is just preparation so I can go there." The water was turned into wine. The water of a selfcentered suburban life style was turned into the good wine of service; the emptying of self for others.
Jesus Christ still turns the water into wine. If your life is getting a little thin, a little unhealthy, if your life is passing and not much is coming from it, then the extent to which you can give yourself to others in Christ's name, can still turn our water into the good wine—gallons, and gallons, and gallons, and gallons and gallons of wine; lives that are rich and fullbodied fragrant and lifegiving. I often wonder looking around this space just how much wine Jesus could make of us. Amen
Dr. Carl L. Schenck
Manchester United Methodist Church