Readings: Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11
My wife Anna has inherited a quirk from her mother and her grandmother. All three of these women are people who pray for parking spaces: “Lord, please give us a parking space.” Just like that as they’re driving through the parking lot. Anna’s grandmother, who’s 92, will say, “God knows how far we need to walk today.”
I love and admire all three of these women, but there’s a cynical part of me that sometimes thinks surely God must have more important things to take care of than finding a parking space for a couple of Americans about to go grocery shopping, that God couldn’t possibly care about something so small.
But the interaction in today’s gospel reading between Mary and Jesus makes me think maybe I’m wrong, maybe God does care about our little problems.
In today’s reading, we heard the story of Jesus’ first miracle, what the gospel writer calls the “first of his signs,” the transformation of water into wine. It’s a small miracle, at least compared to the things Jesus does later on: like healing the sick and raising the dead and feeding 5,000 with just a few loaves. It’s such a “small” miracle that it’s only recorded in the Gospel According to John. Matthew, Mark, and Luke skip over it and begin their accounts of Jesus’ career with bigger things, with healings and exorcisms, with Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the desert.
Even Jesus seems reluctant to begin his career with this miracle. When Mary tells him that the wine has run out, Jesus says, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” Now in the original cultural-historical context, this line isn’t quite as offensive as it sounds to our modern American ears, but it’s still not great. One commentator says that the word translated here as “woman” would be equivalent to the word “ma’am” in our culture, and I can’t imagine, if my mother asked me to take care of something, saying to her, “Ma’am, what concern is that to you and to me?”
Jesus expresses reluctance—and for good reason. He says, “My hour has not yet come.” In the Gospel of John Jesus’s coming hour refers to the hour of his crucifixion. Jesus is saying, as one commentator puts it, “Once I begin doing miracles, I begin the road to the cross.”
So Jesus’s reluctance here makes sense, at least to me it does. When compared with sin’s enslavement of the world and humankind’s estrangement from God—two problems that could only be solved by Jesus’ death on the cross—running out of wine at a party, even at a wedding reception, feels pretty trivial.
Unless, of course, you’re the family hosting the wedding reception—and then running out of wine is an absolute catastrophe. One similarity between weddings in the first century and weddings today is that weddings are often not only about the union of the bride and the groom, they’re also about the social reputation of the hosts.
When friends of mine get engaged they’re often surprised to discover that their parents have been dreaming of their wedding day for longer than they have themselves. The bride-and-groom-to-be quickly learn from their parents that they must have this sort of service or that sort of service, that they absolutely must invite Aunt So-And-So, and that the seating chart and the menu are already planned out. For some parents, hosting a wedding means their honor and reputation in their family and in the community are on the line—everything needs to go perfectly. I think this is why weddings are often so stressful.
In this way, a first-century wedding isn’t so different from a 21st-century wedding, except a first-century wedding would last for seven days.
Running out of wine partway through this seven-day celebration is not a cosmic problem, but for the family hosting it, it would be an utter and very public embarrassment. Hosts would invite people from miles around, as many as possible, especially prominent community members. The commentator I keep referencing, Craig Keener, says that the hosts responsible for such a disaster would become, in their community, the butt of jokes for years to come.
When Mary hears that the wine is running out she understands right away what’s at stake. A friend of mine once suggested that perhaps Mary’s experience of being pregnant outside of wedlock made her more sensitive and compassionate when it came to the potential shaming of others. She hears about this impending disaster and she decides she must take action to avert it.
So what does she do? Like Anna’s grandmother praying for a parking space, she goes right to Jesus with this tiny human problem: “They have no wine.” And Jesus, as I said, expresses reluctance. “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”
To me, of little faith, it sounds like Jesus is saying no, that he doesn’t care, this problem is too small, that it doesn’t matter, not to God. But Mary—who probably knows Jesus better than anyone who ever lived—hears something different. I love this exchange. She doesn’t argue with her son and she doesn’t take no for an answer. She goes straight to the servants and she says, “Do whatever he tells you.” Because she knows Jesus will help.
And Jesus does. Though initially, he seems reluctant, once Jesus gets involved he approaches this human problem with a high degree of care and compassion. He doesn’t work with reluctance or displeasure. The wine he creates isn’t just passable, it’s really good. Jesus isn’t just saving this family’s reputation, he’s enhancing it. He works with extravagance, and also with tact. He works quietly, behind the scenes, in a way that will preserve the honor of the family who’s hosting the wedding. It’s only Mary and the disciples and the servants who fill the jars who even know that a miracle has taken place. Somewhere between 120 and 180 gallons of water are turned into wine, and the guests don’t know it. The focus of the celebration remains on the bride and groom.
So what are we to make of this story?
Some early church fathers, like John Chrysostom, saw this passage as a story about Jesus fulfilling the commandment of honoring your mother. Certainly, Jesus does that in this story. Others, like St. Bede, saw it as a reminder of Christ’s role as the bridegroom of the church, a story that might remind us of the Old Testament reading for today, where God says to Israel “You shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:4-5).
And I think we can take this story as a reminder of God’s compassion for us, a reminder that God’s compassion is much more like the intimate care that comes from a spouse than we often realize. I know I sometimes fall into trap of believing that God’s love is abstract and impersonal, like the concern an employer has for its employees or the devotion a political leader expresses toward the citizens of his or her country.
For me, this story is a reminder that God’s love is personal and intimate, that Jesus is willing to be interrupted by our concerns—even concerns as small as serving beverages or finding a parking space, concerns that from a cosmic perspective might seem very small but from our human point of view can often feel overwhelming.
The second-century theologian Irenaeus wrote that “the knowledge of the Father is the Son.” When we look at Jesus we see what God is like. It’s easy for me to think sometimes that God doesn’t care. I want to remember, from this glimpse of God that we get from this story about Jesus, that God does care, that I can approach God with all my small-seeming problems. I want in my daily life to be a little more like Anna’s grandmother and a little more like Mary, knowing and trusting that I can approach Jesus in prayer with my all needs and concerns because Jesus is compassionate and interruptable.