2nd Sunday after Epiphany

January 14, 2001
See Also: 
Reading 4: 
John 2:1-11
By Rick Marshall

Last week the assigned text was the story of Jesus' baptism. That story is the first in Luke's gospel narrative of Jesus' adult ministry. It holds an important position by being first in the narrative, and is key in understanding the rest of the gospel. Likewise, John's story of Jesus changing water into wine is the first story and holds a similar position in this gospel narrative; it provides a key in understanding the rest of the gospel.

The setting is a wedding feast. None of the characters in the scene are named except Jesus; his mother is referred to simply as his mother, without name. The story has little interest in the bride and the groom nor their parents and families, nor anyone else of any importance. If this scene were to be staged in a theater, the center of the wedding event would be off stage. The focus of the scene is on Jesus and the action of changing water into wine. The dialogue is sparse; the characters are bit players in the scene. The main action of the text is happening out of view of the main action of the wedding feast. The only intrusion of the feast upon Jesus is the failure of the flow of wine: the wedding host has run out of it. For an unknown reason, Jesus' mother presses him to do something about the problem. Jesus seems to be resistant. Yet he instructs the servants to fill six stone jars with water, which they do. Jesus tells them to draw some out and take it to the steward of the feast, which they do. The steward, thinking more wine has been brought, compliments the the bridegroom on the wine. John ends the scene by saying this was the first sign Jesus did.

It is important to notice that the only ones who knew that the water was changed into wine were the servants and Jesus. No one else knew the source of the wine. The only other important person who is let in on the action is the reader, the viewer, the audience. This drama is performed for the audience, not the bride and groom, nor even for Jesus' mother, but for the reader. We see what happened. We can't explain it, or account for it, or even describe what happened. We simply witness this strange act of Jesus changing water into wine. Presumably the wedding feast goes on with no one the wiser.

Notice that the central action of this dramatic scene is Jesus changing the water into wine. Without this act, the scene would be unimportant and of little interest. The changing water into wine is an act of transformation, which is the key to understanding the rest of the gospel.

In chapter one, John made the dramatic, startling and provocative claim that Jesus is the Messiah. Of course the word"Messiah" was a hot word at that time and was a vehicle of all kinds of expectations about God's power and what the Messiah will do. The story of Jesus changing the water into wine puts the reader on notice that John's Messiah will not be the one that is commonly expected. The expectation is that God is powerful and in control and is interested in displaying that power through someone like King David, the point being that"King" is the correct model to describe God's power. John believes God's power, manifested through Jesus, is a different kind of power: it is the power of transformation. This transforming power of God as shown through Jesus is key to understanding how God works in the rest of the gospel.

his is a small transformation. Changing water into wine is simple, if mysterious. And who would object to it? As the narrative continues, the transforming events become more dramatic and the stakes are gradually raised so that by the time we get to the ultimate transformation at the end of the story, we have bought into the principle by then, and will understand the implications of the resurrection. If John had started his narrative with the resurrection we would probably be overwhelmed by the it and close the book calling the idea ridiculous.

That transforming power of God is quietly at work in life; it is not ordinarily the center of attention, nor is it dramatic, though it can be very dramatic. It is a power we do not understand but experience. John goes on from this story to dramatize the transforming power of God in Jesus in various stories, under different circumstances, all pointing to the reality of this power. By the end of the gospel narrative, with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the definition of Messiah has been completely changed. It has been moved from the idea of"King" and coercive power, to the idea of transforming power.

A few other things to notice about the text: the context is a joyous occasion of a wedding feast. When the festivity of the occasion is threatened, the transforming power of God will bring a new infusion of joy. The context is positive; the outcome is positive. The story and the main action support all the positive aspects of family life.

Another part of the story to notice is that Jesus uses the stone jars which were reserved for religious purification rites. This is a beautiful metaphor of using what has been religiously meaningful in the past for something completely new and life-giving. It is an affirmation of the value of the past, yet a promise of something new.

Preaching the text
This being the second Sunday after the Epiphany, the theme of the sermon can continue on how God manifests God's power in and through Jesus Christ. By looking at this story, we can see how God's power works.

One way to approach the text in a sermon is to treat it as a theatrical piece. A sermon could set the stage as if the scene were to be performed. The setting could be imaginatively described in detail. The background wedding, perhaps heard from off stage. The center of the stage would be a setting with Jesus and his friends and family who are attending the wedding and taking part in it. Again, the scene could be imaginatively described with Jesus being the central character. There is nothing unusual or remarkable about the setting: it is a wedding feast, a common social occasion. Then the dialogue could be highlighted, first between Jesus and his mother, then with Jesus and the servants and the steward. The scene and the dialogue would be described and"staged" verbally in order to highlight the central act of the scene. Then the sermon could make the theological point of the power of God being the power of transformation. Some attention could be given to describing the circumstances in which this power is displayed, i.e. at a common wedding in a very quiet way. The point is that this is how God's power works everywhere all the time. This principle could then be extrapolated to life in general, our lives. The power of transformation is the key to understanding God. That power is effective everywhere, mostly in common, ordinary, quiet ways, but sometimes in dramatic ways. And this power is for us, not against us. That power creates new possibilities out of the old; it brings life out of death. It transforms all things.

By the end of the gospel story, and by the end of the sermon, the point should be clear that Jesus embodies and defines this transforming power of God. Even though we don't understand it, we experience it and see how it works in the narrative.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.