They were going to a wedding. It wasn’t the first wedding nor would it be the last. The way the story is related is that was a “family” wedding. John tells us from the beginning, “his mother was there”. Somehow, someway these were kin folk. Whenever my mother talked about “family” weddings, she said “family” like Dragnet’s Joe Friday trying to protect innocent people; namely good, God-fearing relatives like ourselves. Family could have meant cousins, brothers, or sisters. It could also be your next door neighbor. As they say in these parts, “family is family.”
Weddings are bad enough when you’re forced to attend one against your will. It’s not clear from the text whether Jesus wanted to be there. I would guess his mother wanted him there but if Jesus showed up, he brought 12 other people with him. Those 12 guys didn’t have the best table manners or wedding attire. On the other hand, that’s 12 extra waiters, ushers, or servers. Jesus is a one man catering company.
Weddings are also not as much fun when you’ve got to work behind the scenes. It’s difficult to enjoy the romance, elegance, and beauty. Working at a family wedding usually means your relatives don’t have enough money to hire enough caterers, photographers, servers and the like. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with doing things on a budget. In the end, relatives, people like you, get to do for free what wedding professionals get paid for. In the back of your mind, you begin to think, I hope they find some money before they have children. You are not going to raise their children, babysit, or feed their family once a week. Helping at a wedding is one thing, raising somebody else’ family is another matter altogether. Though really, what can you say, this is after all, a “family” wedding.
Jesus’ mother was helping to wash the dishes. I can imagine Mary of Nazareth enjoyed the art of mindful, dish scrubbing. To call washing pots and plates a ritual is nothing short of exact. When the Hebrew people washed pots and pans it was a religious act. According to Moses’ people, they believed God cared about clean dishes. Don’t get me wrong, no one wanted to get sick and they found food residue disgusting, especially after a day or so in the hot sun. The idea of a clean pot went way beyond hygiene and personal taste. God told Moses, Moses told his people, and they kept telling each other: wash dishes in this one divinely endorsed manner. Mother Mary thrived on cleaning by the book until she came to the page that wasn’t in the book.
The wine ran out. I know how it happened. They drank it all. People do that at weddings. They were excessive in their consumption of the fruit of the vine. As a result, because of the budgetary restrictions at hand, the guests became drunk on cheap wine. There’s nothing more unruly or unpredictable than entitled people drunk on their own sense of celebratory entitlement. This was the wedding they inherited. A flock of disorientated, drunken sheep all wanting something more than the present moment provided. What do you do?
His mother comes to him and says, “Do something!” Something, do something. How many of you have ever said, “Do something Jesus?” It’s impossible to put words together and describe what you feel or need. Those three words are an acknowledgement that our best traditions (and rituals) will not meet the needs of our current reality. By asking Jesus to do “something”, you’re opening the door to the subversion of our traditions and rituals. Most people don’t want Jesus to subvert the status quo of the lives. When we pray for Jesus to do something it is usually a prayer to “put me back in charge of my own life”.
At the wedding, chaos is taking hold. The fun is no longer what people see. Fear is in the eyes of those who realize the truth behind the empty vats: scarcity is diametrically opposed to the will of God. Among the guests, a degree of confusion has descended. What next? What is happening?
Jesus does not do ambiguity. Vagueness is not in his vocabulary. The frustration you hear in his voice as he responds to his mother is a clue to this most important part of his identity. Mary wants him to “fix” this wine problem. Jesus is saying, “The lack of wine isn’t the real problem.” Solving the wine issue won’t change the world. It may even lead to religious hangovers. Ultimately, more wine leads to more problems. Jesus will look more like a magician than a religious teacher. Whatever you read into this dialogue, hold onto this, Jesus does not refuse to act. These verses show us Jesus taking space to think and reflect with his mother. Building in space for thinking and reflection are important parts of our faith.
What if he can do both? What if Jesus is able to meet this immediate need and also change how people view God? (I.e. solve the wine crisis and make a larger more meaningful point)
Jesus has to think quickly. Here’s where the dirty dishes come back into the story. I told you that ritual purity was a big deal. It takes up page after page in the Torah. Jesus sees the opportunity to turn the tables, to open up a can of theological worms, religious hornet’s nest, and challenge the way people think about what’s Holy, sacred, and what God really values in our lives. Perhaps some of the purity rules are dated, limiting, and hurting our ability to faithful to God in meaningful ways?
The jars were tall. They might have stood slightly above the waist on an average person. Inside, they would have held twenty to thirty gallons of dirty water. Here’s the important to remember. People were probably washing their hands in this water. That’s in addition to cups, plates, and other eating utensils. Given the Jewish ideas about purity and sanctity, this was about the filthiest water imaginable. The people who had come in contact with the water (the help) were now ritually unclean and subject to being purified. It was a literal, spiritual, and nuptial mess. Now read it closely, you’ll see Jesus doesn’t go anywhere near the water. He doesn’t need to. His initiative is all it takes. So what’s the message Jesus sends with the over abundance of wine, clay pots, and dirty water: outdated traditions will not be obstacles to God’s initiative. Nothing will be an obstacle to God’s initiative. God disrupts our tea parties, wedding receptions, and backroom shenanigans with life altering words of catharsis. Something happens when we do what he says.
This coming Monday, we will honor the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King embodies the essence of this idea. Regardless of what you throw at a people, God’s initiative is too meaningful to be stopped. Attack dogs, water cannons, and bullets could not stop the march of racial equality. What God does, whether at a distance or up close, turns our expectations and fears into something we never expected. John 2 tells us that the gallons upon gallons of expectations and fear we’re holding on to are dirty, filthy, and likely to kill us if we don’t let go and allow Jesus to do something. They’ll kill us, not because we’re drinking dirty water but because we’ve put ritual ahead of people and Jesus’ initiative behind our excesses. Is Methodism ready to allow Jesus to do something? Are we ready to be disrupted? I hope so.