Reflection by Rev Canon Bob Lewis at Open Table Liverpool on Sunday 20th January 2019
Reading: John 2:1-11
I need to begin with a confession or perhaps and anxiety I had when I began thinking about what to say this evening. Quite a long time ago I was invited to preach at St Columba’s Anfield at a Eucharist on the day of their Patronal festival. I did quite a bit of research and arrived quite well prepared. In the vestry just before the service started, the vicar said (not very helpfully) “I hope you’re not going to preach about St Columba – we all know everything about him and honestly we’re fed up with him”.
In the same way I wonder if you are thinking “here we go some other chancer going to bang on about all-inclusiveness who doesn’t really know what it’s all about”. So I have to admit that after Warren offered me the privilege of preaching this evening my heart leapt a little when I realised what the Gospel reading was going to be. If there’s two things I do know something about its weddings and wine!
More accurately it would be true to say I have spent a fair amount of time taking weddings and drinking wine. At a rough estimate over the years somewhere over 600 people have plighted their troth in front of me – I hope not too many of them hold it against me! And I have said on more than one occasion that if our Lord was able to turn gallons and gallons of water into wine – God has provided me with the undeniable ability of doing the reverse of the trick!
However on close inspection of today’s gospel which John describes as the first of the “signs” of Jesus suggests that it is not really about weddings or wine – it is of course about Jesus and the story is rich with imagery.
John doesn’t have any parables in his Gospel, and he only records seven miracles which he calls signs. They function both as miracles and parables, and by calling them signs, John alerts us that we need to probe more deeply than just face value. The truth is wrapped within the story of Jesus rescuing an embarrassed wedding host; and is meant not just to have an effect but a meaning both to 1st Century hearers and to us. We know for example that life changing events occur on the 3rd day. But also we need a lot of help here because we are not immersed in the Jewish mind set, which on hearing the words “marriage feast” or “wedding banquet” would immediately think also of the anticipated messianic banquet which was to herald the long awaited messiah.
This meaning was second nature to the Jews of the time. You will remember that in the gospels Jesus also told a parable about 10 bridesmaids that is all about the coming of the heavenly bridegroom, and another about wedding guests who made excuses about attending what we are to understand as the wedding banquet God provides.
And weddings have wine, and God has the best wine cellar of all. Isaiah’s vision of heaven includes “rich food filled with marrow and of well-aged wines strained clear”. That last detail- strained clear – was very important when most wine was pretty rough – in more ways than one – and needed to be dilated with water to make it palatable. But God offers only the best – hence the head waiter’s punch line – “most hosts serve the best wine first – but you have saved the best until now”.
So, sorry if I have laboured the point, but John is telling us about the wonderful lavish extravagance of God’s generosity in the shape of a messianic banquet, and points us directly to Jesus. If you want to reflect more about Jesus and the banqueting table may I point you towards Bishop Paul’s new book available from all good booksellers!!
However, back to Cana. “Where?” I hear you ask – yes this great outpouring of God’s generosity occurs in a place that few had ever heard of. One of the first parishes I was vicar of was a place called Culceth just to the north of Warrington. The name “Culceth” means “Behind the woods” and in my first sermon I suggested that God had called me to serve in a “backwood” place. This as you may imagine, did not go down well –but time and again God chooses places of little apparent significance to reveal his glory and his love. “Cana” does not appear on any website I can find of places to visit in the Holy Land. Nor I suspect does Toxteth appear in many visitor experiences of Liverpool.
But as the whole story of Christmas and Epiphany makes clear – it is not just places of no apparent significance that God chooses but it is to people who we can identify with that are witnesses of his love. In this instance it is the servants – those faceless people who wait on the tables and who if they do a good job you never notice, who “know” what happened.
In the context of this wedding and if we are lucky enough to attend such events, those who serve are pretty low on the pecking order of importance – but I seem to remember that Jesus said somewhere “I come to you as one who serves”.
So for this sign of God’s generosity love and glory has been shown in a place of no earthly importance and to people of no status, standing or apparent value. And what of the unnamed bride and groom? If the servants are “faceless” then these two were about to lose face. Things were going terribly wrong – as hosts they were about to look hopeless. I like to imagine that they had spent all they had – that their hospitality had left them broke! And into this brokenness the overflowing generosity of God is poured out.
On the wall at the west end of St Margaret’s is a picture of the whole event. At a glance people mistake it for a representation of the Last Supper but on close inspection you can see the jars holding the washing up water and on each side is dancing and merriment.
However the way it is drawn and painted has a strong resemblance to the table around which Jesus sat and around which we gather in his name tonight.
On the day we remember the changing of water into wine we add water to wine and receive the same abundance of God’s outpouring of love no matter how we got to be here, how insignificant we may feel and how broken we are.