1-20-13, Water Into Wine

 Isaiah 62:1-5, 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, John 2:1-12           

In our first Mass of the 2013 year, we considered what it means to have an Epiphany: a sudden recognition of the meaning of something, an A-HA moment.   What “epiphanies” have come to you recently, perhaps even in the reading of today’s scriptures?  Keep your eyes and your ears and your hearts open all the time for new understandings of God present in all of life. 

 I’ve always loved this particular story about the epiphany experienced by an Irish priest who was driving from Connecticut to New York.  The state trooper who stopped him for speeding smelled  alcohol on the priest's breath and saw an empty wine bottle on the floor of the car.

He says, "Sir, have you been drinking?"

"Just water," says the priest.

The trooper says, "Then why do I smell wine?"

The priest looks at the bottle and says, "Good Lord! He's done it again!"

Epiphany or excuse… it’s still a great story! In today’s gospel, we find Jesus, his disciples and his mother at a wedding feast. When Mary makes Jesus aware that the wine has run out, he notices 6 large water jars used to hold water for purification rites.  Jesus said simply, "'Fill the jars with water.'" He didn’t touch the water. He did not even taste it afterward to see if anything had happened.  With assurance he simply said, "Take it to the steward.”  The water intended for purification had become the wine of celebration.  Jesus trusted that it was so and that it filled the need of the moment.

Did you ever consider that the miracle in this story was something that happens also in nature? Every year water is changed into wine in every vineyard in Oregon. Water is drawn up into the grapevines. Through a long process of transformation and growth it becomes fruit. Human hands work to cultivate and gather and crush this fruit.  Then they relinquish it to the process of fermentation, which makes the water into wine.

C. S. Lewis in his book Miracles points out that every recorded miracle of Jesus is simply a kind of short-circuiting of a natural process; a doing instantly something which in general takes a longer period of time. Lewis says, "Each miracle writes for us in small letters something that God has already written, or will write, in letters almost too large to be noticed, across the whole canvas of nature." In this miracle at Cana, Jesus short-circuits the time that growth, gathering, crushing and fermenting grapes usually requires.  He asks for water. Without a word or a gesture the water becomes wine.

In the Gospel of John, seven such amazing events are recorded.  We call them miracles but John calls them signs. Signs are objects or events that have a special meaning. They are intended to convey truth that is not obvious or even hidden.

John tells us this sign-story so that we will consider its hidden significance. What does this story mean?   In miracles we see the normal outcome of combined human and divine activity happen in an unexpected, accelerated fashion. Humans do the ordinary work, the commonplace activity that is required.  In this case, they fill jars with water. It is super-natural work that immediately brings water to have the flavor, fragrance and effect of wine.  This sign, this first miracle, says John, is an indication of what the ministry of Jesus is going to be like whenever he touches a human life.  When a human recognizes the presence of God in a situation, commonplace activities are transformed into new life, like a fine wine that gives joy and gladness to the heart.

John says that as a result of this sign, "his disciples believed in him." This was not an intellectual belief in some kind of new theology.  What happened is that the disciples began to vest their faith and their hope in Jesus because in his they saw evidence that human action could bring about God’s goodness. When the disciples saw Jesus make fine wine of a common thing like water, they saw that here was One who could bring change to the human dilemma in which they lived.  This was a man they wanted to follow.

Did the water really become wine? We don’t know for sure. In the 21st century we wrestle with the literal meaning of this story.  But to get stuck there is to miss the point.  Whether or not this is factually true, there is a symbolic truth here that shapes the life of Christian faith.

Within each human being is the essence of divinity.  That’s what we mean when we claim we are made in the image of God. With the right combination of life’s ingredients, action and time, that image of God manifests itself more and more clearly in humans.  In nature, water becoming wine is one sign of such a transformation process.

For Catholic Christians, John’s gospel is the one that develops the significance of our Eucharistic table practice. He introduces this theology early on in the gospel by telling the story of Jesus’ first miracle.  Water is changed into wine at the wedding feast.

Water was, for the Jewish people, a sign of purification and transition to new life.   Water is also the symbolic cleansing instrument of our baptism.  Through the sign and the sacramental grace of baptismal water we come into identification with the life of Christ. 

Wine, the fermented fruit of the vine, was a drink that everyone partook of in that Middle-Eastern culture and climate. It did more than alleviating thirst and aiding digestion.  It added joy to the feast.  The natural product of water and fruit, wine was a sign of the goodness and blessing of life.

We symbolically repeat the miracle of water becoming wine each time we celebrate Eucharist.  The priest adds a few drops of water to the carafe of wine, offering a silent prayer. The water unites with the wine, so that now what is present in the cup bears all the characteristics of wine.  This simple act of pouring water into wine, is a synthesis of the whole Mass, of the whole Catholic faith.*  Human beings (water) mingling with the life of Christ (wine) become the life of Christ of which the world partakes. As Christ did, so are we capable of touching and transforming the world with goodness and healing and celebration.  All of this: what an epiphany!

Although it might be enough for us to consider the sign of water becoming wine, the sacrament of the Eucharist takes us even deeper into this reality of recognizing our oneness with Christ.  In the making of bread, water is mixed with wheat and submitted to the elements of heat.  It becomes the bread that feeds us.  As we partake of bread and wine, the symbolic elements of divinity in those foods are incorporated into us.   We become more fully the Presence and Energy of God . And we are charged to go out into the world offering that which we are: the Body of Christ.

Miracles and signs and sacraments are mind-boggling. We always end up calling it  “mystery.”  A mystery is something that is being revealed over time.  We see pieces of the truth right now, but we wrestle with the understanding of the whole.  We have to just settle for being grateful for the signs we are given and determine to continue living into them as we discover more and more deeply their meaning. 

“By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share more deeply in the divinity of Christ who came to share in our humanity.”  Amen.                            *(John 19:34, Romans 5:2, Phil. 2:8, II Peter 1:4, 2. Cor 3:18).

By Sandi DeMaster