Wine, Women and … Whatever! (Ken Pennings) 2.18.18

Our Lenten series has been organized by a group of women from the congregation who cherish the way the Divine Feminine works in all of our lives. During this series, as we encounter Biblical stories of Jesus and first century women, we will also celebrate and honor the experiences and voices of other women through music, word, symbol and images. This morning, we sing music written by or about women, and in a moment, Sharon Goss will read her own midrash on the wedding feast at Cana, the Biblical story in which Jesus and his disciples attend a wedding where there is a shortage of wine; Jesus’ mother brings this problem to Jesus’ attention; Jesus then turns a large amount of water into wine, and not just any wine, but the best wine served at the banquet.

*In Judaism, the Midrash is a form of literature which contains early interpretations and commentaries on passages in the Hebrew Bible. The purpose of midrash was to resolve problems in the interpretation of difficult passages of the text of the Hebrew Bible, and to align them with the religious and ethical values of religious teachers. In Ken’s sermon, he borrows the term for interpretations of difficult passages in the Christian Scriptures.

Everybody knows about that wedding — because of the wine. But do they know it was the wedding of my youngest daughter?   Probably not; nobody pays attention to women.   Have you noticed they almost never even mention us by name?   The events of our lives don’t seem worth noting, I guess, like the day a girl becomes a wife.   My child Miriam… grown so soon into a 15- year- old woman! This story should be about her, about human joy, about the holiness of life.

Miriam’s happy wedding week started with traditional rituals at our home in Nazareth, after which we processed to her husband’s home in Cana to continue the celebrating.   Of course her brother Jesus didn’t show up in Nazareth; he didn’t like his hometown.   But he always loved a good time, so I was pretty sure he’d show up for the party in Cana.

He did in fact show up. And with so much celebrating — Jews surely do know how to celebrate a wedding! — it’s no wonder the wine gave out after only a few days.   Of course it didn’t help that Jesus brought along a lot more people than we expected.   (Including that rich woman from Magdala.)   I was wishing he’d asked before he brought so many people.   I felt so sorry for Miriam’s in-laws, unable to keep up with the demand for food and drinks!

So I asked Jesus to help out by finding more wine. His answer sounded a bit sharp: “Mother, not now.” I ignored that comment, as I ignore a lot of things. (He can be pretty extreme in his religious and political views.) But deep down he’s a good son. So I trusted he’d eventually do something.   And he did.   He grabbed a few water jars and left to find more wine.   I don’t know… maybe his lady friend laid out a huge sum to get more.   Or maybe he just sweet talked the caterer into filling the jugs.   (He was nothing if not charismatic! ) When he got back to the party with all that wine — good wine at that — you can be sure there were cheers all around.   Some said “Surely this man has God’s favor!”

Note this: Though it was Miriam’s wedding, and although I was the one who noticed the guests didn’t have wine, suddenly Jesus was getting all the attention and all the credit.   (As I said, nobody pays attention to women.)

At the end of the week, I came home still feeling happy for Miriam, but I worried about Jesus. He remained in Cana, preaching about the Kingdom and helping his friends plan the resistance. If only he could settle down and lead a normal life… get a job, marry a nice girl, learn to tolerate the Romans.   After some of the things I overheard at the wedding, I felt worried about him.   Those things could get him in trouble.   I worried about him a lot.

After he died some of his friends couldn’t forget him. They even started thinking of him as the Messiah, and saying this wine thing was the first of many miracles.   Perhaps.   But don’t miracles happen everyday, to everyone?   Each day, whether it’s ordinary or special, my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. I praise God for the fruits of the earth, for weddings and all manner of celebrations, for peace and good health, for children who live to produce more children… for the amazing miracle of life.  (Sharon Goss)

 

I grew up hearing the expression, “Wine, Women and Song,” which usually referred to hedonistic men who indulge their desires to an extreme. Remember Loretta Lynn singing “Well I’m at home a workin’ and a slavin’ this way. You’re out a misbehavin’ spendin’ all of your pay on wine, women and song”?

Quite a sexist expression since we have no equivalent for hedonistic women. Who has ever heard of women given to “Merlot, Men and Melody”?

At any rate, I was tremendously amused to google this expression and learn that women have borrowed it for their own causes. Have you ever attended an event called “Wine, Women and Wellness,” or “Wine, Women and Wealth,” or my favorite “Wine, Women and Shoes?”

So, I’ve titled my message, “Wine, Women and … Whatever.”

Because in today’s Gospel story, and in Sharon’s midrash we find all three — wine, women and “fill in the blank.”

I’d like to fill in the blank with the word “wonderment,” because in this inaugural story of Jesus’ public ministry in the Gospel of John, the whole world is wondering about the prophet from Nazareth, the wisdom he shares, the love he expresses, the courage he exudes as he confronts the powers of hierarchy, patriarchy and empire.

Anyone who has read John’s Gospel knows that it is very different from the other three: the language and images seem farfetched and even more unbelievable than the nature miracles or healing miracles we read in Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Scholars argue that John’s entire Gospel, and all of the stories and speeches in it, are richly symbolic and theological—and cannot be taken as literal or historical. More than any other biblical writer, the author of the fourth Gospel seems to warn against, inveigh against, and show the absurdity of that all-too-human tendency to seek to capture divine mystery in literal historical factual information. We need to keep this in mind as we dive into this inaugural scene of Jesus’ public ministry in John’s Gospel.

When we heard Sharon’s midrash of the Biblical story, we might have been tempted to compare it to the original, asking “How closely did she stick to the text?” or “How accurate was her story?” Instead, I’m hoping we simply held her story alongside the original, remembering that the original story probably wasn’t original. The story changed each time it was told until it was finally written down.

There’s no one right story. And the further we get from actual historical memory, the more the story changes.

What we know for sure is that all stories hold a special place in the heart and the head of the storyteller.

So what do we think was in the heart and head of those who told the story recorded in John 2:1-12?

The text reports a miracle, of course: the transformation of a large quantity of water (120 to 180 gallons) into wine.

But the meaning of this story doesn’t depend upon its “happened-ness.” Instead, it is a “sign,” as John puts it. Signs point beyond themselves; to use a play on words, they sign-ify something.

So what is the meaning of this story as a “sign?” What is its significance?

Many biblical scholars have tried to make sense of the details or lack of details in the story: “Why aren’t the newlyweds identified and how did they know Mary, Jesus and the disciples?” “Why does Jesus have this odd exchange with his mother?” “What should we make of the six huge water jars used for Jewish purification rituals?” and “Why did they run out of wine?” One scholar proposed, and Sharon’s midrash concurs, that it might have been Jesus and his disciples who were drinking too much, bringing the party to an embarrassing end.

Any one of these details might catch our attention and take us on a wild goose chase, but the primary focus of the author here, I believe, is to identify Jesus as a unique individual who brings God close to God’s people, as a bridegroom is united with his bride.

Is it possible that the story of the wedding feast at Cana is more than the details read or imagined? Might it signify something else happening between God and God’s people, something at least as marvelous, mystical and magical as the union of a bride and groom on the occasion of their wedding?

In the imagination of the early church, the coming of Jesus was like a wedding. In his presence was abundant joy; savoring his words was like tasting the very best wine; experiencing God’s love in, with and through him was like discovering true love with one’s life partner or spouse!

The story of the wedding banquet in Cana may signify all these wonderful things, and more!

We learned in our summer series of the book of Acts that the early church was constantly reaching back to their own Hebrew Scriptures to make sense of and legitimize the new Christian movement. Thus, in the NT, scores of quotes and allusions to Hebrew Bible.

I see this happening with the story in John’s Gospel. I have a hunch that early Christian writers reached back to their own Scriptures to create the story of the wedding banquet in Cana.

Centuries earlier, the prophet Hosea announced God’s intentions to take wayward godless Israel as his bride, “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord” (Hosea 2:19-20).

The prophet Isaiah declared that God was Israel’s husband who would lovingly deliver his wife from exile (Is. 54:4-8). Hear, oh Israel, “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so your God will rejoice over you“ (Is. 62:4-5).

And if Hosea and Isaiah announced God’s marriage to Israel his bride, the prophet Amos described what it would be like for the happy couple. “New wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills…. (My exiled people) will plant vineyards and drink their wine; they will make gardens and eat their fruit” (Amos 9:13-14).

Really, how could these beautiful hopeful passages from Israel’s own Scriptures not be in minds of early Christians when the story of the wedding feast at Cana was created?!!!

In John’s mind, the disciples would treat this feast at Cana as a “sign” that the marriage of heaven and earth had begun; the messianic age was finally here in the person and ministry of Jesus; they would never run out of wine; their joy would never end; and the best had been saved for here and now!

What happens when heaven is wedded to earth and the two become “one flesh”? What does this look like in the real world? How does this marriage affect our economy and ecology, our social structures and institutions, our worldviews?

When God marries God’s people, the world is turned upside down:

  • the first are last and the last are first;
  • the mighty get off their thrones, and masters wash the feet of their servants;
  • women and children are as valuable as men;
  • the wounded and sick are healed, the naked are clothed, the homeless are sheltered, the hungry are filled with bounty, the thirsty are given to drink, the unemployed and underemployed are paid living wages; sinners are forgiven; immigrants and strangers are embraced; and prisoners are visited, released and welcomed home.

I believe all this is going on in a Biblical story of a superabundance of wine at a wedding feast. This story is pointing to something rich, marvelous, and magnificent that happens in society when God and God’s bride unite in marriage, pledging, in the language of the Song of Solomon, “I am my Beloved’s, and my Beloved is mine.”

Earlier, I urged us to step away from the details of the story to imagine what the story may signify on a larger scale, namely the marriage of heaven and earth.

But now I return to one detail of the story that I don’t want us to miss.

The mother of Jesus notices that there is a shortage of wine, and brings it to Jesus’ attention. He replies, “Woman, what have you to do with me?” Or in another translation, “What do we have in common?” Still another, “Why do you involve me?” Or in Sharon’s midrash, “Mother, this is not a good time.”

I’m wondering if this wasn’t a crucial moment in Jesus’ development as a representative of the realm of God. Crudely, I’m wondering if the line “What have I to do with you?” really means “Why should I be concerned about women’s work?”

It took a woman, Jesus’ own mother, to bring him back down to earth, and remind him that the reign of God is as much about tending to the simple, practical, yet essential needs of people, like what they will eat or drink, where they will sleep, what they will put on, whether they show up at family functions, as it is about confronting systems of injustice.

Clearly, Jesus responded well to this reality check, for he took responsibility for providing more wine for the wedding guests.

By the end of John’s Gospel, we find Jesus actually doing what was considered women’s work by washing the feet of his disciples.

I like to imagine him changing diapers before his mother got finished with him!

What then is the connection between what I call “Wine, Women and Wonderment” and Sharon’s midrash, in which we heard about a worried but devoted mother and her sometimes surly and rude son, who lacks social skills, is a bit reckless, and has a problem with authority figures?

I’d say Sharon’s midrash provides a reality check for my sermon.

Yes, when heaven and earth unite in marriage, when God and God’s people enter into the bond of holy matrimony, all things are made new! But someone has to state the obvious, “They have no more wine.”

 

Prayer of Response, by Sharon Goss

Holy One, Creator and Sustainer of all life, today, as every day, you invite us to partake of life’s feast. But sometimes, in the hurry of life, we fail to hear the invitation. Sometimes, in our darker moments, we’re not sure we deserve to be guests. Sometimes we make a brief stop at the party, then let our obligations send      us quickly away. Sometimes we come and pay attention only to those who matter, ignoring the least among us. Saddest of all, sometimes we stay and drink our fill — without noticing that the cups of others stand empty.

Help us, O Divine Spirit, to feel your joy in our lives — even in the face of life’s real sorrows and struggles, to hear the music, to get up and dance, to laugh and make merry.

Help us today to appreciate more fully all that we have, the many ways our cups overflow.

Help us to believe in the miracles that happen in so many unexpected places, and in so many unexpected ways, at the hands of so many unexpected people. Help us to be grateful for those who hover in the background, finding courage to speak the truth when truth needs to be spoken.

Above all, help us to recognize ourselves — as did Mary — as servants to every guest, that all at the party might partake of life’s goodness.

Then may each day become — for us and all people — a cause for celebration, a full and overflowing cup of blessing, a miracle forever unfolding. Amen.

 

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